WASHINGTON – Congress went to pot and to the dogs Wednesday.
Jacko, Quan and Skeet -- law enforcement canines -- were brought before the House Homeland Security Committee to demonstrate their skills. They performed flawlessly, finding hidden explosives and a bag of marijuana that had been placed in a desk.
Lawmakers are considering federal standards for how these dogs are bred and trained, and a possible boost in funding. The canines sniff out explosives, narcotics and suspects at crime scenes, border crossings, airports and -- coming soon -- mass transit systems and commuter trains.
The Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection has about 1,200 dogs. The Transportation Security Administration has more than 350 dogs at airports and has announced a plan to bring dogs into mass transit and commuter rail security in ten cities across the country.
Still, it's unclear just how much dogs are helping U.S. law enforcement officials.
"The first thing we've got to find out is what exactly are we doing now," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who chairs the subcommittee that held the hearing. "Second is to quantify what's the best way to get from what we have to what we need."
Two-year-old yellow lab Quan and his handler, special agent Craig Chillcott, graduated last spring from a three-month ATF (search) training program.
Quan on Wednesday sniffed several identical FedEx boxes before correctly identifying the one that contained a block of C-4, a plastic explosive.
Chillcott's last dog partner, Cascade, retired to become his pet last year. In their eight years as partners, the two worked the Columbine school shootings, the Washington-area sniper murders, the Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic bombing and numerous Super Bowls.
Mike Merickel, an officer and canine trainer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (search), said dogs are dependable law-enforcement partners.
"They are always ready to work," Merickel said, "unlike with people partners, who are sometimes having bad days."
Jacko's handler, border patrol agent Clayton Thomas, said the tan and black Belgian Malinois' had found more than 34,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 800 pounds of cocaine and 218 concealed humans during seven years of the job.
Jacko won the national "Paws to Recognize" award last month in New York, a prestigious honor in the world of hero hounds.
TSA dogs were not part of the demonstration Wednesday. While the Homeland Security and Justice dogs are trained for "passive response" -- they sit when they locate explosives, drugs or people -- the TSA dogs bark and make a scene.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Paula Keicer said it was difficult getting the explosives and marijuana into the highly secured congressional office building, even for a demonstration. She wouldn't go into detail.