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On the Scent
Sniffing out trouble at Reagan National Airport.

The Washington Post Magazine
April 14, 2002

The call comes out of nowhere, crackling over the walkie-talkie. A suspicious U-Haul truck has been spotted near Reagan National Airport's Hangar 7. Cpl. Steven Cronberry talks back to the dispatcher. "I'm coming from Terminal B," he says. Pasja, meanwhile, stares straight ahead -- but her four legs begin to move. Quickly.

K9-5 is on the way.

Cronberry and Pasja, his 7-year-old fawn-colored Belgian Malinois, are part of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority explosives detection team, which hunts for bombs at National and Dulles airports. K9-5, as the pair is called, has worked together for four years. "She's my first and only dog," says Cronberry, who calls his occupation a dream come true. "The things she's protected -- that's my reward."

Yet to Pasja it's all basically hide-and-seek, Cronberry explains. But playing to win takes practice, which is what K9-5 does five days a week. The pair spent this morning training in a warehouse at Fort Belvoir, searching for explosives buried amid rows of cardboard boxes.

As she does at every other practice session, the playful pooch became a dog of war the moment she was given the command to search. Pasja, guiding her handler, snaked through the danger zone, sniffing and snuffling and pawing at boxes until she stopped and sat and looked intently up at Cronberry. Target located. Wedged between two fax-paper boxes was a six-inch tube of explosive material. Cronberry plucked a well-chewed red foam ball from his belt and popped it in Pasja's open mouth. "Good girl," he whispered.

Now, at the airport, Cronberry and Pasja reach the U-Haul truck after a sirens-blaring ride. She rockets out of the patrol car and heads for the scene. This is make-or-break time and she's on it, her nose sniffing every inch of the suspicious object. Until --

Pasja sits down away from the truck, signaling a false alarm. Nothing there. Cronberry radios in. "No response," he says to base.

Cronberry pats Pasja's head. She wags her tail. Game over.

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