If you find yourself in the situation where you’d need to hide your stash from the noses of trained drug sniffer dogs, relying on your luck wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do if you want to stay out of trouble.
But are there ways to fool a trained drug sniffer dog?
We all know that dogs have very fine noses. They are cute, usually wet and very, very good.
A groundbreaking study into the behavior of sniffer dogs and their handlers was published by Lisa Lit in the journal Animal Cognition in 2011. Researchers tested drugs dogs and their handlers with a couple of Machiavellian tweaks to standard study protocol: Firstly, there were no drugs; secondly, the handlers were told that there were drugs hidden in various places inside a church, labelled by sheets of red paper.
In order to trick the dog handlers into believing that they were participating in a genuine drugs study, the researchers carried a box of 12 genuine triple-wrapped half-ounce bags of cannabis past the handlers while they pretended to set up the experiment. In reality the box was never even opened inside the church. Instead of drugs, sausages were placed in some of the various hidden locations around the church. Some of these locations were labelled as containing drugs — indicated by a sheet of red paper, while some locations that were labelled as containing drugs contained neither drugs nor sausages. The experiment was double blind; the experimenters were not aware whether a location was a decoy containing a pair of sausages or a decoy containing what the handlers had been led to believe was cannabis.
Despite there never being any drugs whatsoever in any of the locations used in the experiment, 225 alerts were issued by the 18 handlers and their dogs, every single one of which was, of course, a false alarm. To the dogs’ credit, the dogs were not swayed by the sausages, but to the handlers’ discredit, there were drastically more false alarms wherever the red markers told the handlers that there would be drugs.
So what went on here? Did the handlers simply cheat and pretend they’d seen their dogs show the correct responses to smelling drugs, or did the handlers somehow lead the dogs to provide positive responses with unconscious cues? This is a difficult question, which requires further research, but a clue to the likely answer lies a century ago in a horse called Clever Hans.
Clever Hans was a Victorian horse who wowed crowds by apparently counting and performing mental arithmetic. It wasn’t until an investigation by psychologist Oskar Pfungst that it finally became clear that the horse was in fact watching and interpreting the reactions of his human observers. The Clever Hans Effect may be a particularly important issue for dogs, which by their nature, are extremely adept at interpreting human cues, as any dog owner knows well.
Researchers have found some dogs will rely more strongly on human cues than even their own sight and smell when looking for food — going to look for food in an empty bowl that a human is pointing to, rather than a bowl full of food that it can see and smell. Dogs have also been shown to be able to interpret human eye contact, head and body orientation, and glances.
Their ability to detect even the faintest scents has made the man’s best friend a helpful companion for things like hunting, tracking criminals, finding stolen goods or missing persons.
Indeed, the intense sense of smell of dogs is so very well developed that they can detect the scent of a person and then trace their movements even weeks after they have been around. This, of course, has been the reason that dogs are employed by the police to assist in their search for drugs, explosives, money and other contraband. The four-legged sniffer experts are present at practically every airport and customs.
Fooling them isn’t exactly easy but it can be done: Yes, dogs do have an extraordinary sense of smell but they also have their limits.
SNIFFING DOGS AND SIMPLE PHYSICS
Even the most-well trained sniffer dog will need to rely on some simple physics to make use of their olfactory skills. Odours will have to be able to permeate out or through a material so that they can be detected.
Dogs are amazing, but can’t smell the inside of any container through any material. This is a myth.
In a perfectly sealed enclosure that is made from a 100% non-porous material where really nothing would get out, scent as well wouldn’t escape. This means that even a dog wouldn’t really have anything to detect.
Common plastic containers and plastic bags all allow odours to permeate out. Maybe not right away, but in time all do. You may not smell your stash tightly wrapped in some baggie, but there are microscopic pores in plastic, which will always allow the smell to get through. As a dog is so much better than you in detecting a smell, he will smell it.
The longer your “material” is in the bag, the more obvious will the “odour cone” on the outside of the bag be for a dog. In other words; time also plays a role if you want to minimize the odds of detection.
Unlike plastic, there are other materials that don’t let anything go through.
Lead for instance would be a good material. Lead is 100% impermeable and doesn’t allow any scent to escape. You would need to find a way to seal a container made out of lead perfectly of course.
Another problem with a lead container would be that it would probably raise suspicion when the guys working the x-ray machines at the airport find it in your luggage. These people are not stupid and know what things to look for.
Other materials that can be good to use would be glass or foil.
DISPELLING SOME MYTHS ABOUT HOW DRUG SNIFFING DOGS SMELL
You shouldn’t waste time pondering about how to mask your suspicious smelling stuff with other smells. This simply won’t work with sniffing dogs.
Sniffing dogs don’t smell like we do. When we humans smell, we are taking in a blend of scents and odours, which we will smell as something “new” altogether.
Think about a hearty stew that’s cooking on the stove. We smell the smell of the stew, rather than the individual food items like the carrots, the meat and the potatoes.
This is where many drug smugglers fail. They try to conceal their stuff in between other odour-intensive things, like foods or spices, but a dog can detect all the individual things out of a plethora of other smells and will be easily able to pick out the particular smell he is looking for.
SO CAN YOU FOOL A DRUG SNIFFER DOG?
Obviously, no one can guarantee you that you will be able to fool a sniffer dog but you can decrease the chances of detection to some extent.
Cold temperatures, for instance, slow down the rate of how fast odour could permeate through a particular material. So a stash, frozen and then tightly wrapped in foil and in a well-sealing glass container is likely your best bet.
You could take things a step further by freezing this inside a big block of ice again, but this might be a little bit harder to explain if it would be found.
It is also good to know that even the slightest traces of scents outside the container will accumulate over time, so you can’t allow much time to pass once you packed your stuff. Travel fast!
Dogs have a great sense of smell, but their range is actually quite limited. Considering that dogs are very low to ground in most cases, you might consider hiding whatever it is you don’t want the dog to smell as high up as possible.
But hey, if you are really smart, you don’t take any risk at all. Trying to bring drugs on an airplane or through customs is definitely a risky and rather foolish thing to do which you should probably just avoid in general.