How Do Detection Dogs Find Drugs?

How Do Detection Dogs Find Drugs?

We’ve become so accustomed to seeing it in the news these days, that it could be easy to be desensitized to it. Yet it remains a remarkable fact that K9 teams across the nation can harness the natural ability of exceptional dogs to locate illegal substances. Just take a look at these recent, newsworthy examples:

  • Greensboro residents face drug, weapons charges after traffic stop
    “After speaking with the two passengers, the deputies utilized K-9 Bosco to perform a walk-around of the vehicle. Bosco gave a positive indication to the presence of odor of illegal narcotics inside the vehicle, Campbell said.

    During a search of the vehicle, deputies located 16.2 grams of cocaine, 21.3 grams of crystal methamphetamine, and 10 grams of marijuana.”
  • Virginia man arrested with 300 grams of methamphetamine in Statesville
    “The deputies called in for a canine unit for further investigation. Deputy M. Hicks and his canine arrived, and conducted a walk-around of the vehicle. The canine gave a positive indication for the presence of illegal drugs in the vehicle…a search of the vehicle uncovered more than 300 grams of methamphetamine.”
  • Sheriff: Crystal meth, crack cocaine found; two arrested
    “The two told deputies they were traveling to West Virginia to go to a casino, but inconsistencies in their stories and travel plans, prompted the use of a canine to search the vehicle.

    [K-9] Bosco alerted for the presence of illegal narcotics and a further search uncovered 907 grams of crystal methamphetamine in the driver’s floorboard and 41.2 grams of crack cocaine on Tartt.”

We are privileged to be in a position at Highland Canine to be able to pass on our knowledge and expertise to K9 teams across the United States (and beyond). Removing these harmful substances from our streets plays a vital role in keeping our communities safe.

But have you ever wondered precisely how detection dogs go about finding these substances? In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the history of narcotics detection dogs – and explain how these incredible working dogs are able to locate these substances and make such a difference in communities up and down the land.

narcotics detection searching car

When were narcotics detection dogs first used?

Dogs have been utilized by humans for thousands of years for various jobs, from hunting to herding. More recently, dogs have been used by law enforcement for a number of purposes, including narcotics detection. Narcotics detection dogs were first utilized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with a focus on improving their training to improve reliability in identifying substances such as heroin, marijuana and cocaine. 

Over the years, as we have started to understand more about how a dog’s nose works – and how odor works – the training methods continue to become more reliable and detection dogs more dependable.

drug detection dog inside school

Explaining how odor works

The first thing to consider when thinking about detection dogs is understanding that they are not trained to locate drugs themselves. They are actually trained to locate the odor of drugs, and usually rewarded with a favorite toy at the source of the odor. To truly understand how the dog is working to locate the odor, we need to take a step back and understand how odor works.

The first thing to know about odor is that it spreads. How fast, and how far, the odor will spread can depend on many things – for example, the quantity of the substance, or the environment in which the odor is present.

Think about it like this – if cookies are put in the oven to bake, it will usually be several minutes before anyone present in the kitchen can smell them. It will take several more minutes before they can be detected in a different room. However, the longer they are baked, the more odors are produced. These odors then have the opportunity to spread throughout the home. 

The cookie analogy also applies to narcotics – or any substance, for that matter. As the odor spreads from the substance, it will seep through any vehicles, bags or barriers. Even objects and containers that are advertised as airtight have microscopic holes and pores that odor will leak out of given enough time. This spreading of odor is the reason dogs are able to locate odor even buried deep inside of vehicles, wrapped in layers of plastic, or deep inside buildings.

drug detection dog in training

Working the scent cloud

The area that the odor is spread to is referred to a scent cloud. Once there is odor produced, a well-trained dog is going to use the scent cloud to get to the source of the odor or where the production of odor is the strongest. Detection dogs do this by figuring out where odor stops or gets weaker, rather than simply following one steady stream of odor. This is because as the scent cloud expands from its source, the odor will move in several different directions. How it moves will vary depending on the environment.

As the dog works the scent cloud, they will oftentimes move quickly back and forth over the source, narrowing down where the odor is coming from. This behavior is called bracketing. Because of the need to work through and eliminate where odor stops or gets weaker, detection dogs often have a harder time locating hides that have been sitting out for a long time. With time and consistent training, dogs become faster at working scent clouds, even with lots of odor to work through.

Using these scent clouds, narcotics detection dogs are able to locate odor anywhere. The scent cloud expanding will push its way through all types of confinements and masking odors, making working dogs the most reliable way to know for certain if narcotics are contained inside of a vehicle, storage area, house or any other area. 

And that – simply – is how detection dogs find drugs!

belgian malinois drug detection dog
Why Are Labrador Retrievers Used As Working Dogs?

Why Are Labrador Retrievers Used As Working Dogs?

Labrador Retrievers are one of the most common “family dogs” available today. According to the AKC, labs are the most popular dog breed in the United States, and Google Trends analysis shows that they are the third most popular dog breed in the entire world. This is all for good reason; Labrador Retrievers are typically social, human-oriented dogs with a stable temperament and good biddability (easy to train).

Labs originated in Newfoundland as far back as the 1500s, and were originally bred to serve as a smaller version of the Newfoundland dog. They eventually were used for hunting, and through refined breeding systems became an excellent retriever and waterdog. Their popularity increased in the 1800s, where they were imported to several nations throughout the world to be used as bird (typically waterfowl) retrievers.

Labs possess a thick double coat making them very tolerant in varying weather conditions and temperatures. Their webbed feet make them excellent swimmers while their naturally athletic build enables them to be successful in a variety of conditions and disciplines. In modern days, Labrador Retrievers are a very popular choice for several working disciplines including service dog work, police work, search and rescue and therapy dog training.

A well selected Lab can be an excellent working dog choice. Whether they are serving as a single purpose K9, a bed bug detection dog, HRD or conservation detection work, these dogs are capable of excelling in a variety of disciplines. There are several reasons why Labs can make top-notch working dogs, and most of these quality characteristics are ingrained in them as a breed. In this article, we’ll look at just a few reasons why a Labrador would make a great choice for your next working dog!

labrador detection dog

1) Labs possess an innate desire to interact with their handler.

One reason why Labradors can make such successful working dogs is because of their naturally playful disposition and strong desire to interact with their handler. Because they are bred to retrieve fowl, retrieving – or playing fetch – can quickly become their favorite game. This play drive can be easily utilized as a reward system, and the potential for a game of fetch can become a strong motivator when trying to get your dog to work harder. A well selected Lab from quality working lines will naturally possess a strong desire to hunt for a toy while working with their handler.

2) Labs have a very strong desire to hunt.

As mentioned previously, Labradors are hunting dogs. They are bred to search for a target, retrieve it and return it to their handler. This characteristic is why they can make excellent detection and trailing/air scent dogs. When channeled and developed, this drive to search and find allows them to become a dedicated, focused, enthusiastic worker. They also are very naturally motivated by using their strong olfactory system. This being said, their soft bite – typical of a bird retrieval dog – and friendly temperament does not make them a good candidate for patrol work.

3) Labs do not naturally possess a threatening physique.

Labradors naturally have a warm, friendly and non-threatening appearance. Even in the movies, most of the “cute, fluffy” little golden puppies that we see given as Christmas gifts are either Labrador Retrievers or Golden Retrievers. Society has become very comfortable with them, and this can actually be very beneficial for detection and search work. They are easy to use in public settings without generating fear or concern, and can even be used in demonstrations and public interactions. Labs are typically less sensitive and high strung than many “pointy eared” working breeds, making them generally easier to handle and interact with, both for their handlers and the public.

4) A well-bred Lab is a workaholic.

Labs are bred to work, and this is highly beneficial when selecting a working dog breed. Because they have become such popular family dogs, breeding for certain working qualities has diminished in favor of creating calm, easygoing pets. As with most breeds, there are pet dog breeders, conformation line breeders, sport dog breeders and working dog breeders. It is absolutely critical to find a quality working line breeder or distributor who focuses on maximizing a Lab’s natural working qualities instead of dampening them down in favor of creating a pet.

labrador in grass imprinted for detection work

5) Fit Labs have great natural stamina.

Labs are naturally sturdy, hardy, muscular dogs with a medium to large build. This is perfect when a handler needs a dog who is capable of working hours in varying terrain and weather conditions. If correctly cared for and exercised, a good working line Lab can enthusiastically hunt for ages without tiring.

6) Labs are social and typically possess good natural temperaments.

Some common working breeds, such as German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Doberman Pinchers, and many herding dogs (border collies, heelers, cattle dogs, etc.) possess a naturally cautious temperament and should be heavily socialized from an early age to ensure that they remain friendly towards humans and other animals. These breeds can be sensitive, prone to guarding behaviors, or uncomfortable with unfamiliar stimuli. Labs, on the other hand, generally possess a much friendlier and social demeanor, as well as a highly inquisitive nature. They are typically more environmentally stable and can easily cope with adversity and bounce back quickly from environmental spooks.

labrador indicating at odor

When seeking a quality detection dog candidate, the key characteristic to look for in a working lab is the desire to hunt for a toy that they cannot see. If the dog is willing to search for a toy, especially in the hopes of playing with their handler afterwards, they will be willing to seek out target odor for the same reason. This test can be conducted by throwing a toy into long grass or a woods line where the toy is not clearly visible. Hold the dog back by the collar or on a leash for a few moments to provide the opportunity for them to lose track of the toy’s exact location. Afterwards, let the dog go and see how long they are willing to search for the toy in order to retrieve it. A well selected dog will hunt to the point of complete exhaustion or until the toy is located. This natural drive can easily be shaped into trailing, air scent, or any form of detection through proper training.   

Labrador retrievers can make wonderful working dogs for a variety of disciplines. From search and rescue to explosives detection, with proper selection and training these dogs can be a fantastic working dog choice for any agency.

How To Identify A Change Of Behavior (COB) In Your Detection Dog

How To Identify A Change Of Behavior (COB) In Your Detection Dog

Many detection dog handlers watch almost exclusively for one thing when they are working their dog: the indication, or TFR (trained final response). It is critical to know when your K9 has identified a target odor source, and where exactly that source is located, but many factors can interfere with a dog performing their final response. 

Occasionally, a K9 will be confronted with significantly more or less odor than they have been trained on, or there may be other environmental factors (such as target odor placement, air movement, etc.) that can cause them to not provide their handler a TFR. In the presence of a trained target odor – even if conditions may not be ideal – a detection dog will demonstrate what’s called a “change of behavior (COB).” At its most basic form, this means that a dog’s body language will change once it goes into odor, which typically always happens just prior to the performance of their trained final response. 

It is not only important to recognize your dog’s change of behavior in case they go into odor but do not indicate (this may signify the presence of residual odor, or that target odor is there but something is interfering with the K9’s ability to identify the exact location), but also in case a K9 “falses” (where they display their final indication but no target odor is present). 

Why this matters for you

In order to be the most effective detection dog handler possible, it is critical to understand the importance of identifying a COB, or that moment when your dog goes into odor (and what is occurring during that time). It is more critical, however, to be able to recognize the moment that it happens and how long they are in odor for. Being able to identify the moment that your K9 goes into odor will allow you to mark that your dog showed interest in that specific area (in case you re-run them, send another K9 through or send a human team in to analyze the area in more detail). It will also communicate that there is, or was, something of interest there but something is interfering with the K9s ability to target the exact location of source. 

By being able to read your dog’s change of behavior, you will know with 100% certainty that your dog is indicating on target odor, and you will be able recognize exactly where the odor is coming from. Not only will this assist you directly during deployments, but will make your dog’s indication irrefutable in court.

Differences in Detection Dogs

Every detection dog works differently, and changes of behavior will vary from one K9 to another. There are certain behaviors, however, that most dogs will display to varying levels when in the presence of target odor. In order to understand these behaviors, it is important to first understand the basics of how odor works and moves. 

Odor molecules move similarly to smoke, as they move with air currents and pool in closed off areas just like smoke does. During handler school, we demonstrate this using smoke bombs and cars: the smoke bomb fills the car and is emitted through the seams of the vehicle. The smoke leaking out is then carried in various directions by the wind. 

Odor molecules behave in a similar manner, and this provides detection dogs with a way to locate where odor is coming from. Even though they cannot see how odor moves, they do smell it and move their bodies in such a way that allows them to trail odor to the source’s scent cloud. As handlers, we can read the dog’s behavior as they work detection problems to paint a picture of what odor is doing in a particular area or detection scenario.

detection dog indicating on box

Common Behavioral Changes In Your Detection Dog

Although working styles differ from one detection dog to another, there are certain key body language signals that a majority of K9s will display once in odor. As a handler, these signals are critical to watch out for when working your dog:

  • Head turn
    A head turn occurs when a dog hits the edge of target odor, and consequently “snaps” its head in that direction. This is also known as a “positive indication.”

    When any item sits in one place for a length of time, including target odor sources, it will create a scent cloud (or a cloud of scent that moves outward, with the most condensed odor being the source itself). Trained detection dogs are capable of recognizing a scent cloud before they actually locate its source. When a K9 comes in contact with the perimeter of a scent cloud, it will snap its head in the direction of the odor, and will typically begin to enthusiastically follow the scent. Many dogs almost appear to hit an invisible wall as they quickly change directions.
  • Bracketing
    Bracketing occurs when a dog moves back and forth through the perimeters of a scent cloud. Dogs are capable of detecting the exact moment when no more target odor is present, so by working the cloud in this zig-zagging motion, they can narrow in on the exact location of the highest scent concentration: the source.

    A handler can identify bracketing by the distinctive zig-zagging motion that their dog begins to display, followed by numerous head snaps in the opposite direction once the dog hits odor’s perimeter. Oftentimes, a dog will bracket a scent cloud back and forth, making motions increasingly smaller until they identify the exact location of source.
  • Breathing
    Usually when a dog is working, their breathing will change when they begin searching, change again when they go into odor, and then change once more once they have identified the location of source. Many dogs begin searching by displaying active sniffing. When they enter the presence of target odor, they begin breathing louder, faster and more frantically. Once they finally locate source, most dogs breathing will slow drastically, or even stop entirely.

    To figure out what your detection dog sounds like when they are working and enter into odor, work then in a quiet area (you can even turn lights off so you don’t get distracted by their movements) and listen to their breathing pattern. Breathing patterns can be an extremely important clue as to where odor is and where it is not.
  • Individual changes in behavior
    Like humans, every dog is an individual and will provide their own unique body cues when in odor. Dogs will typically display the same pattern of cues, or similar cues each time they are in odor, so by paying attention to your dog’s unique working pattern you will learn to identify it immediately. Watch for the manner in which your dog positions their ears and tail while searching or indicating. Some dogs will even begin walking differently or changing their posture when in the presence of odor.

    By taking notice of these idiosyncrasies, reading a detection dog becomes significantly easier. Many times, recognizing these details is what makes reading a dog undeniable, and a handler’s credibility is increased considerably when they can articulate these patterns. Recognizing these cues are easier when you pay attention to one area of a dog at a time while running them rather than trying to watch their body working as a whole. For example, you can choose to focus on their ears in one session, tail in the next, sniffing pattern in the next and then back legs in the next. Taking video footage of your dog working and then studying it afterwards may help as well.
detection dog indicating on box

In Conclusion

There are many cues for handlers and trainers to look for when working detection dogs. Many of them are similar from one dog to another, but paying close attention to an individual dog will enable you to quickly recognize their specific working style and pattern. If you are curious about different types of detection dog patterns, watch other teams work. What do the dogs do? At what point do they begin to bracket or demonstrate a head turn? What does their breathing sound like while they are working? 

Handlers capable of effectively reading their dog can not only confidently call hides vs blanks, but are also able of articulating their dog’s cues in real world scenarios. Reading your detection dog can become very straightforward if you take the time to look for the cues listed in this article and understand when they occur and why.

Why Is The Belgian Malinois Used As A Police & Military Working Dog?

Why Is The Belgian Malinois Used As A Police & Military Working Dog?

The American Kennel Club defines the Belgian Malinois with three simple words – confident, smart, and hardworking. Though there is so much more to this astounding breed, no three words better embody the spirit and determination of these working machines. 

From their agility and strength, to their unrivaled devotion and boldness, it is no surprise this breed has become a top choice for police and military efforts throughout the world.

The history of the Belgian Malinois

To understand why the Belgian Malinois has such an amazing reputation as an unparalleled working dog, it is important to take a look at the breed’s history. 

Developed as a herding breed in Malines, Belgium, this diligent breed also proved to be useful in the protection of farm and family. By breeding with an emphasis on performance as opposed to looks, the success of the Malinois quickly skyrocketed into one of the most sought after breeds for working purposes. Due to its versatility, new career paths quickly opened to the Malinois. World War II introduced this breed to military use – mainly hired as border patrol, cart haulers and message runners.

This was just the beginning. Throughout the following decades, the Belgian Malinois gained further popularity in working fields. It was introduced to the United States around 1911, with five ‘Belgian herding dogs’ being employed as Police K9s by the New York City Police Department. The Belgian Malinois was officially recognized by the AKC in 1959.

In the 1960s, the use of the Malinois spread across the country like wildfire. Mals became the preferred breed for police and military matters, though the public often misjudged the breed as a German Shepherd. In recent years, however, the name and presence of the Belgian Malinois has started to shine even brighter.

belgian malinois detection dog

Two Examples Of Heroic MalS

When the need for a military dog arose during the siege of Osama bin Laden’s compound, it’s no shock to hear that the first choice was an eager Belgian Malinois named Cairo. Prior to this famous mission, Cairo had experienced other difficult assignments, including being shot during one operation. The incident put Cairo in serious condition with injuries that may have ended the careers of other dogs. However, the tremendous work ethic of the Belgian Malinois and the drive to continue that work put Cairo back in no time.

Cairo is just one example of the successful use of this breed in working fields. With the Belgian Malinois employed by police and military forces throughout the world, it’s not hard to find a plethora of other examples as well. 

Utilized by the Los Angeles Police Department, a fierce Malinois named Edo became a hero due to his assistance in armed suspect seizures. 

During the disasters of the 7.1 earthquake in Mexico City and the destructive mudslides of Montecito, Diva the Malinois effectively saved countless lives as a dedicated urban search and rescue dog

Strong and agile - THE ideal working dog

The flexibility and intense drive of the Belgian Malinois easily proves its usefulness for these purposes. But other than that, what exactly makes this breed such a staple for police departments and military efforts?

With its sturdy frame and formidable build, this powerhouse of a dog can easily take on the most demanding of tasks. Physically, this breed is built for work. The perfect combination of strength, agility, and stamina allows the Belgian Malinois to conquer challenges humans can only dream of, making it an ideal partner in these intensive fields. 

As a police K9 or military working dog, the Malinois is able to launch through car windows to apprehend suspects, track down individuals through difficult and extreme environments, and even leap from aircrafts to parachute into challenging situations.

drug detection dog belgian malinois

Police and military work takes more than physical strength though, and that’s where the unique mentality of the Belgian Malinois comes in. Loyalty, protectiveness, and eagerness – backed by an incessant desire to work – creates an unstoppable machine when paired with its physical capabilities. Their alert nature and enthusiastic willingness to do anything makes the Malinois an extraordinary partner in even the most difficult of conditions.

In Summary

With all of this going for the Belgian Malinois, it’s easy to see why this breed is a top tier asset for police departments and military forces throughout the world. 

Although the Malinois is a powerhouse of a dog, its skills and talents must be shaped by intensive training in order to create the amazing working canine the world has come to rely on. At Highland Canine Training, our background gives us a personal understanding of the challenges our police officers and military personnel face everyday. In order to craft the perfect canine partner, our training reflects real life scenarios and training techniques that canine handlers will be using in the field. This ensures the Belgian Malinois working dog is equipped with not only the resources it needs for the job but also the experience to successfully fulfill the tasks required of it on the job. 

The natural ability of a Mal makes them the ideal candidates to be trained to perform any type of odor detection in stressful environments, in addition to reliable apprehension skills without hesitation in the harshest situations. With a properly trained Belgian Malinois on your side, nothing can stand in your way.