All About Drug Detection Dogs

Narcotic detection dogs are trained to use their sense of smell to detect illegal drugs that their human handlers cannot see. Drug dogs are used to find illegal drugs at police traffic stops, on routine prison searches, and on police drug raids. Drug dogs are also used in airports, train and bus stations, storage facilities, and anywhere else a police investigation takes them. Drug dogs provide the probable cause their police handlers need to search a location or item, such as a suitcase or storage locker, by detecting the presence of drugs. Sometimes drug dogs are used in schools to search for hidden drugs.

Different breeds of dogs can be trained as drug dogs. Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds, and Labradors are some popular breeds used as drug dogs. Most drug dogs are bred and trained especially for police work. Dogs are chosen to be drug dogs because they are intelligent, aggressive, strong, and have a keen sense of smell.

Drug dogs are able to sniff out even small amounts of illegal drugs because their sense of smell is very powerful. Dogs’ sense of smell is 1,000 times more powerful than a human’s. Drug dogs are taught to recognize the scent of different illegal drugs. Drug dogs can detect marijuana, crack cocaine, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin by smell. Even when drug dealers attempt to camouflage the smell of the drugs by packaging them with strong-smelling items such as coffee or soap, drug dogs can detect them. When a dog detects drugs, he may alert actively (by scratching or biting at the area) or passively (by sitting near the area). In training, drug dogs’ handlers teach them to associate the smell of drugs with their favorite toy. The dogs learn that when they smell drugs and alert their handlers they are rewarded by playing with their toy. Most drug dogs work for approximately six years before retiring.

In addition to specific training on how to sniff out drugs, drug dogs and their handlers undergo other extensive training to become certified as law enforcement narcotics detection teams. Dogs are trained to obey their handlers, even in stressful or exciting situations. This training allows handlers to control the force their dog uses in any situation. Drug dogs also undergo physical training to build their endurance and agility and to accustom them to ignore the noise and distractions of city sights and sounds. Dogs and their handlers are trained on how to search buildings and other environments, track suspects, and recover evidence.

Detection dogs work at more than sniffing out drugs; dogs work with the Border Patrol, Homeland Security, and the Armed Services to detect bombs. Bomb sniffing dogs undergo training similar to that of drug dogs, except they are trained to sniff out certain chemicals used in bombs instead of drugs. Bomb sniffing dogs work in airports to detect bombs in luggage and can be used to make sure a building is safe before an important political figure or dignitary visits. Bomb sniffing dogs also help determine if a school, sports stadium, office building, or other area is safe after a bomb threat.

Drug dogs and their handlers are highly mobile teams that can be deployed quickly and in many types of situations to detect illegal drugs. Drug dogs are accurate and make searches of luggage and vehicles faster and easier for their handlers. A police or border control officer might take 20 minutes to search a car for drugs while a dog may take only five to seven minutes. Drug dogs help to control the sale and distribution of illegal narcotics by searching the places where drugs can enter the country, such as airports, train and bus stations, mail sorting stations, ports, and border control stations. Drug dogs also work to control the small-scale distribution of narcotics by working with the police to arrest drug dealers. Other types of security dogs also work hard to ensure our safety. Bomb sniffing dogs make sure that explosive devices are not on planes or in schools or sports arenas. Bomb and drug dogs also make the mail safe from explosives and illegal narcotics. Security dogs can also seek out concealed people and dangerous items that terrorists might attempt to smuggle into the country. Security dogs keep our mail, borders, planes, ships, and cities safe from illegal drugs, explosives, and other dangerous items.

Links about Drug Sniffing Dogs, Explosive Sniffing Dogs, and Police Dogs

  • FBI Working Dogs: This site includes age-appropriate information for K to 5th grade students, 6th to 12th grade students, and parents and teachers. The site includes profile pages on chemical detection dogs, narcotic detection dogs, search and rescue dogs, and service dogs.
  • Explosive-Sniffing Dogs: This website from the National Transportation Safety Institute details how dogs are used in airport security. Information is given on how dogs sniff out explosives and includes video and pictures.
  • Homeland Security Dogs: This site details the use of Explosive Detector Dog Teams by the Department of Homeland Security. The site includes information on what these teams are, how they are used, and how they are trained.
  • The Dog’s Sense of Smell: This article describes how a dog’s sense of smell works. It also details how different public service agencies such as police and rescue companies use dogs.
  • Detector Dogs: This site explains how dogs are used by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The site includes information on how detector dogs are used to sniff out bombs, drugs, and other materials.
  • K-9 Training: This site gives information on the training of drug dogs. The site includes photos and information on how police dogs work.
  • Police Service Dogs: The South Dakota Highway Patrol Canine Program site includes information on types of dogs used and how they are trained. There is also the link to more information on the handlers and their dogs.
  • Detector Dog Teams: The California Detection Dog Teams site includes photos and videos of working police dogs. The site also includes statistics on the results of dog team searches.
  • Connecticut Police Work Dog Association: This site includes information on training standards for police dogs, including drug dogs. There are also photos and stories of real cases involving police and drug dogs.
  • Nebraska State Patrol Police Service Dog Division: This site includes photos and information about dogs in the Nebraska State Patrol. It includes information on how the dogs are trained, what types of dogs are used, how handlers are selected, and the types of service the dogs provide.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandra Hexner July 18, 2017 at 5:40 pm

Thanks for all this information about drug detecting dogs. I remember in school they would have the dogs come through the halls to see if there were any drug problems. That is awesome that they can even smell narcotics. I’m getting my dog trained and one of the other dogs in the group is training to be a drug dog, so it’s cool to learn a bit about it.

RHINO April 26, 2012 at 7:04 am

My neighbor once told me the way to aviod the Dogs was that he always sprayed his car tires heavy with formaldehyde and around the bottom of the car, He did explain to me that the formaldehyde kills the nerve in your nose immediately and with 22 lbs under the back seat never has had a problem. Don’t know if its true but it does make sense and again he never ever got busted. Education just saying

Joe Orlando February 21, 2012 at 12:42 pm

For some time now. I have been trying to either get into a school for detection dog training, or simply have an outlet for some of my rescue dogs. Any help or guidance would greatly be appreciated. I have some training experience in this area, but maybe just evaluate and place in Law enforcement or agencies that can use these dogs would be fine. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Joe Orlando
Las Vegas Labrador Rescue

Carol Costello January 10, 2012 at 11:38 am

I am also interested in more information about dog training. I have a very energetic, motivated chow mix that I think would be a good candidate for rescue training or detection training. Could you direct me to more information about training schools, requirements, etc. Thank you.

Alice Reynolds May 13, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Years ago, I had wanted to go to a school where I could take my dog and get training for both of us for drug and bomb detection. With young children in the home at the time, I was unable to be gone for such a long period of time from my children. Now that they’re all grown up and on their own, I’m still interested in fulfilling that dream. Can you inform me of where some of these schools are located so that I may research them.
Many thanks for your help.
Alice Reynolds

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