Drug Dogs Forced into Early Retirement

Hundreds of drug-detection dogs are taking early retirement, their jobs disappearing as marijuana legalization makes their skill set obsolete. It’s not the dogs’ fault; the blame lies with human myopia.

A police dog wears a star-shaped badge.

Dogs can be taught to identify pretty much any scent, even scents that humans cannot detect. The dogs who sniff out cancer or flag diabetics whose blood sugar is dropping, for example, are responding to scents that humans cannot smell.

Dogs can also be taught to reliably distinguish scents and alert to more than one scent. And they can of course be taught to respond to each scent with a unique behavior — a bark, sitting, lying down, spinning in a circle. It really doesn’t matter what; the dog can learn it.

But the humans. Oh, the humans.

There are the trainers who take the “easy” path of teaching their canine pupils to give the same alert to any contraband. Easier to teach. Easier for the handler to remember. But it makes the dog’s skills useless when you no longer want her to alert to marijuana.

There are the humans — trainers, handlers, lawyers, judges — who do not believe that dogs can discriminate the scent of meth from the scent of marijuana. Or who do not believe that dogs can reliably signal which one they’ve detected.

For these reasons, many drug-detection dogs who’ve served faithfully and honorably are being pushed out of their jobs. In places where marijuana is now legal, basing an arrest on the dog’s say-so is too risky. Defendants can argue that the dog alerted to a legal substance.

Many detection-dog trainers are have already stated training dogs on other forms of contraband but not marijuana. And new recruits,  who’ve graduated with this newfangled curriculum, are stepping up to take the retiring dogs’ jobs. Even so, there are sure to be younger dogs caught unprepared as the job market shifts, new grads whose skills are outdated before they’ve had a chance to shine. The thousands of humans forced to adjust when their jobs vanished will understand how tough this can be.

The retirees’ future is not bleak, however. Most of these dogs are headed into a cushier retirement than many people can look forward to. Many of them have years of experience under their vests and deserve to enjoy their golden years. And who knows? Some may pivot to new careers. I hear there’s growing demand for conservation dogs



Advertisements

Doggy Environmentalists

Working Dogs for Conservation logo features a dog standing in the grass

“Our conservation detection dogs are agile, portable, and endlessly trainable. They are an efficient, highly sensitive, and non-invasive way to gather high-quality data.”

The above quotation is from the website of Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a Montana-based organization whose dog teams literally travel the globe helping to save endangered species, find and route out invasive species, and intercept contraband cargo that includes products from endangered animals.

The coolest … okay, one of many, many cool aspects of their work is that the dogs they train are the “bad” dogs who wind up in shelters because no one can handle them. No regular family or ordinary adopter, that is. The high-energy, obsessive dogs who will do anything, anything at all, for the chance to play one more game of tug or get that silly human to throw the ball. Even better, the organization reaches out to shelters and teaches staff how to recognize these high-drive dogs and connect them with organizations, like Working Dogs for Conservation — or police, military, search and rescue, or other organizations that train and work detection dogs.

WD4C offers living proof that dogs can master more than one job. The dogs — endlessly trainable, remember — are taught to detect multiple, maybe dozens, of scents. That makes them versatile partners and enables teams to work in all kinds of places. The dogs learn to detect scents underwater as well as on land. In the water, they can detect pollutants like metals or pharmaceuticals, and they can distinguish between species of fish and aquatic plants, to identify invaders. At a talk I recently attended, the research director, Megan Parker, said that the dogs could distinguish between rainbow trout and brown trout, a feat that many Montanans would find impossible. They’re currently teaching dogs to detect brucellosis, a highly bacterial infection that affects, among others, cattle, bison, and elk in Montana.

In the service dog world, I’ve heard people claim that a single dog couldn’t be trained to, say, guide a person with impaired vision and retrieve dropped items; that person would need two service dogs. I’ve heard pet owners (and, sadly, pet trainers) claim that dogs can’t learn different rules for different situations or understand tasks that are too similar. This is absurd, of course.

So maybe the best thing about WD4C is that it believes in dogs: It believes in dogs’ ability to constantly learn — the demo dog at the talk is a 12-year-old Malinois who has been working for 11+ years. He’s still learning new tasks. It believes in the hard-to-handle dogs that others write off — and saves many of them from certain death in shelters. It even believes in humans’ ability to learn about dogs, sharing training methods and research with organizations and individuals who are eager to understand how incredibly capable dogs are — and to teach them to use their noses in countless ways.

 

Getting to Know You …

Cali’s tail never stops wagging as she follows her nose.

A recent column in the Whole Dog Journal had these two sentences, part of a longer description of a coonhound learning to trust humans (the column is well worth a read; in fact, nearly everything in WDJ is worth reading):

The only clue we had that she actually did like attention was that if you sat in her presence, she would come and stand very close to you; she liked to put her face very near your face – a quite uncomfortable sensation with a dog who has no expression, and isn’t wagging her tail or trying to lick you. She would just approach, stand very close, and hold very still – odd.

This caught my attention because Cali does the same thing. Well, Cali has a very expressive face and is nearly always wagging her tail, sometimes even in her sleep. But the ‘putting her nose right next to people’s mouths’ part is the same.

I think that dogs do this to learn about people. They pick up a lot of information from smells, far more than whether we’re overdue for a dose of mouthwash. They learn about other dogs that way, both in person and by sniffing the ground.

Cali often does this breathing exercise while also giving the person a hug (she gives great hugs), possibly begging for a treat (or sniffing the person’s plate), or nuzzling the person. But often, she just inhales … soaking in the essence of her friend. And almost everyone is her friend — or would be if she could only meet them!

I’m not sure whether Cali is doing this more, as well as sniffing the ground more carefully and thoroughly since we started doing scent work classes or I am just noticing it more. But she does seem to be very attuned to her nose lately. When we played ball in the snow this morning, though, I noticed that she doesn’t seem to be able to detect the scent as easily. She ran right past her ball several times, sniffing the air, and did not seem to know it was there. She’s generally very good at finding it with her nose.

Of course, it could just be that she loves running around in the snow