Canine crime-busters
In the war against drug smugglers, dogs are being used increasingly on the front line, to sniff out shipments hidden in luggage or freight. They have been trained for this purpose by U.S. Customs since 1970.

Today there are about 170 such dogs based at the border points, as well as airports and seaports. The scale of the problem is such that these dogs are currently finding close to $1billion dollars' worth of illegal drugs annually. In fact, some dogs have been so successful that the drug cartels are rumoured to have placed a price on their heads.


The dog's sense of smell is far more highly developed than our own. We have approximately 5 million scent-detecting cells in our noses, whereas dogs may have as many as 220 million. Those with relatively long noses, and broad nostrils have the most acute sense of smell.

Within the brain itself, dogs also have a correspondingly larger area than we do given over to the sensory input from the nose. They can distinguish and recall different odours easily, so that once trained to recognise the scent of drugs, dogs can be highly effective in combating smugglers.

Dogs with a sporting ancestry, such as pointers and retrievers, possessing both a keen sense of smell and the ability to work closely with people, are generally most suited for searching for drugs. Amazingly however, many of the dogs now employed in this work were originally homeless, before being taken on and trained by U.S. Customs.

Those selected for this equal opportunities programme are usually between one and three years old, and need to be in good health. One of the most significant aptitude tests involves bouncing a ball. Those dogs which respond by watching the ball more than the person are most likely to be chosen, having displayed good powers of concentration.

After being selected, a dog is then sent to a training centre and ultimately will be assigned to a handler, who is likely to be going through the course as well. Canine Enforcement Officers may have had previous Customs experience, but this is not essential.

The training process

At first, dogs are trained to find so-called 'soft' drugs such as marijuana. A small quantity of the drug is concealed in a towel, with the dog receiving plenty of praise and an opportunity to play with its handler when it locates the concealed package. By repeating the exercise on numerous occasions, the dog is soon able to find the drugs without the towel.

This initial stage of training takes about six weeks, and after passing a thorough examination, the dog then proceeds to the next stage - searching out hard drugs like heroin. The training becomes progressively more difficult, and not all potential canine recruits will adapt successfully to the task. Those that fail are usually taken off the programme and found homes.

Other scents, typically those which may be used to conceal drugs, are then added to those of the drugs which the dog has become familiar with, so as to encourage the dog to distinguish between them.

Each handler starts with two dogs, with the likelihood being that at least one of the dogs should pass the course successfully. If both dogs shine, then the handler must choose between them. Dog and handler are then assigned to a posting together, and they will stay together as a team for perhaps nine years or so, after which the dog may go to live with its handler in retirement. For its working life however, the dog is kept secure in kennels.

Out on the job

Training sessions carry on even once the dog is working. Often the dog will locate the drug, and in its enthusiasm, police dog at workit may start to tear the packaging apart. Dogs must always be encouraged away at once, having indicated a likely discovery, to avoid causing any damage. This could otherwise alert the smuggler who is waiting to pick up the luggage containing the drugs.

There may be occasions when a dog behaves unusually, and such responses are also investigated. Dogs are never used to search people however, because they will paw and scratch when they locate the scent of drugs. Clearly, this could be a cause for complaint, but at a border crossing point for example, if, having searched a car and found nothing, the dog then appears to show an interest in the occupants who are kept some distance away, they are likely to be subjected to a rigorous Customs search.

Ports are another area where these dogs work, both on board ship, searching for hidden drugs, as well as in containers on the shore. In this case, the dogs can sniff around the sides, and the rear doors are also opened for them. With so much freight now being containerised, and offering great potential for the would-be smuggler, dogs have a particularly critical role to play on the dockside.

Canine insights

A typical seizure at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York reveals the abilities of such dogs. This particular incident involved a black Labrador cross called Mojo, and his handler Sue Rupchis. It was a flight from the Caribbean, with the majority of passengers being returning holiday makers. The dogs are allowed to sniff the luggage as it passes up the carousel, after being unloaded from the vehicle which carries the luggage from the plane.

All the cases are laid flat, and the dog runs over them, with its weight serving to expel air with scent molecules from within the case. On that day, Mojo indicated to Sue that a duffel bag contained drugs. The agents watched the ordinary looking man in his mid-forties who claimed it. He was stopped by Customs, but a preliminary search of the bag revealed nothing obvious. It was only when a closer examination of a hair spray and an anti-perspirant can was made that the truth emerged.

The smuggler had drilled small holes in these cans, emptied their contents and refilled them with hashish. The holes had then been soldered over, with price tags being stuck over the repair. This provided no barrier to Mojo's scenting skills. In fact, depending on the circumstances, dogs can detect hashish and marijuana from a distance of several hundred yards away.

• You can read more about search dogs who help to save lives and enforce the law in the book Dogs on the Case by Patricia Curtis, published by E.P. Dutton.