The whole point of free speech is not to make ideas exempt from criticism but to expose them to it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My problem with drug dogs

I've been a dog trainer for many years. I'm pretty good at it. I believe I can train a dog to walk around a vehicle and "alert" without command. I also believe I can train a dog to "alert" on a visual command.

I sincerely believe that a dog can be trained to detect the smell of loosely packaged marijuana. I'm less inclined to believe that a dog can be trained to detect vacume-packaged marijuana or powdered drugs like cocaine and heroin. If air cannot enter the package, odor cannot get out.

I have conducted this experiment:  I have a pheasant wing, which I can hide in the bushes and my Golden Retriever will dutifully find the wing. Each year at pheasant hunting time, I collect several pheasant wings, vacume-pack and freeze them for training use in the spring. The dog cannot find the vacume-packed wing.

We never hear about the number of times a dog is used in a search, alerts that the vehicle contains drugs, and no drugs are found. It happens. I know of a T-shirt vendor who was headed to the Sturgis Rally years ago who was stopped on the interstate for "weaving in his lane." A dog was employed to determine if there where drugs aboard the box truck. The dog "alerted" and a search then took place wherein all the vendor's inventory was removed from the panel van, every box was opened and tossed in search of drugs that did not exist. The dog was wrong and falsely signaled that the box contained drugs. The vendor was given a warning for "weaving in his lane" and left to repack his boxes and reload them in his truck with no apology for his inconvenience.

I remain convinced that these incidents are more frequent than any reasonable lawmaker would tolerate.

How many people have been searched because a "drug dog" was mistaken? How many bags of luggage have been searched? And now there is a Florida case where a dog alerted at the front door of a residence.

There are multiple problems with so-called "drug dogs."

1. The public and the court system has been convinced that dogs are infallible. In fact, they are less reliable than polygraph tests, which are not admissible in court.

2. Dogs cannot be cross-examined. This is particularly convenient for the prosecution because generally the only witness who can testify about a dog, is its handler, who has a stake in the case.

3. Defense attorneys do not know about dog training and do not know to ask questions like:

a. Officer, did you train your dog to detect the presence of drugs?
Dogs are rarely trained by the officers who eventually handle them.

b. In the course of your dog's training, was it ever trained to alert when anything other than drugs is detected?
The dog's handler has no way of knowing the answer to this question, unless he personally trained the dog or was present during every stage of the dog's training. If he didn't train the dog, he has no way of knowing and therefore his answer must be: "I don't know." This is significant because some dogs are trained to detect everything from wild game, fruit, money, cadavers and living human beings.

c. Has your dog ever – during its training or since you've been its handler – alerted when no drugs were found?
Dogs learn by trial and error. They are rewarded during training for correctly alerting. They will, during training, alert just to get the reward. If the handler responds that it hasn't, he's lying. Defense attorneys should ask handlers who respond that the dog has never falsely alerted with: "How do you know, were you present during every training session?"

d. Assuming your dog is house trained, tell us how your dog alerts you that it needs to relieve himself?
The alerts for  "I'm hungry,"  "I have to pee,"  and "I smell drugs" are all likely to be very similar. The defense attorney's question should then be: "So you don't really know whether the dog was telling you it found drugs or had to pee?"

e. What reward does your dog receive when it successfully alerts you that there are drugs present?
In the early stages of training, often a puppy will receive a reward – usually a treat (I use Braunschweiger) – when it successfully completes a task. Later, the dog will complete the task for a scratch behind the ear and a "Good Boy!"

f. What reward did the dog trainer use when training the dog to go outside to relieve himself?
In this case, the reward is almost always praise from the beginning and there is rarely a treat used to reward peeing outside. Sometimes, when caught in the act of peeing inside, the dog is scolded and physically taken to the door. Defense: So, do you think it is likely a dog is more likely to alert if he knows there is a treat or praise?
Finally, retrieving dogs (Labradors, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and Golden Retrievers) all have the ability to learn body movement signals from their handlers. A handler could easily train a dog to alert simply by giving the dog a body signal, such as folding his arms in front of him. A dishonest handler could train the dog to alert with a voice command such as "Find It."

Until a dog can be trained to honestly answer questions in cross examination, the practice of using dogs to establish probable cause for a search of a vehicle, home or person, should be outlawed.


BF said...

Bob, I have a brother who lives just up the road from you who used to train K9's for the Navy all over the globe. You and he should maybe have a chat sometime. He might know the answers to some of your questions.

Bob Newland said...

That was actually Mike's post.

Bob Newland said...

And I think Mike meant the questions as those which defense attorneys should pursue in order to impeach the use of dogs to provide a court-qualified "articulable suspicion of criminal activity", thus to justify violation of the 4th Amendment.

He and I both know the answers.

BF said...

Aha, my error. You would still probably both enjoy a conversation with my brother. He has some pretty funny dog training stories. Like the one where, after his training with German Shepards he was instead assigned a beagle. He had to hold him up to the sailors lockers so he could sniff the doors. Then, if the dog smelled something it would go nuts and pee all over him.

Bill Dithmer said...

Mike I think that some of the confusion lies in the fact that people think that drug dogs are perfect and nothing could be farther from the truth. While they do go through intensive training they are not held to the same qualifiers to get their certificates as the same animals that are used to find explosives.

Unless things have changed, a drug dog only has to be right 30% of the time to pass his certifying test. An explosives dog needs to be right 100% of the time while being tested to get his certificate.

The reason I don’t think the process has changed is because there are more and more dogs being certified every year for drugs. In the case of training dogs more doesn’t equal better, it just means more.

It is interesting, at least to me, that while the number of drug dogs continues to rise by leaps and bounds the numbers of both cadaver and explosive detecting dogs has stayed about the same. You might ask why that is and the answer is simple, MONEY. While explosive and cadaver dogs are used for humanitarian reasons a drug dog is used for the well financed war on drugs.

A dog is only as good as its handler. And yes a dog can learn to lie on command. It might be through the use of a handlers head, his hands, the way he moves his feet, or his voice, but its done all the time.

The Blindman

Wayne Gilbert said...

The opinions of the South Dakota Supreme Court affirming drug dog sniff are almost all based on extremely unlikely police testimony as well as instances where confused canines were actually prompted by their handlers to "alert." In addition to the shame of all the money, talent and time being wasted on a silly war on druges, there is an even larger problem--the very credibility and therefore the integrity of the courts is at stake. In a dissenting opinion last February in the case of Michigan v. Bryant, Justice Scalia observed: "Today’s tale—a story of five officers conducting suc-cessive examinations of a dying man with the primary purpose, not of obtaining and preserving his testimony regarding his killer, but of protecting him, them, and others from a murderer somewhere on the loose—is so transparently false that professing to believe it demeans this institution." Although this statement was not made in the context of drug dogs, it has a great deal of resonance to such cases. By persistently endorsing patently false and ridiculous scenarios in order to be good soldiers in the war on drugs, courts are losing the respect which, one would at least like to imagine, they once had.