Is It Smell or Just a Game?
Video Transcribed: Drug dog myth number four, drug dogs alert to drugs, not handlers. I’m Tulsa Attorney James Wirth.
I’m doing a series of videos related to myths about drug dogs. And this one deals with what they’re actually alerting to. So they are trained to smell narcotics and alert to narcotics, but are they alerting to narcotics or are they alerting to their handlers? This video is regarding cueing and whether the relationship between the handler and the dog can affect how it alerts and when it alerts. So when we’re looking at getting drug dogs, when people are getting drug dogs, there’s a number of factors that they look at. One, obviously you want a dog that has a very acute sense of smell. There are certain breeds that are better for that than others and that’s why they use those breeds. But also it is about the dog’s individual personality and playfulness. How much does the dog like to play?
Because doing these drug dog sniff test searches, is a game for the dog, that the dog likes to play, and having dogs that like to play makes them better drug dogs. But this is a game that has not been played alone. It is a game that is played with the handler and the interaction of the handler. And when the dog alerts, the dog gets a reward. In the field, it’s every time the dog alerts, no matter accuracy or anything because they don’t actually check the accuracy or anything. If there’s an alert in the field, it is considered to be a correct alert whether narcotics are found or not. And the dog gets a reward whether narcotics are found or not. So it incentivizes the dog to alert.
So what is the dog alerting to then? Is the dog alerting to specific smells or is the dog alerting to what the officer believes? What the officer believes about whether there are narcotics in the vehicle and wherein the vehicle to officer believes? So this was actually looked at in the study. Now most of the time different drug dog handlers, and police agencies, do not want their dogs tested. They do, they’re testing when they are certified and then they have them out in the field. They don’t want third parties coming in and testing their accuracy. And like I said, if they have a search where it alerts and nothing is found, they consider that still to be a good alert. There just must have been a trace amount of drugs, nothing that we could find or the dog could smell. They would say there’s no such thing as a false positive.
But there was a study done on this. They did get some of these units in order to participate and there’s a study on that. It’s called Handler Beliefs Affect Scent Detection Dog Outcome by Lisa Whit, Julie Schweitzer, and Anita Oberbauer. And that’s from what looks like December 13th, 2010. And this is an interesting study where they told the handlers of the dogs, they told them falsely that two conditions contained paper marking scent location. And then they also had two conditions where they had decoy scents. Basically, they had food like a sausage or a tennis ball. So they had a space that noted a piece of paper so that the handlers would believe that that is potentially something. And then they had actual scents that were a sausage or a tennis ball to see if the dogs would alert.
So the purpose of the test was to see, the accuracy of the dogs. But two, did they have a tendency to alert more where the officer thought there would be as a scent or to where the dog smelled something that is not narcotics but is something that it would want such as food or a play toy. So they did 225 runs of this. And the secret to this is that there were no actual narcotics throughout the entire thing. So the human handlers were led to believe that this paper marking was something they were supposed to potentially alert on, but in actuality, there was nothing to alert on through the whole thing. Out of 225 runs, the dogs alerted 85% of the time. So 85% of the time, even though it should be 0% of the time.
But the interesting part that they wanted to look at is where the dog alert most. Did it alert where the officer thought that there would be narcotics, the control where there was nothing, or in these spots where the dog would smell something the dog would like to smell? And the number one place where the dogs would alert is where the officers thought there was a smell. So the officer bias affected the dog’s alerts more than the dog’s bias toward getting the tennis ball or the sausage. And 85% of the time they alerted when there was nothing there.
So that begs the question, are dogs alerting based on what they smell or are they alerting based on cues either given intentionally or unintentionally by their handlers that they are playing this game with and intently focused on, in order to win this game in order to get that toy they play with as their reward? So that is the question that we have or the issue that we have on this myth. If you are dealing with a case where you’re being prosecuted based on an alert from a drug dog, that is something that should probably be attacked.
Is it proper that they’re giving probable cause in your case or the grounds to get evidence suppressed based on a violation of your rights? You’re going to want to talk to an Oklahoma criminal defense lawyer privately and confidentially about that. To get that scheduled with somebody at my office, go online to makelaweasy.com.