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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

A Team With Keen Scents of Security

9 May 2005

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Wynn Las Vegas went all the way to Europe to hire eight specially trained members of the $2.7 billion Strip hotel-casino's security detail.

But they don't require much in the way of salary.

Two Labrador retrievers and six German shepherds make up the key components of the resort's canine patrol, where the dogs, who came to Las Vegas highly educated in bomb-detection techniques, work with their handlers to find dangerous materials, explosives and other substances that might be brought illegally into the resort.

The idea of having a bomb-detecting dog team on property isn't new to the Strip. MGM Mirage and the Stratosphere both have canine units working at their properties.

The difference, said Wynn Las Vegas Vice President of Security Jerry Keller, is the overall size and scope of the canine detail.

Throughout the day and night, the dogs and handlers patrol all areas of the casino, the resort's public promenade, the hotel's luggage distribution center, the two main entrances, and the back-of-the-house facilities.

In just the first week of the resort's operation, the dogs have become highly visible, outfitted with harnesses labeled "Security" and hotel employee identification badges.

"The dogs are a deterrent. We want them visible for both our employees and guests," said Keller, a former two-term Metropolitan Police Department sheriff who retired in 2001 and now oversees the Wynn Las Vegas 270-person security force.

"Visibility is a key element. The dogs are part of the overall security measures we've developed."

The dogs -- with Las Vegas-themed names such as Ace, Blackjack, Keno, Casino and Jackpot -- range from 2 to 3 years in age and are housed at Wynn Las Vegas in a $500,000 climate-controlled kennel, complete with a bathing area and two large outdoor exercise pens.

Citing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Keller said security measures at large public buildings changed dramatically. Wynn Las Vegas, the Strip's most expensive property and the first new resort in five years, has garnered worldwide media attention and could be a highly inviting terrorist target.

"We have heard nothing that could be termed as a threat, but, we make the safety of our guests a primary focus," Keller said.

And that's where the canine patrol comes into effect.

Keller said the dogs were trained in explosives-detection techniques in Europe and were screened by two American-based canine security consultants who personally chose which dogs were brought to Las Vegas.

The eight security officers who are trained to work with the dogs were selected out of 235 applicants and have more than 35 years of combined canine handling experience, including with law enforcement and resort destinations.

"The dogs are very alert and extremely aware of their surroundings," said Ann Vanderhoof, who oversees the detail and spent the past five years as a canine security handler at Disneyland.

"A dog's nose is 350 billion times stronger than a human nose," Vanderhoof said. "The dogs are always working. When we're walking through the property on patrol, they are very alert."

The dogs have specific scents they seek. However, they aren't trained to detect drugs or illegal narcotics.

"Trying to recognize that many scents can become confusing," she said.

On patrol through the property, the dogs obey commands from handlers. By instinct, if a guest walks by with a suitcase or satchel, the dog might grab a scent.

Hotel guests are discouraged from petting the dogs.

If a suspicious scent is detected, the dogs are trained to have a subtle reaction recognized by handlers. Security and Las Vegas police would then be alerted.

Canine team member Mark Jones, who has experience as a canine handler with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said dogs and handlers went through extensive training before the property opened to build a bond.

One aspect that is different from his law enforcement career -- the dogs don't go home with their handlers.

"These dogs were very experienced when they arrived, and we're constantly going through additional training," Jones said.