Dog days at the state fair

Wednesday, October 26, 2022
Robins and Deni photo

The dog days of summer may have been over, but TSA was at the center of Dog Days at the Washington State Fair.   

Robertson and Jill photo
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Canine Handler Tim Robertson and partner Jill. (Photo by Darrell Westmoreland)

For the first time ever, the state fair in Puyallup, Washington, hosted a special Dog Days at the State Fair training event for TSA and police canines. TSA canine teams from the Seattle area, Los Angeles, and as far away as Chicago participated. 

“It was a fantastic opportunity for a live event training scenario at the celebrated Washington State Fair,” said Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Canine Training Instructor Joel Burton, the brainchild of the inaugural exercise. “I live near the fairgrounds and was driving home one day when I wondered to myself why we have never trained at the fairgrounds. The state fair was approaching, and what a terrific opportunity for not only our handlers, but also to highlight to the public what we do.”

The training took place twice during the fair’s 24-day run and was originally designed for Seattle-area canines. However, Burton said four TSA canine teams from Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as Atlanta Canine Training Instructor Martin Ratkowski, arrived the day before the second day of training to help with the cruise ship season, so Burton included them in the state fair sniffing exercises.

“Our goal was real world experience,” Burton noted. “Our passenger screening canine (PSC) teams perform many functions, typically in an airport environment, but they also support national events such as Super Bowls. Our missions also tend to change over time, and new avenues for work present themselves.”

Burton used role players throughout the fairgrounds to challenge the canine teams.

“Our PSC teams moved up and down Milk Can Alley (the fair’s dairy area), much like they do at airports across the nation,” he described. “The role players carried training aids for the canines to find by sniffing the air currents behind moving people. In a chaotic outdoor environment with people moving in all directions, what seems outwardly simple can turn out to be a test of the team’s skillsets.”

Tolbert and Duke-Leduc photo
Los Angeles International Airport Canine Handler Rommel Tolbert and partner Duke-Leduc. (Photo by Darrell Westmoreland)
Doherty and Rambo photo
O’Hare International Airport Canine Handler Deena Doherty and partner Rambo. (Photo by Darrell Westmoreland)

TSA partnered with the fair management team and the Puyallup Police Department to put on the big event. Burton met Deputy Police Chief Dave McDonald and fair representatives to discuss what kind of training they could to do.

“The interest was there, and we even managed to score a joint training event on the fairgrounds prior to the state fair,” Burton recalled. “We asked for two training days during the state fair, and they were happy to accommodate the request. They were a pleasure to work with, and we appreciate them fitting us in during a massive event.”

Burton hopes to see more opportunities like this.

“Day in and day out operations in the same general area of airports can lead to stagnation or the Groundhog Day effect,” he said. “Peaking interest in the canine, the handler and the team can spark learning new things or better understanding what they may see elsewhere and made clearer in different avenues.”

He believes events like the state fair training experience will only make TSA’s canine teams better.

“Challenge builds capabilities,” emphasized Burton. “It increases learning. It will show strengths to take advantage of or show weaknesses that need further improvement. All training is good!”

By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs