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DVD Sniffer Dogs Versus the Pirates
In Hollywood recently, the Motion Picture Association of America - the organization that regulates the movie industry - revealed their latest weapons in the fight: a pair of playful, 2-year-old black Labrador retrievers named Lucky and Flo.
Now two more dogs have been specially trained for a role in one of the biggest war stories the movie studios have ever been involved with - against DVD pirates. In Hollywood recently, the Motion Picture Association of America - the organization that regulates the movie industry and awards viewing certificates - revealed their latest weapons in the fight: a pair of playful, 2-year-old black Labrador retrievers named Lucky and Flo.
Lucky and Flo's skills are unique: they are the only dogs in the world that can smell DVDs. The smell probably comes from the resins and polycarbonates used in their production and the dogs are determined to find them, wherever they are - they can't tell which are pirated of course, but they can certainly find ones that have been hidden.
Neil Powell from Newcastle, County Down is the man who trained Lucky and Flo, and just after returning from Hong Kong, where Lucky and Flo were demonstrating their talents on the latest leg of their "K-9 Pirate Smackdown" Tour, he explained how he ended up working with search dogs, and how he manages to train them to find the good, the bad and the ugly:
"I've been around dogs all my life - I trained my first one when I was 9 - but my interest really began over 30 years ago, when I spent almost every weekend for a year with a Police Dog handler. He was one of the best and I learnt about technique, learning to read the dog, and building up your own responses to each dog."
After that he started training dogs for Mountain Rescue, and he has a clear memory of the moment he knew when he was going to spend his life working with dogs - at the December 1988 plane crash in Lockerbie, Scotland:
"That was my first air crash, my first disaster, and I went there for five days over Christmas with my dogs. We basically were finding human remains, and my life is really defined as before and after Lockerbie. It was that traumatic."
After realizing that the MPAA were serious in wanting DVD sniffer dogs - "I thought they were off their trolley at first!" - Powell, who had been a teacher and child abuse counselor for many years, realized that DVD piracy would also include child pornography:
"That really was the main motivator for me, and I went straight to a local kennel. I knew I wanted Labradors - they have a good nose and a high search and play drive - and I knew the history of these two already. Also, people feel much more comfortable with Labradors as apposed to other dogs like German Shepherds."
Training took place over a period of around 8 weeks, and over that time they went from being utterly confused in a room of a hundreds of DVD's to being able to find a single one that was well hidden:
"I followed the same procedure I use for explosives and drugs searching, which is known as Passive Indication. It involves rewarding the dogs with a tennis ball, and they will sit and point when they have found something."
Lucky and Flo were first put to work with HM Revenue and Customs and FedEx at Stansted Airport in the UK, and Powell was delighted that they were immediately successful in rooting out DVD's in both small packages and in large containers. The dogs don't always get it right of course, although there was one search that Powell remembers:
"The dogs were going berserk, but when we opened the boxes they were full of dog food. Everyone laughed at me and the dogs - and then we found the one DVD hidden amongst all the dog food."
As for Lucky and Flo's future with the MPAA, Powell is hopeful that the demonstrations can encourage Governments and agencies round the world to invest in some sniffer dogs themselves, or at least make use of Lucky and Flo throughout their working life. The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) retires their dogs at eight years old, which Powell thinks is too early:
"That doesn't make much sense to me. I have a retriever that's 12 years old, and he can still work for an hour on a search and rescue - and that's in bad conditions."
Over 50 TV channels covered the MPAA demonstration at the Disney Studios in Burbank, and representatives from over 40 countries watched Lucky and Flo do their thing:
"The reaction was very positive, and most were amazed that they could do it. The MPAA is thinking outside the box here because they want to do the best they can, but some people said that training and the cost of the dogs was too expensive."
That argument is hard to understand. In an industry that lost over $18 billion dollars to piracy in 2005, of which $11 billion was attributed to bootlegging and illegal copying, the cost of buying and training a sniffer dog is virtually a pile of bones in comparison:
"There's a kennel in Templepatrick that breeds Springers and Labs, and to buy a pup of up to 9 months old and train it do basic search work costs around £1,600 (around $3,000). Then there are another two or three months of training, and it costs around £15,000 ($28,000) overall."
Powell did not have much time to look around Los Angeles during his visit here, but he did find that there is currently a lot of dog protection work in Los Angeles. Apparently robbers have become wise to them and have started wearing leather arm guards, so dogs now have to be re-trained to bite anywhere. This technique is called Schutzhund and originated in Germany, where it is also a competitive sport:
"German Shepherds are great dogs - they're actually my favorite - but when they get this special command (to bite), they turn into a real mean machine! I was really impressed!"
L.A. dog trainer Daryl Hall presented Powell with a black shepherd pup as a gift, although Neil can't introduce it to the delights of Ireland until it's old enough to be flown over:
"I thought I'd name him Angelo, because I got him in Los Angeles."
Powell will soon be collecting Lucky and Flo from their kennel, as they are due to leave for Dubai on the latest leg of the K-9 Pirate Smackdown tour:
"I take them out about six times a month, and depending what happens with this tour and the MPAA, I think they'll probably end up in our house as dogs number eight and nine! Either way it's been a brilliant adventure. My wife has said she expects me to bring her back some gold bars from Dubai too!"