LOS ANGELES (Sep. 25)
“Our standards are so high that only one in a thousand qualify,” Mike Herstik says. “Those accepted get their college education here and then go to Israel for graduate work.”
Herstik is not the admissions officer at an Ivy League university but the director of canine operations for Pups for Peace, an innovative project to train explosive-sniffing dogs to foil would-be bombers in Israel.
At a fenced, high-security training camp in the Los Angeles area, Herstik put Nitro, a black Labrador retriever, through his paces for a reporter, the only journalist granted access to the facility.
On command, Nitro bounded down a row of identical wooden boxes, then stopped, sat and pointed to the one box containing a can of smokeless shotgun powder. As a reward, he received a toy from the trainer.
Throughout the camp, whose location is secret but which has been built to resemble an urban setting, some 20 young Israelis, mainly soldiers and police personnel, were in the midst of a two-month, six-day-a-week course to bond and train with their canine partners.
Pups for Peace is a textbook example of what one man can do to transmute deep emotional shock into pragmatic action.
The shock for Glenn Yago, an economist at the Milken Institute think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., came on March 27, when he heard that a suicide bomber had walked into a hotel in Netanya and killed 29 Israelis attending a Passover Seder.
Yago, 51, a native of Shreveport, La., had spent five years in Israel studying at the Hebrew University and living on a kibbutz on the Golan Heights.
“I became obsessed by the idea that if there had been an explosive-sniffing dog at the entrance to the hotel, this tragedy could have been averted,” he says.
Yago’s first step was to scour the Internet for an experienced dog trainer, and Herstik’s name kept popping up. He learned that Herstik had 23 years of experience on the job, including programs for the U.S. military and Los Angeles Police Department, and specialized in explosive detection.
A son of Holocaust survivors and a strong supporter of Israel, Herstik was motivated enough to take a sharp pay cut and accept Yago’s offer.
It remained to convince top Israeli security officials to approve the project and allow their personnel to participate. Yago also had to raise some $700,000 locally for the initial pilot project and find a secure training facility.
Yago, who says a core of similar-minded activists helped turn the concept into reality, tapped his Israeli and American connections — and was met with enthusiastic support.
Israel’s public security minister, Uzi Landau, became an instant advocate, the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program and the Golan Fund backed the project, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles allocated $250,000 through its special Jews in Crisis Fund.
In late August, 45 carefully selected dogs and the first contingent of Israeli trainers-in-training arrived at the Los Angeles site. The class is set to “graduate” in early November.
“The dogs are getting their foundation training here and then will have a month’s ‘post-graduate’ scenario training at a camp on the Golan Heights,” Herstik says.
To qualify for the program, each dog has to conform to a physical and psychological profile, with only one applicant in 1,000 making the grade.
“To pass, a dog must be very athletic, have no fear of strange places and be obsessive about getting a toy reward,” Herstik says. “All of our training is play-based: Find a bomb, get a toy.”
There are no exclusions based on a dog’s breed or gender — “We’re neither racist nor sexist,” Herstik says — but those chosen so far are mainly Belgian Molinois, a variety of Belgian shepherds, followed by Labrador retrievers and German shepherds.
The project’s leaders are emphatic that they are not training attack dogs that will lunge at or bite suspects.
“The dog’s job is to recognize the odor of an explosive material and then sit and stare,” Herstik says. “It’s then up to the handler what action to take.”
Once the pilot project has proven itself, Yago is looking toward a training program of unprecedented scope and size.
“We want to cycle a thousand dogs a year for use at Israeli schools, airports, bus stations, railroad depots, malls and discos,” he says.
Once the Israeli need is met, Yago visualizes supplying trained dogs to Jewish and other communities throughout the world to aid the war on terrorism.
“As an economist, I never thought I’d be involved in something like this,” he says. “But I’ve come to realize that if you don’t have physical security, then economic security goes to hell.”
With the cost of training one dog and its handler running at $10,000, Pups for Peace and its supporting organizations are embarking on extensive fund-raising drives.
The first such event was held recently in New York, where Gov. George Pataki told participants that “We support the people and the State of Israel, not by building bombs and taking lives, but by trying to provide security and hope.”
To show his appreciation to the governor, Herstik formally changed the name of his prized Labrador from Nitro to Gershon, a Hebraized version of George.