#JeSuisChien was a trending hashtag on Twitter for a considerable part of the day on November 18, 2015. This show of solidarity was specifically in memory of Diesel, a 7 year-old police dog who was killed by a suicide bomber during a police raid aimed at finding Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the terrorists behind the Paris attacks.
Diesel was highly decorated with service medals that stood as a testament to her bravery and heroism on similar operations. In tribute to her, and all other service dogs, we’re proud to recount how man’s best friends put themselves on the line for us everyday.
— Jasmien DS (@McMieny) November 18, 2015
Odours and Orwell: intrusive surveillance or legitimate security?
It’s therefore not surprising that detection dogs are used by police, government and armed forces throughout the world to everything from missing firearms to concealed drugs. The police use dogs primarily to indicate the presence of drugs, using dogs to sniff the air as individuals walk past. There is in interesting body of thought as to whether this amounts to intrusive surveillance by the state or not. In the UK, at least, the prevailing opinion appears to be that it doesn’t. However, Australia has strict laws on the usage of sniffer dogs.
The UK Border Agency regulates, appropriately, the flow of people and objects at the UK’s border. They have used dogs to protect against smuggling since 1978, and have 67 operational dogs. They are trained to search for objects as extensive as cash, tobacco, illegal animal based products and even people.
On the scent: tracking down evidence.
Common to both agencies, however, is the usage of the dogs to indicate whether illicit substances are present. From then on, it’s up to humans to search, seize and investigate. Just what kinds of things are these very talented dogs looking for? Here’s a quick breakdown.
1. Illegal drugs.
That sniffer drugs are used to indicate drugs is old news. What may come as a shock to you is how fallible they actually are. A New South Wales Privacy Ombudsman report indicated that 74% of individuals searched after a detection dog had indicated they may be in possession of narcotics weren’t carrying anything. One of the problems with using dogs to search is that, if individuals have been near drugs recently, the scent can linger on them and may provoke searches by police. This is, of course, controversial if used arbitrarily.
This is a clever, and recent, development in the use of search dogs. Dogs can actually sniff out the scent of cash. So what’s the problem with carrying money on your person? Individuals passing through borders have limits on the amount of cash they can carry to prevent money laundering. A large amount of cash with no discernible means of earning it is a reliable indication of a criminal lifestyle, and may constitute an offence.
3. Concealed weapons and firearms.
Dogs can be trained to sniff out ammunition, and guns themselves, from the distinctive odour they produce. For dogs, the smell of gunpowder is particularly noticeable. Springer Spaniels are particularly useful in finding guns, due to their keen sense of smell, and well-known enthusiasm! Labradors are also utilised largely due to their ability to retrieve.
Detection dogs can locate the scent of explosive residue fairly easily. They are put through their paces in this regard on an intensive eight-week course with the Metropolitan Police, in preparation for detecting explosive devices before they erupt.
Much has been made, anecdotally at least, about a dogs ability to “smell guilt”! Scientists believe that our unique odour is due to a group of genes on the surface of T-cells, which are critical to the immune system. Some handlers state that the dogs can smell the fear emitted by the guilty and indeed, a synthesised version of the “smell of fear” is available as a training aid.
German police are even believed to have collected odours from political activists to identify those who may be likely to attend protests and other jurisdictions have used such smells to similar effects.
Although all this is interesting, its validity is hotly debated amongst the scientific community. And it raises serious and controversial debates about state “snooping”, intrusiveness and where the line should be drawn when it comes to surveillance. Is the use of dogs to sniff commuters for cannabis in a public place more legitimate than using thermal imaging over individuals houses to detect potential cannabis factories? We don’t pretend to have the answers to this, but the debate is certainly interesting.
The use of dogs, however, is not without its drawbacks as we have seen – both in the exercise of powers by the state and the accuracy of the results provided. Still, the usage of dogs works so well (particularly as a deterrent) — so they are unlikely to go away any time soon.
Your Turn: Have any compelling stories about your bloodhound? Rover ever sniffed out anything truly remarkable? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.