Detection dogs have been used since World War II and can be trained to detect anything from bed bugs to blood to drugs and explosives. Although scientists have studied dogs’ super-sensitive snouts for ages, there is still no clear answer as to how they can sniff out trace amounts of a certain chemical, even when it is masked by other smells. One thing is clear, though: they have to be properly trained to be useful in security operations. But what does it mean to be properly trained?
Currently, there are a variety of government programs—including those run by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the U.S. Department of Defense, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection—as well as programs run by private companies specializing in certain fields of detection. In many programs, especially law enforcement and federal programs, handler/dog teams must complete a certain number of training hours and pass tests to be certified to enter the workforce.
However, there is no standard that the tests or certifications must meet, which can make the requirements behind certifications seem arbitrary, says Ken Furton, dean of the arts and sciences program and director emeritus of the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University.
For example, one certification might require 100 hours of training with a 75-percent pass rate on a double-blind detection test, where neither the handler nor the dog knows where the substances are placed. The other certification could be for 240 hours of training and a 90-percent pass rate in a test where the handler does know where the targets are.
The Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines (SWGDOG), founded in 2005, has been trying to address the problem by putting forth a set of best practices based on scientific research and feedback from experts in the field, says Furton, who also serves as chairman of SWGDOG.