Alumnus Joshua Vazquez and his explosives detection canine, Scooby, work to keep travelers safe at one of the nation’s busiest airports.
One wrong move and a hidden explosive could blow a piece of luggage sky-high at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. It’s a risk that Joshua Vazquez faces each day in his U.S. Department of Homeland Security duties at the airport.
Still, the explosives detection canine handler has unshakable confidence, knowing his partner, a 3-yearold black Labrador named Scooby, is unsurpassed in the bomb detection business. “It’s the best job in the world,” Vazquez says. But the job didn’t come easily.
Ambition takes flight
Growing up in Brooklyn, Vazquez felt captivated by the airline industry. “Ever since I was a young child, I was obsessed with flight and airplanes,” he says. “I went to aviation summer camps and had tons of books, videos and games all about planes, helicopters, spaceships and everything in between. The real kicker for me was being able to ride the last Concorde flight at age 11.” His mother worked as a travel agent and booked a flight on the plane that used the most powerful jet engines flying commercially. “It was cool to see the cockpit and meet the pilots,” Vazquez recalls. Afterward, he zeroed in on one ambition: to become a pilot.
During his senior year of high school in 2004, he received a scholarship to an aviation program at Farmingdale State College in Long Island, New York. He landed a part-time job at a local small airport as an aircraft dispatcher during his freshman year of college and joined the Air Force ROTC program at Manhattan College. “If I obtained my aviation degree and passed the Air Force basic training, I’d be all set for my career as a professional pilot, or so I thought,” he says.
During routine training with the ROTC cadets, Vazquez took a mandatory colorblindness test—and failed. He felt devastated to learn he had a condition that disqualified him from ever becoming a military or commercial pilot. “It was crushing,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Now what? What do I do now?’ I was only 18 years old, and I lost all my drive. I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to go to work. I quit the ROTC program and eventually dropped out of college.”
The road back
“At that age, I didn’t understand the significance of having a backup plan,” Vazquez recalls. Feeling lost, he became trapped in an endless loop of low-paying jobs at fast-food chains and retail stores that made it impossible to make ends meet. The turning point came in 2006, when he applied for a screener position at a local airport and landed the job. With a renewed sense of confidence and purpose, he enrolled with University of Phoenix at age 21 and earned an associate degree in criminal justice followed by a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice Administration. The degrees were his entry into the criminal justice field, first as a corrections officer and then as an explosives detection canine handler.
“Education and professional growth go hand in hand,” says Vazquez, now at work on a University Doctor of Philosophy degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at UOPX. “Where I am now is a testament to that philosophy. For the first time, I realize it’s possible to take all the things you love—such as an affinity for animals, security and airplanes—and put them together into a rewarding career,” he says.
Vazquez knows his stuff. He began working with dogs at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where most of the military canine teams are trained. Turns out, there’s nothing more powerful in the U.S. arsenal for bomb detection than a dog’s nose. Dogs have 300million olfactory receptor cells for smelling, a function assigned to 35 percent of a dog’s brain. (Pity the poor human with only6 million olfactory receptor cells and 5 percent of the brain dedicated to smell.)
Prior to arriving at Lackland, Scooby had been trained in the science of detection. The purpose of the training at Lackland is to marry the handler with the canine. Scooby first showed his extraordinary prowess in sniffing out danger during three months of training with Vazquez. But Scooby’s detection abilities only work if Vazquez can correctly identify the signals his dog gives him.
“Each dog has its own way of responding to odor. The handler is supposed to be able to interpret the dog’s nonverbal behavior. Different dogs have different tells. I’m not at liberty to say what his [Scooby] particular tell is because it could put my life or the dog’s life in jeopardy. If there is a person who is a suicide bomber, we want them to know as little as possible about what we do or what we’re looking for,” says Vazquez.
When at home with Vazquez, his wife and 18-month-old daughter in Long Island, New York, Scooby seems like an ordinary family pet. But that image changes the moment the Labrador steps into the airport. “It’s like a trigger. He instantly shifts his personality to a working dog. He has one job: to seek out explosives,” Vazquez says. Vazquez watches Scooby’s body language for signals that he’s on the trail of a suspicious odor. “If you and your dog are not on the same wavelength, you’ll fail,” he says. “It’s a big deal because lives are at stake.”
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