Drug Sniffing Dogs Are Being Trained To Ignore Marijuana

Drug Sniffing Dogs Are Being Trained To Ignore Marijuana
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Drug detection dogs have been controversial since police departments started using them nearly seven centuries ago. To some, these canine cops are heroic figures. Others see them as infringing on their right to privacy or exploiting animal labor. Drug dogs have become a particular annoyance to consumers of hemp-derived CBD products, which are federally legal, but sometimes smell the same as marijuana. Plus, many states have now legalized cannabis entirely, which is why some drug sniffing dogs are being trained to ignore marijuana.


It seems that the drug detection dog may soon be a thing of the past. This could have a lot of potential implications, including thousands of dogs suddenly losing their jobs. What impact will this have on former drug sniffing dogs and their trainers? What other jobs could these intrepid canines take on? Find out the answers to these questions and more in this article!



History of Police Dogs

To understand the current status of drug sniffer dogs, we need to know how we got here. Humans domesticated certain species of wild wolves as long as 14,000 years ago, and we have used them as guard dogs for almost as long. However, the first record of police harnessing a dog's sense of smell as a tool came in 1888, when the London police tried using bloodhounds to track the scent of Jack the Ripper. Of course, the notorious killer was never identified, but enough people saw potential in the bloodhounds to keep them on the force.


Detection dogs first became popular in the United States during World War II, when the army used them to sniff out bombs and landmines. The drug dog became a staple of American police departments in the 1970s when Richard Nixon launched the "War on Drugs." Since then, police and private security teams around the nation have used dogs in almost every drug search they conduct.


The drug dog became a staple of American police departments in the 1970s when Richard Nixon launched the "War on Drugs."


police officer with leashed canine



Drug Sniffing Dog Breeds

Not every breed can make it as a police dog. Can you imagine a Miniature Dachshund chasing the scent of a criminal for miles on end? It would be adorable but probably inefficient. When police officers look for a drug sniffer dog, they typically turn to these breeds:


  • English Springer Spaniel
  • Border Collie
  • Belgian Malinois
  • German Shepherd
  • Labrador Retriever



How Are Drug Detection Dogs Trained?

A police handler needs to train each dog to detect drugs and alert authorities to their location. Proper training for police dogs begins the same way you would train your dog — with simple commands like "sit" and "stay." These routine training steps get the dog accustomed to following instructions and receiving rewards for obeying each command.


The next step of training centers on lighthearted play. The handler gives the dog a simple toy that does not have a scent, like a blanket, and plays with them. Once the dog grows attached to their plaything, the handler wraps the toy around a package of illicit drugs. Soon, they have the dog trained to associate the smell of the drug with their favorite toy.


Then, the trainer presents the dog with a challenge. They hide the drug-filled toy in a series of increasingly hard-to-find spots and see if the dog can sniff it out. When the dog succeeds, they get a reward in the form of a treat.


Are Drug Sniffing Dogs Accurate?

There are serious concerns about drug dogs giving false alerts and serving as an excuse for police to search innocent people. In a 2011 study of 18 police dogs, they incorrectly identified the scent of drugs over 200 times. During the study, researchers told the police handlers that they hid target scents in four different rooms.


In reality, there were no scents – the police just thought there were. Nevertheless, the dogs "detected" target scents in every room. This suggests that the police handlers have a significant influence on their canine charges, driven by confirmation bias. Simple physical cues from human handlers, such as pointing, nodding, and staring, can influence the dog's behavior.



small pup searching airport bags



Why Are Drug Dogs Being Trained To Ignore Cannabis?

Governments on the federal and state level have made big changes to cannabis laws in the past few years. Numerous states have now legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, and the federal government has legalized hemp products.


The criminal justice system needs to keep up with these changes, which means that police dogs don't need to sniff out cannabis anymore.


Marijuana vs. Hemp

We mentioned marijuana and hemp, and we should explain what the difference is. You may have heard people use these terms interchangeably, but marijuana and hemp are different. Both of them are forms of the cannabis plant, but marijuana has high levels of THC, the compound that gets people "high."


Hemp has very low levels of THC (not exceeding 0.3%, according to federal law). Instead, it has high levels of CBD, a non-intoxicating compound with numerous wellness benefits. Hemp-derived CBD products are incredibly popular for both people and pets. Recognizing its potential benefits, the federal government legalized hemp-derived CBD in 2018.


Since hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the same plant, Cannabis sativa, they look and smell the same. This makes it difficult for detection dogs to distinguish between legal CBD products and illegal marijuana products. Now that hemp products are so popular, drug dogs are more likely to catch someone carrying a bottle of CBD oil for their cat than a criminal trying to smuggle marijuana.



The Future of Police Dogs

Many police departments have stopped training dogs to detect cannabis, and it could only be a few more years before all police dogs have been trained this way. The change in policy has some people worried about police dogs losing their jobs. In all likelihood, these dogs should be secure in their jobs because there are many other illegal drugs that police want to search people for. However, many are in favor of removing drug dogs from law enforcement altogether.


Police Dog Controversy

Many social justice groups have expressed concern about law enforcement using drug sniffing dogs as an excuse to conduct searches of innocent citizens. Police are not allowed to search you unless they have "probable cause," meaning they need a specific reason to suspect you have done something illegal. If a drug dog thinks they smell something on you, it is probable cause for the police to search you.


Since drug dogs have been shown to be inaccurate in many cases, activists have argued that they only serve as a convenient excuse for police to search anyone they want. Many would like to see an end to K9 units. Of course, this would put the nation's police dogs out of work, which also concerns many people. However, there are many other jobs that dogs can take on!



rescue retriever digging in snow



Other Jobs for Dogs

While many dogs are content to chill on the couch and take a daily walk with you, certain working breeds can benefit from having a job to do. Working breeds have evolved over centuries to serve in various roles, from shepherding to guarding property. Working breeds tend to be large and muscular with high energy levels. Popular working breeds include:


  • Great Dane
  • Border Collie
  • Doberman Pinscher
  • Rottweiler
  • Bullmastiff
  • Bloodhound
  • German Shepherd
  • Labrador Retriever


Some of these dogs could serve roles in law enforcement other than detecting drugs. Sniffer dogs are very important for search-and-rescue operations. They have also found success tracking escaped prisoners and locating human remains.


These are important roles that don't raise the same ethical concerns that drug dogs do.


Outside of law enforcement, there are many other roles for dogs in our society. A recent example comes from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, where they trained Labradors to detect COVID-19! Here are a few other jobs that working breeds excel at:


  • Herding livestock
  • Runaway wildlife control
  • Mobility-assistance
  • Seeing-eye dogs
  • Pest control



Final Thoughts – Drug Sniffing Dogs Are Being Trained To Ignore Marijuana

Cannabis laws in this country are rapidly evolving, which has made it unnecessary for police dogs to seek out marijuana. This is probably for the best because police dogs are often inaccurate, and they frequently mistake legal hemp products for illegal marijuana.


The exciting implication of this change is that the nation's opinions of cannabis are evolving. Now, most people recognize the benefits of the cannabis compound CBD, which is a popular natural remedy for humans and pets. You can try it for your pet by visiting the HolistaPet shop. With an extra level of care, your pup could grow up to play a crucial role in law enforcement, medicine, or search-and-rescue.

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