What's Up With This Dog Choice Change at the TSA?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

tsa dogs with floppy ears

Story at-a-glance -

  • Floppy-eared dogs such as Labrador retrievers, German short-haired and wirehaired pointers, Vizslas and Golden retrievers, have a friendlier appearance, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), making them ideal for screening busy airport terminals
  • It’s estimated that about 80 percent of TSA’s canine have droopy ears while the remaining 20 percent have pointed ears
  • The TSA finds passengers to be more accepting of, and children to be less frightened by, floppy-eared dogs
  • Drooping ears are rarely seen in wild animals, except in the case of elephants, so, subconsciously, many people may view floppy-eared dogs as tame and friendly house pets while their pointy-eared counterparts seem more wild
  • The TSA maintains a team of 1,200 dogs, which patrol more than 100 airports and other transit systems, including bus and rail, across the U.S.

In airports across the U.S., pointy-eared German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are being overlooked in favor of sporting dogs with floppy ears. The latter breeds, such as Labrador retrievers, German short-haired and wirehaired pointers, Vizslas and Golden retrievers, have a friendlier appearance, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), making them ideal for screening busy airport terminals.

"We’ve made a conscious effort in TSA ... to use floppy ear dogs," TSA Administrator David Pekoske told the Washington Examiner. "We find the passenger acceptance of floppy ear dogs is just better. It presents just a little bit less of a concern. Doesn’t scare children."1

The dogs, though appearing much like friendly family pets, are experts at detecting explosives and other contraband on people and in baggage. The TSA maintains a team of 1,200 dogs, which patrol more than 100 airports and other transit systems, including bus and rail, across the U.S.

Most of the dogs provide a valuable service in sniffing out explosives from baggage, but about one-third sniff the passengers themselves.

Eighty Percent of TSA Dogs Have Floppy Ears

In the last year, the majority of dogs to join TSA ranks have had floppy ears, but though they represent the ideal for administrators (and, apparently, passengers), dogs aren’t ruled out of the program based on their ear shape alone.

Reportedly, the “quality” of the dog, including his health and abilities, as well as his propensity for being around people, are the primary factors evaluated in choosing a dog. However, floppy versus pointed ears are also part of the consideration, made a part of the process via an informal internal decision.2 It’s estimated that about 80 percent of TSA’s canine have droopy ears while the remaining 20 percent have pointed ears.

Why Do People Think Dogs With Floppy Ears Are Friendlier?

There may be a bit of a backstory to why floppy-eared dogs are assumed to be friendlier, and it goes deeper than the fact that many police and military dogs have pointy ears. Wolves, too, have pointy ears, and this is because they’re decidedly wild creatures.

In the 1800s, Charles Darwin noticed that domesticated animals have specific features that set them apart from their wild counterparts. In addition to being more tame, they also tend to have floppier ears, white patches on their fur, curlier tails and smaller heads and snouts.

This phenomenon, known as “domestication syndrome,” was long thought to be the result of human intervention leading to domesticated animals. In fact, in 1959 the Russian farm-fox experiment took place, in which Russian researchers attempted to create domesticated foxes.

By specifically selecting only the friendliest foxes to breed, the animals began to show marked changes within 10 generations, including not only wagging their tails at people but also physical changes indicative of domestication: more folded ears, curlier tails, smaller heads and changes in fur color.3

Drooping ears are rarely seen in wild animals, except in the case of elephants, so, subconsciously, many people may view floppy-eared dogs as tame and friendly house pets while their pointy-eared counterparts seem more wild and, perhaps, prone to aggression. “People inherently think of these droopy ears as a more juvenilized, friendly kind of trait,” Lee Dugatkin, Ph.D. an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville, told the New York Times.4

What’s more, according to Dugatkin, calmer, friendlier animals have fewer neural crest cells, which are stem cells that can grow other cells, including stem cells. “When that manifests itself in ears,” he told the Times, “you have ears that don’t stand up as straight because they don’t have as much cartilage.”5

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Bomb-Sniffing Dogs Are in High Demand

The TSA trains a limited number of dogs each year, which costs up to $42,000 per dog.6 Such dogs are sometimes made available to law enforcement agencies but otherwise are used only for government purposes. A new rule from the International Civil Aviation Organization requiring all cargo to be screened, set to take effect July 1, 2021, however, has increased demand for bomb-sniffing dogs.

Currently, although commercial freight is often carried on passenger airlines alongside luggage, much of the cargo isn’t screening prior to take off. The new rule means a lot more cargo will need to be screened, and the TSA has started to approve private explosive-detection canine firms for the job.

Dogs can screen a pallet of freight in about 30 seconds — something that would take six workers up to nine minutes to accomplish and requires the freight to be dismantled and then reassembled.7

“Dogs are more efficient at screening cargo,” Christopher Shelton, branch manager of the TSA’s Canine Training Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, told Bloomberg. “A canine can screen cargo a lot faster and [be] just as effective as other technologies.” Bloomberg added:8

“The TSA’s new third-party program will approve certification firms and assess each screening team; those teams (one human, one dog) will need to pass annual reviews to retain their certification in the program. For its part, the TSA will conduct random, ‘short-notice assessments.’”

You Can’t Pet TSA Dogs, but You Can Collect Their Trading Cards

If you happen upon a working dog at an airport, it’s best not to pet him, as he’s busy working. However, if you’re lucky you may get a doggy trading card instead, featuring the dog’s name, photo, breed and birthdate. The TSA used to run a canine adoption program, through which dogs who didn’t fulfill training requirements or were retired could find a forever home.

However, the waiting list grew to be so extensive that they’re no longer accepting applications. If you’d like to see a TSA dog in action, visit any major U.S. airport, where they’re a relatively common sight. And remember, even though the TSA prefers floppy-eared dogs for their friendly appearance, you can’t judge a dog’s temperament by the shape of his ears — whether a dog has floppy or pointy ears is not an indicator of his friendliness or approachability.