No Hiding from the Search Dogs

Escapees try to throw tracking dogs off scent
By Claudia Kawczynska, July 2015, Updated June 2021

Once those escaped killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, were caught in northern New York, people were wondering why it took the authorities three weeks to track them down. Police dogs had soon after the escape caught their scent only three miles from the prison. Nonetheless there was chatter online that perhaps Matt and Sweat had used a trick of sprinkling pepper in their tracks to confuse the dogs. It was thought, that the fugitives might have been inspired by “Cool Hand Luke.” In this movie Paul Newman brings some “chili powder and pepper and curry and the like” with him when he made his escape. In the movie the ruse worked and threw Bloodhounds off and they ended up sneezing and rubbing their noses. But could this really happen? The New York Times consulted with Alexandra Horowitz, canine cognitive researcher, about the likelihood of this being effective and she thought it was “extremely” unlikely because, as she explained:

That when people move “they slough off dead skin cells, and the scent from those cells lingers both in the air and on the ground.” Dogs, even those who seem to have their noses close to the ground like Bloodhounds, can “air scent” too and as Horowitz explained “there is no way that people can erase the olfactory information that they are leaving.”

Nonetheless, it’s good to note the dogs did their job when they were the first in the team to alert that the convicts were making their way on foot. They also proved to be key members of the long manhunt by helping the authorities to narrow the field—with or without the pepper. 

Photo iStock

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.