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Consumer Reports

Super sniffers: Dogs trained to detect bombs, drugs, termites — and sick catfish | (KRT) The number on the back of the trading card is impressive. It's 257. That's not home runs hit. It's not touchdowns scored.

It's 257 pounds of marijuana found.

The face on the front of the card belongs to a dog named Buckshot. He now resides in Oklahoma.

Buckshot's trading card is attached to a wall in a laboratory at Auburn University in Alabama. Alongside it are the faces of other canine heroes - Shane, Corky, Zoom and many others.

Most are German shepherds, Belgian Malinois or Labrador retrievers. Larry Myers, who owns the cards, said several other breeds are also used by law enforcement to detect drugs, explosives and signs of arson.

"No bulldogs, though," he laughs. "They can hardly breathe."

You're also not likely, he said with a smile, to see macho DEA agents or sheriff's deputies marching into a suspected drug den behind a poodle.

And though he said other animals could detect chemicals - "A pig could do it but they grow to about 300 pounds; a cat, yes, but try to keep one disciplined" - a dog is pretty much the sniffer of choice. "Besides, society accepts dogs and they socialize with people," he said.

Some breeds, because of their ability to concentrate, are better than others.


Myers is a professor in the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and one of the country's leading experts on canine detection. A doctor of veterinary medicine as well as a doctor of physiology, he's appeared as a witness both for the prosecution and the defense in hundreds of criminal trials across the country and has been interviewed by numerous national publications such as Popular Science and most recently on television's "60 Minutes."

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In 1989, Myers founded the Auburn Canine Research Institute, originally known as the Institute for Biological Detection Systems and one of the nation's leading developers of canine detection technology. The institute conducts research at Auburn University, and trains dogs, handlers, trainers and program managers for government agencies at a center in Anniston, Ala.

No longer associated with that the institute, Myers is researching ways dogs can be used besides uncovering drugs and explosives.

"We're using dogs to discover mold in houses which would make the building dangerous for someone to inhabit," he said. "They're very good at finding termites."

He's now doing research for agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture.

Myers is looking for ways to train dogs to detect chemicals in ponds that give catfish a bad flavor, a problem costing the industry $50 million per year.

Dogs can also help with cattle breeding. Using vaginal secretions from cows, Myers said, he's working to train dogs to tell farmers when the cow is ready for mating - even quicker than a bull can. Once again, the research could mean millions to farmers.


Myers is working to discover how dogs do what they do, and how chemicals in a drug or hazardous material stand out to a dog. If Myers and other researchers could discover how animals identify odors then that knowledge could be used to produce artificial devices that do the same thing. For example, perhaps such a device could detect E. coli viruses in food.

Each dog Myers works with goes through 500 to 1,000 different repetitions before it is trained.

Samples such as different tubes of pond water are placed in boxes, which are placed in holes in a wooden board. The samples are rotated for each repetition, and dogs are not allowed to see them being placed.

"When the dog finds the right sample," explains Auburn veterinary student Rebecca Robinson, "they are rewarded with something good to eat. They love snacks."

Myers said many of the dogs come from the pound.

"When selecting a dog, it's important to have one that won't be distracted by food in the room," Robinson said. "Some can't make the cut."


Detection dogs aren't always on top of their game.

"Dental tartar can have an effect," Myers said. "Really. Clean the teeth and you get an almost immediate recovery of smell. Dogs get allergies. They get colds."

"A dog's sense of smell is not forever," he said. "A variety of diseases can destroy the sense of smell."

That's why he said that while he'd "bet my life" on certain dogs, he's not sure he'd want to bet on someone else's.

"We really don't know what a dog is picking up on when it alerts," Myers said. "In many ways we're still dealing with a black box. It could be picking up on a lot of things rather than just the scent of a person. It'd be hard to convict someone on that kind of evidence."

Also, he said, not all dogs are trained well. "Poor handlers can cause a dog's accuracy rate of 85 percent to 95 percent to drop to about 60 percent. Dogs want rewards and so they will give false alerts to get them. Dogs lie. Programs are supposed to train dogs so that doesn't happen. Not all do."

The standard measure of a dog's accuracy, Myers said, is what it finds. "The best programs subtract from that score the number of false alerts, but many do not. They have no accurate measure of their dog's reliability."

He said some programs are just in it for the money, but there are some good programs as well. "Some police departments train their own and do a very good job," he said.

And every time there's a terrorist attack or the threat of one, the public gets interested in dogs and their sniffing abilities.

"Sometimes working with the dogs can be frustrating," Myers said, "but most of the time it's a hoot."



Dogs smell 1,000 to 100,000 times better than we do. Why? Well, humans and dogs both smell using the olfactory epithelium membrane, lined with receptors that transmit odor to the brain. But while people have about 40 million receptors, dogs have more than 200 million of them.

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© 2004, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services