Specially trained bomb-sniffing dogs might soon be patrolling Metro Vancouver's buses and SkyTrains just in time for the Olympics, but that has some Muslims concerned.
The Metro Vancouver Transit Police Service is in the process of selecting the handlers and dogs that will be part of the two-year pilot project, said deputy chief George Beattie.
Once the teams are trained, the dogs will work on the entire transit system, including buses, SkyTrains and SeaBus ferries.
But the idea of being sniffed up and down by a slobbery pooch — no matter how well trained — has already raised concerns among some members of Metro Vancouver's Muslim community.
Some devout Muslims consider dogs to be unclean animals and try to avoid any contact with them. Some Muslim cab drivers in Vancouver have even refused to take guide dogs in their vehicles and will call for a second vehicle to take the fare instead.
Shawket Hassan, the vice-president of the B.C. Muslim Association, says he wants to make sure the dogs will not touch passengers during searches, which could lead to problems, particularly for Muslims heading to a mosque to pray.
"If they touch the body, then there is a probability they will leave some saliva on the clothes," said Hassan.
'If I am going to the mosque and pray … and I have this saliva on my body … I have to go and change or clean.' — Shawket Hassan, vice-president of the B.C. Muslim Association
"If I am going to the mosque and pray, or doing something that way, and I have this saliva on my body … I have to go and change or clean," said Hassan.
He pointed out that devout Muslims pray five times a day, no matter where they are.
Hassan said he wants to work with the transit police to develop guidelines that would keep the dogs at least 30 centimetres away from passengers.
But Hassan stressed that Muslims have respect for all animals, including dogs, and they have no objections to using the dogs for security.
"This is a step we would support, but … we would like to be informed," he said.
Tight deadline for program
For their part, transit police say they are still in the early stages and have not yet had time to consult with the Muslim community, but plans are in the works.
"We are at the very, very beginning stages of the project," said Beattie. "We had some very good feedback from BC Civil Liberties [Association] that we may wish to speak to the Muslim community. That hasn't happened yet. We are just in the process of rolling it out."
The transit police are hoping to have two dog patrols working in time for the Olympics in February, but Beattie admits the deadline is tight.
There are a number of police officers on the force that are already trained as dog handlers and if they can get pre-trained dogs, they could be on the job within two months.
The move to bring in the specialized dogs is part of the normal expansion of the scope of the 170-member force and not a response to any specific security threats, he said.
"This is part and parcel … [of] the growth of our police service," said Beattie.
'They are not dual trained for the detection of narcotics.' — George Beattie, deputy chief of the Metro Vancouver Transit Police Service
The dogs will only be trained to sniff out explosives, not drugs, he also said.
"Our whole purpose is the safety and security of the transit system," said Beattie. "They are not dual trained for the detection of narcotics."
It is important that there is no confusion for the handler when a dog has detected something.
"It would be tough if the dog gave an indication for a package, and you did not know what you are dealing with," said Beattie.