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These best boys and girls just graduated from the ATF's National Canine Academy

K-9 Maggie returns to her handler, Special Agent Lindsey Bates, during a demonstration of an explosives search following a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on June 21.
Nathan Howard
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for NPR
K-9 Maggie returns to her handler, Special Agent Lindsey Bates, during a demonstration of an explosives search following a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on June 21.

All across the country over the past month, proud high school and college graduates have been beaming as they strut across stages to collect their well-earned diplomas.

The same held true in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, where a group of seven Labrador retrievers collected their degrees from the National Canine Training Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers wrangle their K-9s for a team photo following a graduation ceremony at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on June 21.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers wrangle their K-9s for a team photo following a graduation ceremony at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on June 21.

At a graduation ceremony held in the academy’s warehouse-like main hall, friends and family snapped photographs of Class 148, five black Labs and two yellow Labs, who collected their certificates and shiny new ATF badges.

“Every team here has passed the highest standards and exceeded the expectations of the ATF canine program,” lead instructor Shawn Crawford told the crowd. “They’re ready to hit the streets, serve the public and protect their communities.”

Special agent Andrew Badowski, left, looks toward his K-9, Murphy, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on June 21.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
Special agent Andrew Badowski, left, looks toward his K-9, Murphy, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on June 21.

During the speeches, some of the graduates rolled around on the concrete floor. Others sat quietly at attention and panted.

The dogs have just completed a 24-week program. The first phase involves basic obedience skills and detecting various explosives, compounds and mixtures. In the second phase, the dog is matched with its handler, an ATF special agent, and together they train to search for explosives in operational environments like schools, vehicles and warehouses.

After the ceremony, as families snap photos with the dogs, Crawford said the canines are now trained to detect, in theory, 19,000 different explosive compounds.

Special Agent Corey Wells introduces his K-9 Tara to his children, Owen Wells, 5, and Lucy Wells, 9, following a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
Special Agent Corey Wells introduces his K-9 Tara to his children, Owen Wells, 5, and Lucy Wells, 9, following a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.

“They get about 25 odors while they’re here,” he said. “We base our methodology on a six-family theory. And if it’s commercial, homemade or military, it’s going to have to have one of these six base ingredients.”

He uses an analogy to explain: “If we train the dog to find pure white sugar, think how many different things sugar is in,” he said. “Everything has sugar in it, and they could pick that sugar out.”

K-9 handlers line up ahead of a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
K-9 handlers line up ahead of a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.

There are only 45 ATF dogs in the country with this top level of training, he said.

“These dogs work traditionally just like any other bomb dog in the United States, except they can work off-leash when need be if there’s a high threat,” Crawford said.

Special Agent Lindsey Bates praises her K-9, Maggie, during a demonstration of an explosives search following a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
Special Agent Lindsey Bates praises her K-9, Maggie, during a demonstration of an explosives search following a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
K-9 Tara demonstrates an explosive search for her handler, Special Agent Corey Wells, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
K-9 Tara demonstrates an explosive search for her handler, Special Agent Corey Wells, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.

One of the graduating teams, Special Agent Lindsey Bates and K-9 Maggie, did a quick demonstration. Crawford had placed four roller suitcases — one of them with an explosive material inside — on the ground 20 feet away.

“She’ll stand here, tell Maggie to go out and check those bags,” Crawford said. “When she finds the explosive, she’s going to sit down, get really happy, and then she’ll run back and get a big handful of food.”

K-9 Oakley watches as his handler, Special Agent Mariah Maye, receives her certificate during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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K-9 Oakley watches as his handler, Special Agent Mariah Maye, receives her certificate during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
K-9 Murphy rests during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
K-9 Murphy rests during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.

Special Agent Bates knelt down and focused Maggie on the suitcases, then gave the command: “Bag!” Maggie ran over to the suitcases, sniffed a few of them before putting her paws and one — the correct one — and wagging her tail.

“Yes!” Bates says to her, and Maggie runs back go get her treat — a handful of food. “Good girl! That’s a good girl!”

K-9 handlers line up ahead of a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
K-9 handlers line up ahead of a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.

This is how Maggie and the rest of the graduating dogs will eat for the rest of their careers. They don’t get a bowl of food. Instead, every day throughout the day, the handlers will put out shell casings or hide explosives at a training site, and only after detecting the explosive odor will the dog get its food reward, Crawford said.

Despite the intensity and rigor of the training, these canines are still just dogs.

K-9 Derb looks toward her handler, Special Agent David Wiley, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on June 21.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
K-9 Derb looks toward her handler, Special Agent David Wiley, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on June 21.

They live with their handlers, which often means they are ATF bomb-sniffing dogs by day and a family dog in their off time.

Such is the case with Special Agent Corey Wells and his K-9 Tara.

Carl Roth, a senior instructor with Puppies Behind Bars, greets K-9 Tara, who he worked with before her training, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
Carl Roth, a senior instructor with Puppies Behind Bars, greets K-9 Tara, who he worked with before her training, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.

Wells’ parents as well as his wife, Selena, and two kids, 9-year-old Lucy and 5-year-old Owen, made the trip to Front Royal for the graduation. After the ceremony, the kids were down on the concrete floor hugging Tara and climbing on her.

Asked whether they were excited about taking a new dog home, Lucy popped up and said “obviously!”

Owen Wells, 5, son of Special Agent Corey Wells, plays with his dad’s K-9, Tara, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
Owen Wells, 5, son of Special Agent Corey Wells, plays with his dad’s K-9, Tara, during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Canine Handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday.

ATF canines have supported major events across the U.S., including the Super Bowl, the State of the Union and presidential inaugurations. But they’re also used in the bread-and-butter of ATF’s work: solving gun crimes.

“Honestly, what we’re going to use her most for in Oklahoma City is responding to crime scenes. So, like, the suspect tosses a gun, she can go find the gun,” Agent Wells said.

Even something as small as a shell casing, he said, the dogs can track down.

Audience members watch a demonstration by Special Agent Corey Wells and his K-9 Tara during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
Audience members watch a demonstration by Special Agent Corey Wells and his K-9 Tara during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
A badge worn by ATF K-9s is seen during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
A badge worn by ATF K-9s is seen during a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.

“Shell casings are the big name of the game right now for us because we can link them to certain crimes,” he said. “I mean, just a single shell casing, they’ll go out and find. It’s really impressive.”

First though, Wells said he has to take Tara home to Oklahoma where she can settle in her new family life, all the new smells and then, of course, into her new job.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Special Agent Mariah Maye hugs her friend Jazmine Wright following a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.
Nathan Howard / for NPR
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for NPR
Special Agent Mariah Maye hugs her friend Jazmine Wright following a graduation ceremony for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) special agent canine handlers and their dogs at the ATF training facility in Front Royal, Va., on Friday, June 21, 2024.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.