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Are Sniffing Dogs Reliable?

Lawsuit questions the abilities of drug and bomb pups
By JoAnna Lou, December 2013, Updated June 2021
A new lawsuit is questioning the abilities of drug and bomb sniffing dogs. The claim against Nevada's Metropolitan Police Department says that dogs were trained to respond to handler cues instead of freely searching for drugs. If the accusations are true, this would be a huge constitutional violation of the right to a lawful search.  

The lawsuit also accuses the Department of animal abuse and racketeering, so they're obviously a potentially troubled group. However, the claims related to the working dogs could impact the use of drug and bomb sniffing pups, and the legal latitude that they are given. To date there are no mandatory training standards and little research that backs up their skill level.

In 2010, the University of California Davis tested the reliability of drug and bomb sniffing dogs by putting them in a clean room, without drugs or explosives.  To pass successfully, they needed to go through the room and detect nothing.  The 18 subjects tested had a 85 percent failure rate, which the researchers believed was because the dogs are so heavily influenced by their handlers.

We know the canine nose holds extraordinary ability. There have been studies showing a high success rate detecting cancer and countless stories of explosive detecting dogs saving soldiers' lives overseas. I have no doubt that dogs have the ability to detect drugs and bombs if trained and handled correctly, but there must be a standard of training and testing for both dogs and handlers.

In the sport of K9 Nosework, dogs go through a course to detect scents or, equally importantly, not detect anything if the course is clean (the handler does not know if there is a scent on the course, and if there is one, where the scent is located). It seems like a no brainer to have a more complex version of that test for all law enforcement dogs.  Certainly you can never duplicate real life, and there is always room for canine error, but training and testing standards would be a good baseline.


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And this isn't just about the dogs. The U.S. Supreme Court gives police "probable cause" to search your vehicle if a police dog detects drugs, whereas officers without a dog need "a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime" for the same search or the evidence can be thrown out in court. Because of this, some have called the pups a "search warrant on a leash." Having a sniffing dog provides a lot of power that can potentially be abused.

After the Nevada Highway Patrol created its K9 program in 2008, the dogs helped troopers seize more than $5.3 million in cash and over 1,000 pounds of marijuana in the first three years. But the lawsuit cites numerous abuses, such as stopping people out of jurisdiction, profiling Hispanic motorists, and poking holes in FedEx boxes so dogs could better sniff for drugs inside.

Having concrete standards and protocols seem like a clear solution to many of the problems, but the idea faces a lot of backlash. Lawrence Myers, an Auburn University professor who has studied police dogs for 30 years, says that his research on the effectiveness of drug-sniffing dogs has been shunned by most in the industry. Many K9 handlers don't speak out because they are afraid of being blacklisted.  

Perhaps the outcome of this lawsuit will spark the standards in training and testing that is necessary to restore faith in these dogs' abilities.



 Image: Shutterstock

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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