Canine Detection: Why Setting Standards is Critical
According to Joseph Straw, Assistant Editor of Security Management Online, while more and more dogs are being used to sniff out explosives, there remain no set of best practices for selecting, training, and handling them.

At present, there is a lack of common ground between the qualification standards set by agencies and professional groups, including the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Transportation Security Administration; the National Narcotics Dog Detector Association; and the U.S. Police Canine Association. Therefore, begun in 2005, with hopes for completion by the end of 2007, a group of scientists have been busy establishing best practices and certification standards.

The vision of the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines (SWGDOG) is to enhance the performance, reliability, and courtroom defensibility of detector dog teams. It is also charged with recommending best approaches to the use of detector dogs in conjunction with electronic detection devices, or so-called orthogonal detectors. Their mission is to develop consensus-based "best-practice" guidelines that can be shared across all groups involved in detector dog work. These guidelines will create the foundation on which more targeted guidelines and an accreditation program can be developed. Membership in SWGDOG includes representatives from international, federal, state, and local governments, the veterinary community, academia, and various detector dog organizations. SWGDOG is co-sponsored by the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and is managed through Florida International University with support obtained from the National Institute of Justice Office of Justice Programs.

SWGDOG is co-chaired by two academicians: Dr. Kenneth Furton, an analytical chemist at Florida International University, who is an expert on the chemical basis of detector dog alerts to forensic specimens, and Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania, a specialist in veterinary behavioral medicine with a focus on canines.

SWGDOG is not in the certification business. One of the hopes, however, is that an accreditation program will be established by an independent body, whereby agencies and organizations which already certify detector dog teams, could choose to undergo accreditation to reflect the fact that their standards meet or exceed those recommended by SWGDOG. They additionally will be developing certification guidelines for not just bomb dogs, but virtually all types of canine detectors, including drugs, arson, cadaver, search and rescue, agriculture, tracking, trailing, etc.

Currently, SWGDOG’s general guidelines call for annual recertification of dog-handler teams, requiring a 90 percent success rate for detection in various scent and substance tests. That is not currently the universal standard, however, as the National Narcotics Detector Dog Association requires only a 75 percent success rate. Guidelines for handler selection calls for comprehensive training in areas from basic canine care and dog training fundamentals  to common methods of scent concealment. There are also recommendations for handlers to be able to display that his or her dog trains regularly with respect to differentiating between target substances and those which are intended to conceal or distract.

In current detection testing, handlers may know the location of the find. However, proposed SWGDOG evaluation guidelines desire one double-blind test, plus additional single-blind tests. These would include tests in which the handler knows the number of scents placed and others tests in which the handler does not how many have been placed. And, they would like there to be one test in which no scents have been placed.

We are especially interested in the work from the subcommittee on Research and Technology looks especially interesting Recommended research is noted in the following areas:

1. Identification/quantification of target odorants

2. Dog Performance – An important goal when training working dogs is to determine the performance envelope of the dogs so that there is a correct understanding of their capabilities and limitations. Only when we know how the dogs are presently working will we be able to determine the effectiveness of new manipulations. Basically, the goal is to obtain a clear understanding of how the current working dogs actually work and what variables affect their probability of detection.

3. Research on olfaction – Focused on laboratory research, either chemical or behavioral. For example, the question regarding the limitation of tracking would best be considered under “dog performance” and not under olfaction.

4. Research on Learning  – This section will include actual experimentation on training methodologies, types of reinforcement, relationship between training and operations performance and questions on generalization and concept formation. The following topics are proposed:

  • Research on the effectiveness of training aids. Does extensive experience with the training aid help or hinder the later detection of the real odor?
  • What is the optimal way to utilize training aids? Start easy (e.g., most volatile) or start hard (e.g., least volatile). Start with mixture of odors (“cocktail” or “beef stew” approach) or with individual odors.
  • Masking effects and training to overcome them
  • Memory for previously trained odors
  • Effects of extinction on olfactory search and detection
  • Context effect
  • Search images
  • Generalization versus concept formation on the response to novel odors.
  • Reinforcement effects, the effects and side effects of negative reinforcement
    • Food versus Play reinforcement
  • Effects of reinforcement schedules on performance
  • Effects of odor quantity on detection. Is there really a difference in training on 10 g. of TNT versus 10000 g of TNT? And if so, what and why?
  • Effects of additional cues on target detection (such as the odor of the human placing the target and the odor of newly dug holes).

5. Selection, Development, and Early Experience. The overall goal is to determine how to optimize the development of detector dogs. Suggested topics include:

  • Early olfactory experience and later detection of that odor
  • Does environmental enrichment help prepare dogs for harsh and different environments?
  • Rearing in a kennelis it possible to get a good working dog?
  • What is required during development to get a good working dog?

6. Veterinary issues

  • Hip dysplasia
  • Breed problems etc.
  • Evaluation of transmitting thermometer to determine heat stress in dogs. One handler/supervisor can immediately see on a receiver the internal body temperature of all the dogs and determine if any are becoming hyperthermic.

7. Human scent

  • Determine the influence of skin cells (rafts) on human scent signature and transfer.
  • Determine the mechanism of human scent production, traces and dissipation (from different biological fluids).
  • Determine the optimal materials and procedures for the collection and storage of human scent.
  • Quantify the influence of environmental factors (particularly time) on human scent composition and detection (incorporate into optimize training protocols).
  • Quantify the relative importance of human scent and disturbance for tracking/trailing dogs (and other areas).
  • Evaluate which chemicals make human scent unique and the influence/correlation to state of health and genetic factors (MHC influence)
  • Evaluate what components of human scent dogs use to detect live humans.
  • Quantify the amount of human scent required for dogs to trail and to identify.
  • Conduct critical evaluations of the limitation of human scent dogs (aged trails, versus fresh trails, no scent article, large contamination)
  • Evaluate when difference between live and deceased human scent and the timing and chemicals characteristic of deceased human remains.
  • Critically evaluate contamination issue (If we are shedding skin cells 24/7 from our entire body, how does a pair of gloves stop our odor from transferring to our training aids?)

There are further recommendations as to the essential knowledge that all dog trainers should possess, especially in regard to learning and conditioning and olfaction as well as the optimal means of disseminating this information such as in the form of a course curriculum, computer aided instruction or short courses designed for trainers. And, there are recommendations as to a reliable and valid means of testing and certifying working dogs based on the current scientific knowledge base.