The Mind of a Police Dog

Sasha never ceases to amaze me. She’s an incredibly smart dog and certainly picks up on many things we feeble humans miss.

One thing about her that gets me is her sniffer. She’s got quite a nose, which is apparently fairly standard for the Kuvasz breed. They’ve been used for tracking… and yeah, I’ve wondered how well we could develop this. Of course, I tend to think about that when it comes to game tracking… easier to find that hog or deer that got shot and ran off into the thick brush at sundown. 🙂

But one thing a Kuvasz is not acceptable for is police work, because they’re just of a different temperament and not really suited for what that work requires.

So when I came across this article about The Mind of a Police Dog, it was fascinating… and shattered some widely held notions about police dogs and their ability to sniff things out.

Several studies and tests have shown that drug-sniffing dogs, scent hounds, and even explosive-detecting dogs are not nearly as accurate as they have been portrayed in court. A recent Chicago Tribunesurvey of traffic stops by suburban police departments from 2007 to 2009, for example, found that searches turned up contraband in just 44 percent of the cases where police dogs alerted to the presence of narcotics.


[Researchers] asked 18 professional dog handlers and their mutts to complete two sets of four brief searches. …. What the handlers were not told was that two of the targets contained decoy scents, in the form of unwrapped, hidden sausages, to encourage the dogs’ interest in a false location. Moreover, none of the search areas contained the scents of either drugs or explosives. Any “detections” made by the teams thus had to be false. ….

The results? Dog/handler teams correctly completed a search with no alerts in just 21 of the 144 walk-throughs. The other 123 searches produced an astounding 225 alerts, every one of them false. Even more interesting, the search points designed to trick the handlers (marked by the red slips of paper) were about twice as likely to trigger false alerts as the search points designed to trick the dogs (by luring them with sausages).


The dogs who failed Lit’s scent tests did not lose their sense of smell. But in the process of domesticating dogs, we have bred into them a trait that tends to trump most others: a desire to please us—and toward that end, an ability to read us and a tendency to rely on us to help them solve their problems. Any training program that does not take this tendency into account will produce dogs who frequently issue false alerts.

Interesting, but not necessarily surprising once you think about it.

So much of the training work we do with Sasha is ultimately based upon that want to please us. As well, there’s so much involved in reading us. The relaxation techniques we use with her? It’s all her cuing off us. We are alpha, we are leader, we are the ones in control, and so… it’s all cues from us.

It just has a lot of grander implications, say for criminal matters. Read the full article; it’s food for thought.

5 thoughts on “The Mind of a Police Dog

  1. Having been the victim of a Constitutionally illegal roadside search that involved a dog who alerted on something that wasn’t there…. not surprising at all… 😉

  2. Apollo definetly response to our body cue’s. For example: as a guardian breed he tends to react to odd noises with specific reactions, and a sound that he can identify as meaning THERE”S A PERSON (such as a slamming car door, or steps on the porch) result in a much stronger reaction. BUT, when we all hear the truck door across the street slam shut (I don’t know how they do it, but somehow them slamming that door is louder than anyone else’s door in the neighborhood), he’ll start to react, then stop and look at us. If we’ve IDed it as the truck across the street we don’t react, he’ll still go check the window (and be told “good boy” for doing so), but he’ll do it without the extra barking/alerting that the sound would normally get.

    The results of that study don’t actually surprise me. I’d be interested in seeing if the results change when the dogs are allowed to search without a handler holding the leash and having backed off several steps. But one downside of the majority of breeds that are considered GOOD at police work is that they also have a HUGE drive to please their handlers, its a good thing for training, but a bad thing for drug searches.

    • Sounds like Apollo is very tuned in, both to his environment and his masters. Cool!

      I’d like to see more studies on this sort of thing myself. I still think dogs are valuable, we just have to be sure to keep it within the proper frame and context.

  3. As I understand service dogs, it’s all just a game to the dog. They’re just playing hide and seek.

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