To sniff or not to sniff? That is the question.

2013-07-19 09:45

No, this is nothing about lines of cocaine, so if that is your interest you’re going to be disappointed.

Since my last submissions have addressed the law and animals, I thought I’d continue with the same theme. But, this time, allow me to reflect on Man’s best-friend and changes in legislation. And how altering the law can sometimes have unexpected consequences.

Dogs have shown themselves to sometimes be a police officer or border control officer’s favoured companion. When I first joined the Police, forty years ago, most of our dogs were German shepherds and their primary aim was to track criminals or missing persons. Over the years, other breeds were employed that had noses that could better-identify hidden narcotics or explosives. One now regularly comes across Labradors, Spaniels or Beagles, but they are solely for detection purposes and cannot track or bring down a criminal in the way that an Alsatian will.

Detector dogs are used every day in the war against wildlife crime. The Kenya Wildlife Service, for instance, has dogs trained to detect elephant tusks, which poachers sometimes bury in the immediate aftermath of illegal killing, intending to return for them later. Other sniffer dogs are used at air and sea ports, or at mail centres, to screen baggage and parcels for a range of animals and plants and products made from them.

A colleague of mine, a dog handler, had an interesting experience one day several years ago, whilst working her dog along the baggage reclaim carousel of a major airport in the USA. Dogs have incredible olfactory powers and can be trained to react to a wide range of scents. They can even, for example, distinguish between real and fake gem stones. Several airports now have dogs that are there to combat money-laundering and currency-control avoidance and will respond to any passenger carrying large quantities of banknotes. But this particular dog was trained for wildlife and reacted to one of the suitcases passing by. The dog handler also reacted when the female owner of the baggage retrieved it; asking the lady to accompany her to a nearby interview room. She also summoned a colleague to join her. Describing and explaining the dog’s reaction, she asked the traveller if she objected to her bag being inspected. She was told to feel free to do so.

As she looked through what appeared to be the usual suitcase contents of someone who had just come off a long-haul flight, the handler was also thinking about the passenger. She was well-dressed and the clothing inside the luggage was also of high-quality. Her toiletries, too, were all of leading brands. The ‘suspect’ looked more like a wealthy jet-setter than a smuggler. Her face looked vaguely familiar too. Having a flash of inspiration, the handler asked if the bag contained any caviar, as that was one form of wildlife the dog was trained to detect. She was told it did not. Finally, the bag was empty and no contraband had been found. Puzzled, she received the woman’s agreement to the dog being tested again.

They re-packed the bag, returned to the reclaim area, and placed the case on another baggage-laden carousel. The dog was set along the conveyer belt once more and, once more, alerted on the very same suitcase. So sure did the dog seem to be, its handler was also convinced something was concealed within. The owner was told the bag would be x-rayed and, although she didn’t object, the two law enforcement officials could see that she was becoming impatient. They returned the lady to the interview room and headed for a nearby x-ray scanner. “You know who that is, don’t you?” asked the handler’s colleague and went on to say the name of one of the world’s leading professional tennis stars of the time. Now the handler realized why the passenger’s face was familiar.

The x-rays failed to disclose any hidden compartments. So, they went back to the interview room and, once again, rummaged through the case contents.

At this point, I should maybe explain how detector dogs are trained. A significant part of the process is based upon a ‘reward’. When the dog sniffs out what is being sought after, it gets a prize. This may take the form of some type of edible treat but another common form of reward is that is it heaped with praise and the handler engages, for a short time, in some form of play with the dog. This might involve a game with its favourite toy or even just a brief session of chasing a much-loved ball. The latter style of reward, if nothing else, is less fattening. Plus, since the dog is seeking out some object, it helps reinforce the training if an object features in the praise. (Can you see what’s coming?)

As they emptied out the suitcase yet again, the handler and her colleague’s eyes fell upon a number of objects they had set aside, thinking that they weren’t relevant to the search. They were four long, cylindrical plastic containers, each of which held four items, without which the traveller’s working life could not take place. They were looking at 16 examples of what the dog loved, above anything else, to play with – tennis balls!

Fortunately, the professional tennis ace saw the funny side of the incident and all parted happily. This story, demonstrating both the skill of a dog, but also how it can be misled, came to mind the other day, when I was reading about changes in the law.

Dogs play an important role in combating drug trafficking, especially sometimes in determining further searches. In most countries of the world, a Police officer is entitled to stop and search an individual if there are reasonable grounds to suspect the person may be in possession of illegal drugs. The same goes for vehicles. To search premises, such as a house, the Police will, however, usually need to seek a warrant from a judge. “Reasonable grounds” is a phrase that appears in multiple statutes and is one that judges and courts of appeal have pondered over for decades. In the case of a car, immediately-visible clues, like the ends of smoked reefers on the floorwell, or other drug paraphernalia such as syringes and ‘wraps’ in ashtrays or door pockets, have been accepted as providing justification for a vehicle to be searched. So, too, has a trained sniffer dog’s reaction, if it is led around the outside of a car by its handler. One only has to look at the many reality cop programmes on television, showing footage captured by dash-mounted cameras in patrol cars, to witness a dog’s ‘alert’ result in bags of marijuana, heroin and cocaine being removed from the boot or trunk of a car.

However, although the dog can alert its handler to the presence of something it has been trained to detect, it cannot readily differentiate between targets and few dogs ‘alert’ in a different manner to different scents. Usually, that wouldn’t matter. It would be inefficient to train a dog to react to just one form of contraband. Consequently, a currency-detector dog reacts to all major banknotes, whether Euros, Dollars or Pounds, and not simply the Rand. Alternatively, one wants a search dog to respond to all forms of explosive, not just Semtex. Similarly, a dog that reacts to cannabis, but ignores cocaine, isn’t really much use. And this is where a current problem lies.

As readers may know, alongside voting for Obama or Romney, voters in several States of America were recently invited to determine whether the use of cannabis should be legal or not. Some cast their ballot in favour. In Colorado and Washington, for example, the recreational use of cannabis has been legalized. There are, however, restrictions with regard to cultivation, sales and also the amount that can be possessed by an individual.

It seems this legalization has sent some Police agencies in those States, and their dog handlers, into a spin and chasing their own tails. Defence lawyers have intimated that they will, from now on, challenge any ‘alerts’ presented by sniffer dogs (and subsequent searches), on the basis that they may be reacting to a legal substance; cannabis, and that this would no longer justify searching a person or vehicle for narcotics. Some Police and Sheriff’s departments are seemingly examining how practical it may be to re-train their dogs to ignore the scent of cannabis. Others have even spoken of retiring their drugs dogs, as it has been suggested that the dogs cannot be taught to ignore a previously-indoctrinated smell target. Yet more agencies are arguing that an alert by a dog should still be regarded as ‘probable cause’ or ‘reasonable grounds’, since possession of commercial quantities of cannabis remains an offence and dogs react to any presence and have no sense of quantity.

It struck me that this will be a ‘watch this space’ subject, which will no doubt develop over time. And will inevitably lead to much pondering by appeal court judges, complicated further by the fact that some people suggest what these States have done may be contrary to federal narcotic laws affecting the whole of the USA.

And who knows, maybe what has happened in relation to cannabis might also, in times to come, have implications for the dogs which are currently sniffing out various forms of wildlife contraband? Maybe judges will have to paws for thought about that too.

Anyone for tennis?

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