Bio-Sensor is Bad Science: Superdogs Are Made, Not Born

The promises made by the biosensor leadership at the outset of the program were many and the propaganda leaked to the media was filled with predictions of imminent success. This success was not to be, but it’s interesting to see how this program was pitched to the public.

In a press release from 1971, the chief at the Edgewood Arsenal made a bold prediction:

By 1980 we will have a remarkably superior dog. If you think the second generation pups are something, then come back in a few years and we’ll show you a truly superior dog.

The following year, Popular Mechanics ran this puff piece about the biosensor “super dog” operation:

Superdogs are made–not born
by Karl I. Olnas
Popular Mechanics: November  1972

FOUR-DAY OLD PUPS are spun in centrifuge for three minutes as part of stress training.

A LITTLE-KNOWN PROGRAM at Edgewood Arsenal, Md., has an unusual objective: to produce dogs of superior intelligence and superkeen sense of smell and hearing. Such canines, say Army experts, do a better job in combat, as guard dogs, and as “sniffers” of drugs and explosives.

The first step in the development of a “superdog” was to test various breeds. The German shepherd came out on top. Dog experts combed the country for outstanding recruits, narrowing the final selection to 4 males and 21 females.

Hundreds of dogs were bred from the initial group selected in 1968. After evaluation and training the very best are kept for breeding and most of the others are shipped out for active duty when they reach the age of 11 months. Currently, Edgewood has on hand some 250 pups and 50 dogs. About 500 “graduates” are stationed at military posts, and some are assigned to the Customs Service or the Border Patrol.

A young recruit is about to be placed in a test room. The dog comes from dark into brightly lit room where he is subjected to noises and lights. The animal's reactions are observed through peep hole by veterinarians and other team members.

Though results so far have been good, Army men say that by 1980 the program will have achieved a standard for a “remarkably superior dog.”

The development team consists of veterinarians, biologists and expert handlers. In evaluating a pup, the team looks for traits of obedience, alertness find an ability to learn.

They judge a dog’s ability to learn by using standard “fetch,” “sit” and “come” tests. In addition. the pooch is evaluated on his ability to escape from a maze, his reaction to loud noises and bright lights, his alertness to hidden decoys. his ability to read hand signals and his reaction to strict obedience training.

A SUPERDOG ON DUTY with the U.S. Customs Service gives packages "sniff test" for hidden drugs.

“We are doing nothing here that hasn’t been proven with poultry or livestock,” observes the chief of the program. “The only difference is that we’re using a domesticated animal. the dog.”

The Popular Mechanics article wasn’t the only “media buy” used to promote the program. They invited the national news in for a featured story, but the plan backfired:

Incidentally, NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor did a 2 minute spot highlighting the early stress program. It showed the “tilt-a- whirl” device. The show started out with Chancellor saying something like, “We’ve just learned that the Army has spent 3/4 of a million dollars over the last 6 years centrifuging puppies and putting them into refrigerators.” You can imagine the congressional and presidential inquiries after that one. As I recall, that was the main reason we stopped using the early stress program before data could be developed.

– Dr. Jeffrey Linn, DVM, Deputy Commanding Officer of the Army Biosensor program

This public perception disaster was also noted by Dr. Eldin Leighton, who was a research geneticist with the biosensor program and later was the Director of Canine Genetics for The Seeing Eye, Inc:

An area TV station wanted a tour of the place and Col. Castleberry showed them around. They video taped the 4 puppies in separate compartments in a wash tub being spun around at 45 rpm and then being put in the refrigerator. The voice over said “….and those puppies that survived the centrifuge were then put in the freezer…”

This aired on one network and then the others picked it up and it resulted in presidential and congressional investigations which resulted in that project being closed down. Papers also picked it up. For awhile, that project held the record for generating more publicity than any other unit of government.

It’s not by chance that the biosensor program used centrifuges and refrigerators to stress the puppies, both of these techniques were stolen from the Russian space dog program of the previous decades which were employed to evaluate and expose Laika and the other astromutts to the conditions they would likely face during launch and in orbit.

In that application, the “tilt-a-whirl” and refrigerators have a direct applicability to the desired use of the dogs.  There is little common sense in subjecting neonatal puppies to centrifuges and refrigerators as a means to make them smarter or socialize them to experiences they are likely to never have (orbiting the earth, rocket liftoff, reentry, etc.).

Captain Arthur J. Haggerty of the Super Dog program confirms both the inspiration for the inane protocol and its ultimate failure to produce results:

There was a certain amount of publicity in the general press in the early 70s. The best source of information that I would suggest is the Russian tests that were conducted probably in the sixties or earlier. The tests were bizarre including putting new born whelps in a centrifuge and exposing them to cold temperatures. The US Army did attempt to replicate these tests without the results claimed by the Russians.

I contend that the impetus for the “super dog” program and non-sequitor methods initially used to condition the puppies were a direct result of American scientists inferiority complex and anxiety regarding the success of the Russian space program to capture propaganda coups when they launched satellites, animals, and humans into space before the Americans.

In the context of a space launch, centrifuges and freezers make sense. In the context of producing bomb sniffing dogs, the protocol is clearly derivative, inappropriate, and sickeningly sycophantic of the Russian program.

This makes the entire endeavour bad science and it’s crystal clear why the public, and even the President, had serious issues with the super dog program and its treatment of puppies.  The whole program would eventually fail for the same reasons: no clear focus, undocumented results, poor judgment by the research team, and a lack of concern for the objective of actually producing well adjusted usable animals.

PhD Battaglia insists that this program “developed a method that still serves as a guide to what works” when the truth is that it failed both conceptually and practically.  It didn’t demonstrate the efficacy of neonatal stress, its bizarre protocol offended the public.  It didn’t serve as a guide to what worked, it’s a clear example of a government program that failed spectacularly.  Not only did it not produce super dogs, it didn’t even produce well adjusted, fearless and healthy normal dogs.

All posts in this series:
Bio-Sensor is Bad Science: Quackery

Bio-Sensor is Bad Science: True Biosensor

Bad Science: Superdogs Are Made, Not Born

Bio-Sensor is Bad Science: The Failure of Super Dog

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.