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Teaching All Dogs New Tricks

K-9 units are making use of advances in technology and behavioral psychology to better utilize law enforcement dogs and their handlers.

November 12, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

Since 9/11, law enforcement agencies have been more vigilant about using K-9s to find explosives to thwart terrorist attacks, in addition to aiding in patrol duties and sniffing out narcotics. As the role of the police dog expands, training has taken on more importance, even as economic times threaten the funding for the dogs and their handlers.

"One of the first details that gets its budget cut tends to be the K-9 units," says Andy Jimenez, a former K-9 handler who is now owner and CEO of Falco K9 Academy in Southern California. "The thing that makes that strange is detection dogs actually save man hours, and therefore save the department money. And oftentimes narcotics dogs make departments money. It's an unfortunate situation."

But many agencies are still reaping the benefits of K-9 units, financial and otherwise. And as Jimenez notes, detection is at the top of the list.

The Nose Knows

"It used to be, back in the '60s and '70s, we had dogs because of their teeth. Now we've realized the nose is the most important thing," says Jim Matarese, president of the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA).

Although police departments have been using dogs' noses to sniff out narcotics and explosives for decades, Jimenez says in recent years he's seen an increase in the use of explosive detection dogs by the TSA and Department of Homeland Security as well as police departments with airports and Fed-Ex and UPS hubs in their cities. And those agencies who were already using dogs for detection have upped their training, especially since 9/11. 

"I think a lot of agencies that used to be [more lax] on the detector side realized for maintenance more training needs to be done, at least once a week," says Matarese.

More training requires a steady supply of substances for the dogs to sniff and alert to, which poses certain problems for agencies. Using real drugs and explosive materials requires special licenses, which can be expensive. For this reason some agencies use each other's narcotics and explosives for training purposes. But it can also be a logistical nightmare to safely store these supplies so that they can't cause harm or be stolen, and sharing among agencies complicates matters. 

"In the DC metro area where I live, I see that more departments are getting a bunker to store their own explosives to not rely on another agency to provide training aids," says Matarese.

One solution to these problems is the use of pseudo scents, which mimic the odor of a narcotic or explosive. For example, the hydrogen peroxide-based explosive favored by such terrorists as the "shoe bomber" is extremely unstable, and thus very dangerous to use for training purposes. But K-9s need to know the scent so they can detect it in airports and elsewhere to protect the public.

"Scientists have developed a training aid that has the odor necessary to train the dog, but not the danger. There's no chance of it exploding," explains Jimenez. "It's something that we've needed for several years that they just came up with. We're currently using it in training."

This boon is not without its downside, however. Because pseudo scents are manufactured, they are not going to be exactly the same as a real drug or explosive. In fact, one of the issues with pseudo scents is that they always smell the same, which is great for consistency, but not an accurate portrayal of the full array of scents that can be found in, say, different formulations of cocaine that K-9s need to be able to recognize on the street. Using only simulated odors can be problematic, but even using both for training can pose problems in the courtroom.

"Using Pseudo scents for explosives and narcotics works, but it's a different scent. If you're testifying in court, you'll have to explain this," cautions Russ Hess, USPCA executive director. "It can put doubt in the jury's mind. For example, in court you could be asked, 'Has your K-9 ever alerted to anything else [other than real drugs or explosives]?' And you'd have to say, 'Yes.' It's easier to testify without using simulated scents."

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