Drugs dog reliability being questioned

Several recent studies have cast doubts on the reliability of drugs search dogs.

One study even questions if the dogs can actually find drugs at all. I think the issue here is to understand what the limitations of these dogs is and many of the issues are training issues.

Dogs can detect and indicate the presence of drugs (or any other scent for that matter). This isn’t the real issue.

Problems arise in training in that it is impossible to determine just how much scent is available to the dog at any given hide. Although drugs may only be used within certain weight limits both upper and lower, this doesn’t necessarily equate to the scent available depending on air flow, packaging etc.

So the problem comes when the dog starts to generalize and indicate smaller and smaller scent patterns. How do you know when the dog is indicating on the sparse scent of a well wrapped ounce or the sparse scent from a trace element?

Another issue is that of false positives. We all know handlers can influence their dogs, they look to us for guidance all the time. The problems can arise when a dog starts to rely on the handler, often when things get difficult or confusing during initial training. The things the handler does to assist the dog can become false cues in future if you are not careful.

A lot of problems that I see develop around the indication and reward phase. Clicker training overcomes a lot of the problems as it makes life clearer for the dog at this critical phase. The other benefit of clicker training is that because to use it effectively you need to keep improving your knowledge of theory and practical application. This makes you aware  not only of the presence of false cues but the knowledge that they are a fact of life and overcoming them is part of the process.

This will then produce a dog that is a lot more self-reliant and looks to its handler less for guidance. Once past the initial training phase, it is also beneficial to avoid the temptation for handlers to keep putting their own drugs out for a quick training session. The less you know, the less you can help the dog and so the risks of the dog picking up on your unconscious clues will be reduced.

Another way is to leave the dog in the indication position and recover the hide. This eliminates the risk of rewarding false indications, especially operationally. You can check out one of the many stories here http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/01/06/false-positives-police-canines-searches/

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