Boomer Was Set to Be Euthanized. Now He’s Sniffing Out Bombs.

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post
Boomer is an explosive-detection dog who works with Prince George’s County police Cpl.

Boomer shot forward with his nose high, looking for the bomb.

He sniffed around the base of a Prince George’s County firetruck containing a training chemical that smells like explosive residue.

The 2-year-old German shepherd caught a whiff of something by the driver’s-side wheel well and investigated further with his cold, wet nose. Boomer was sure he had something, so he sat and shook his head – just like he was trained.

It took Boomer 18 seconds to save the day. His handler, Cpl. Andrew Cummings of the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland, threw Boomer his favorite blue Kong chew toy on a rope.

As he gnawed on the toy, Boomer’s tongue hung out the side of his mouth – the face of a hero.

But that smile almost didn’t happen.

Boomer was at risk of being euthanized at the Anne Arundel County animal shelter in December. But the county saved him, and now he’s a dog with a job.

Boomer is the newest Prince George’s County Fire Department bomb-sniffing specialist. He escaped death and moved in with Cummings.

“He was a stray dog with no purpose,” said Assistant Fire Chief Caroll Spriggs, who heads the department’s fire investigations and bomb squad.

His journey from stray to savior took about six months.

He came to the Anne Arundel County animal shelter on Dec. 2, said Christina Lopez, the shelter’s volunteer foster rescue and events coordinator. A passerby found him on Governor Ritchie Highway in Severna Park and turned him in. The shelter staff named him Baldwin.

He was an angry dog who barked and growled. A shelter is not a good place for an aggressive German shepherd, she said.

“He’s just a dog who needed a job, and we couldn’t offer that,” she said. “They deteriorate quickly.”

On Dec. 16, an administrator sent a message to staff saying not only that the dog was overwhelmed but also that they couldn’t meet his needs and couldn’t find an adopter.

“He definitely was going to be humanely euthanized if we couldn’t find placement for him,” Lopez said.

So, on Dec. 19, an observation technician reached out to Anne Arundel County Police Department’s Cpl. Jeff Jackson, who often comes to scout for dogs with promise. The tech said Jackson really should take a look at Boomer (nee Baldwin) because he had a real drive to play, which is just what K-9 handlers look for in prospects. Jackson came the next day.

“He was a bit of a handful, but you could see he was a good dog,” Jackson said. “He was definitely someone’s pet at some time.”

What Jackson saw was a dog with good hunting abilities, a strong drive to chase a ball and no behavioral issues – exactly what they look for in a prospective bomb dog.

Jackson, who trains K-9 units around the area, fostered the canine cadet and started reaching out to agencies to see if anyone needed a fixer-upper. Jackson said he was happy to help Boomer, saying the shelter is packed and staff does the best they can with the resources they have.

“Some dogs are euthanized because of behavioral issues and sometimes there’s no space in the center and [they] have to make room and make an unfortunate decision,” he said.

Jackson said it became a first-come, first-served situation because multiple agencies were interested. Spriggs answered the call and went to assess the dog himself.

“It was instant,” Spriggs said.

Boomer is now one of three bomb-sniffing dogs at the Prince George’s Fire Department.

Bomb squads are typically run out of police departments, but Spriggs said Prince George’s County is one of 70 – out of 465 bomb squads nationwide – that are based in fire departments. Spriggs said it is a mixed bag in the D.C. area: In Virginia, Arlington’s bomb squad is with its fire department, but Fairfax County’s bomb squad is under its police department.

It usually takes about 480 hours of formal training for a new K-9 dog, but Boomer needed more instruction.

He was certified last week and is now an elite bomb-sniffing dog.

The Washington Post was curious: How is it that Boomer doesn’t get distracted? What stops a bomber from throwing Boomer off the scent with a plump porterhouse on the ground nearby?

Spriggs said they train dogs to ignore everything but the explosive scent. He said they put out dog and human food during training. And there are other scent considerations: Spriggs said they train dogs to ignore the scent of latex gloves to ensure handlers have dogs pick up on the correct scent and not the smells associated with the scent during training.

“It’s a game for them,” Spriggs said.

Boomer has also been a great deal for the department. A green K-9 dog can cost about $12,000, Spriggs said. But Boomer was free, and Anne Arundel County donated training.

So, in all, Boomer has cost the taxpayers between $600 and $800. About half of it paid for a “Hotdog System” that monitors the interior temperature of Cummings’s vehicle and drops the windows and kicks on a fan for Boomer when it hits 92 degrees.

Cummings said he has wanted to be a K-9 officer since joining the fire department’s office about 11 years ago. He has always been a dog person; at home he has four Labradors, which he trains for duck- and goose-hunting competitions. “They’re basically four kids,” he said. But he found room for a fifth.

Boomer picked up some kennel weight and was “not exactly muscular” at 90 pounds when he came home, Cummings said. So he put Boomer on an extensive conditioning regimen of walking and agility tests. Boomer is now a trim 82 pounds with his ribs and smile showing.

Cummings knows a little something about cutting weight for the job. When weighing 400 pounds hampered his dream of becoming a K-9 officer, he got weight-loss surgery and dropped 150 pounds.

As a fresh handler with a fresh dog, 43-year-old Cummings and 2-year-old Boomer were both newbies.

“We had to go through the entire process together,” he said. “We’re both learning at the same time.”

Cummings remembers how Boomer acted when they first met: With his hair standing up, Boomer growled and showed his teeth.

“You can’t let them think they won that,” Cummings said. “That’s a fear-based response.” So he took control of Boomer, who quickly eased off.

But that was just the beginning.

“We had to build him from the ground up,” Cummings said.

He said Boomer needed basic obedience training to be a house dog, which Cummings did at home on his off time.

It’s an unwritten rule in the K-9 community that rookie handlers don’t get to pick or name their first dog. It’s a rite of passage. Accounts differ, but someone gave him the bomb-appropriate name of Boomer. (The other two bomb-sniffing Prince George’s Fire Department dogs are Casper and Jack.)

The department and its bomb dogs respond to about 120 explosive calls a year, Cummings said. That’s in addition to roughly 400 annual fire investigation calls.

Most of what Cummings and Boomer will do is sniff cars coming to FedEx Field for games and concerts. They will sweep the parking lot and get a whiff of cars driving in.

Protecting the Kenny Chesney concert at FedEx on Saturday is their first of many assignments.

Cummings reflected on the scared, angry dog he met five months ago.

“Now,” said Cummings, “he’s a glass-half-full dog.”