Teaching Old Dogs Bad Tricks

I read that TSA is having a problem with their 77 million dollar canine program in detecting explosives.  It should come as no surprise; dog handlers have track records for training the dogs to become lazy.

When I was working US Customs in Thailand, I decided that I wanted to test the effectiveness of our canine team at the airport.  I watched as the dog handler hide his training aids and listened to the sound of his voice when the dog neared one of those aids.  It was clear that not only was he leaving his scent on the training aid, he was also giving the dog verbal clues as to when to alert on the substance.

The only way for me to test my theory was to empty the amnesty  box in the bathroom and use the drugs that I found there as my own training aids.  I hid the drugs among the luggage and even hinted my suspicions to the dog handler of making a find.  I watched the team work and I even pointed out some “suspicious” bags.  Nothing!

When they were done, I asked the dog handler to come over as I removed the drugs from the various bags.  I pointed out to him that he ruined a perfectly good working dog for the US Air Force.

The problem with training dogs is to not to “trick” them into finding the drugs.  It is also important to not present them with a threshold.  When you use the same amount of drugs time after time, the dog becomes trained to that threshold amount and will possibly not alert to drug amounts below or above that threshold.  When training our dogs on the Mexican Border, we usually carried around baggies of marijuana for training the dogs; but, we would roll joints and check out kilos of marijuana to vary the training.  In case if you are wondering, we found an Officer working for Border Control who would roll our joints and place them in a container away from our scent.

In true training exercises, it is important to vary the amount of the substance and never, never get your own scent on the training aides.

TSA screwed up a perfectly good system of using dogs by not having someone doublechecking the dog’s abilities.  That task is usually performed by the dog handler and he/she is just going to screw the dog up.

Because of the extra work that we performed with our dogs on the Border, we would consistently find everything from a roach to hundreds of kilos.  Once, wanting to test my dog’s abilities, DEA called me in to search a car.  I was getting readings all over the place with my dog.  Since it is odd for DEA to use our dogs, I figured out that they had already found the heron and had sat it down in various places within the car.  You have to keep in mind that the dog is not looking for the drug itself, it is looking for the smell of the drug.  Each time the drug was moved, the smell remained.

Tracking dogs work in the same manner.  The first thing that a dog senses is a disturbance.  When my dog was running too fast around a car, I would reach over and rub a finger against the car.  The second time around the car, the dog would detect that disturbance and slow down his search.  That is why it was so difficult for my dog to search the vehicle for DEA when  they had disturbed the hell out of the vehicle by having their officers crawling all over it.

The disturbance causes the dog to use his (we mostly worked with male dogs) senses to better understand the disturbance.  If presented with an article of clothing, the dog would reference each disturbance that he came across against that of the clothing.  Thus, being able to track the line of disturbances to whoever or whatever you were looking for.

The most effective way to utilize a dog, is to allow the dog to work down wind of the object you are seeking.  It is easiest to work a dog outdoors, where you can feel the wind; but, indoors air flow works the same way.  Even though we didn’t smoke, we would carry a cigarette with us into a building to watch the air currents.  Air conditioning systems really cause air to move in funny ways.

TSA dog handlers need to constantly watch air currents as well as distractions; movement and noise around the dog can easily distract him.  When a dog becomes distracted the handler has to have enough sense to take the dog back over the area when he became distracted.

Using dogs is a good idea.  I hope TSA can better figure out how to use them properly.