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 Even so, there are sure to be younger dogs caught unprepared as the job market shifts, new grads whose skills are outdated before they’ve had a chance to shine.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



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Cali and the Magic Box


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Cali’s head whips around. Her body follows her nose. She’s on the scent.

She started doing this at her second or third “nosework” class — as she ambled around, haphazardly looking for the target. Suddenly, she’d catch the scent and be off, following that now-beloved birch scent to the magic box. All she had to do was touch this box and her devoted servant (me) would start showering her with praise and treats. Really good treats. Yum.

Cali “got it” very quickly. When practicing, I have to put her in the bedroom and close the door so I can hide the magic box. She trots out eagerly, nose in the air. Within seconds, that nose whips around and she’s dancing beside the box.

The road to nosework expertise is not without bumps. At one point, Cali started bashing the box with a large, soft paw. When we switched to cardboard boxes, she thought they might make a nice snack.

Despite the minor hiccups, Cali continues to progress in her scent-detection abilities. She’s putting them to work daily. Though Jana enjoyed the concept of smell walks throughout her life, Cali had never been interested in sniffing her way through town. Now she thoroughly investigates the many (many, many, many …) places along our daily walks that other dogs have marked. I never knew it could take so long to walk around a parking lot!

She’s suddenly developed a deep interest in squirrels, too. Montana squirrels are a lot more interesting than California squirrels, apparently. Especially the one that hangs out near the veterans’ apartment building next to our apartment complex. Oh, and the one that raids our bird feeder any chance it gets, whom Cali seems to enjoy watching.

Back in “nosework” class, we’ve moved from hiding the scent in boxes to moving it around. Cali quickly grasps each new step — at least, in class. Watching her try to understand the new “rules” at home is interesting. She is a living illustration that content and context both affect learning. In plain English — don’t change everything at once. She did find the scent hidden in a plastic container this morning, as well as under the sofa and on a shelf. She’s is following her nose for sure; she can’t see where I have hidden the tin with the scent stick. She’s not very methodical in her search, but she is thorough. And she gets very excited when she finds it.

What’s great about the scent game is that we can play it all winter, indoors, with little changes, and – so far — Cali’s enthusiasm hasn’t faded a bit.