Dogs in Drug Detection

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In 1970, the U.S. Customs Service faced a shrinking inspectional staff, a flood of illegal Narcotics, and an increasing load of vehicles and passengers entering the United States. In that same year a manager in the U.S. Customs Service thought that dogs could be used to detect illegal narcotics. The manager's name has been lost in the corporate history of the Customs Service, yet years later not only are dogs used to detect narcotics but also currency, weapons, explosives, fruits, and meats. Dogs could be trained to detect anything that produces an odor. Although the idea of narcotic detector dogs originated in the U.S. Customs Service, Customs' managers had to go to the U.S. Air Force for the technical expertisenot in narcotic detection, because it did not exist, but dog training in general. The air force loaned the Customs Service five instructors to develop the program. Those instructors, using the age-old method of trial and error, developed a training method for narcotic detection that was still used in the 1990s. Through the years, several key aspects of the training program were identified and became the basis for a very successful programdog selection; development of a conditioned response; and odor integrity.

It became evident that to make the training program successful the instructors had to start with a dog that displayed certain natural traits. Those traits were retrieval motivation and self-confidence. The instructors soon realized that a dog displaying a natural desire to retrieve was the easiest to condition for response to the narcotic odor. They used the retrieval method just as the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) used a bell: In Pavlov's experiments, he had observed that dogs salivate when food is placed in their mouths. He would give the dogs food while providing another stimulus such as a bell ringing. After a few repetitions, the dogs would salivate when they heard the bell ringeven without the food being present. The dogs had learned to associate the bell ringing with food. This response was called a conditioned response.

The Customs' instructors used a similar method to create a conditioned response to a drug odor. A dog was subjected to a series of retrieval exercises with a specific drug's odor. After each retrieval, the dog played a game of tug-of-war with its handler and would receive physical praise. The dog soon associated the specific drug odor with the game and the physical praise.

Using the dogs' natural desire to retrieve as a selection criterion limited the number of breeds that could be considered for this type of training. It was obvious that most of the sporting breeds fit this criteriongolden retrievers; Labrador retrievers; German short-hair retrievers; and mixed breeds of these types. They have had the retrieval drive bred into them over the centuries. In addition, these breeds predominated in the dog shelters and humane societies used by U.S. Customs as the primary source for its dog procurement, which has not only benefited the Customs' program but the local dog shelters too. Local shelters must by law destroy stray dogs after a certain time period if no one selects or adopts the dog. The Customs' instructors select dogs scheduled to be put to sleep.

The Customs' training method is based on the natural behavior of these retriever breeds of dogs. By using a dog's natural behavior, the instructors can adjust certain aspects of their training program to deal with the individual personality of each dog. Although each dog that entered the training program possessed the same basic qualifications, each then displayed them in varying degrees of intensity because of personality differences.

During the training process, the other aspect of the program that ensured success has been maintaining the integrity of the narcotic odor. During the development of the training program there were several incidents when the detector dog would respond to nondrug odors. In those incidents a common factor was identified: The nondrug odor was present in the training program. To the dog, the materials that were used in the scent-association process (a process by which the dog identifies the narcotic odor with the tug-of-war game) combined with the drug odor represented a completely different odor picture (a combination of odors that the dog associates with a positive reward). This situation became apparent when the drug was separated from the other materials; the dog would not respond to it alone or would display a considerable amount of confusion when confronted with it. This problem was eliminated by ensuring that all materials used in the training process smelled like the specific drug in question.

In summary, the key factors in narcotic detector-dog training is (1) dog selection; (2) development of a conditioned response; and (3) the integrity of the narcotic odor. This information is a very small segment of the overall training methodology. Further information about this type of dog training can be obtained through the U.S. Customs Service's Office of Canine Enforcement Programs, Washington, D.C.

(See also: Drug Interdiction )


U.S. Customs Service (1978). Detector dog training manual. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Carl A. Newcombe