Everyone loves a police canine demonstration exhibiting the profoundly phenomenal skills and innate super-sensory capacity of dogs. It always thrills children when law enforcement handlers bring their police dogs to schools and put on a show. The relationship between dog and police handler is inspiring.
From tracking fleeing suspects to rooting out concealed criminals, police dogs singlehandedly — OK, OK, four fast paws and one highly equipped snout — apprehend bad guys. Homeland Security teams deploy drug detection canines at airports and amass contraband. Detectives employ the sniffing prowess of hounds to unearth cadavers sought in cold case homicides. Police dogs locate autistic children prone to elopement and wandering. And then there are dogs whose bomb-sniffing noses take the blast out of potential carnage. These olfactory officers make great police partners and save countless lives in exchange for a treat, and what a treat it is to work alongside each one of them.
As a former policeman, I respected my human cohorts. But I really admired my four-legged partners’ unparalleled abilities. Ask any law enforcement officer about their police dog and prepare to see and hear passion exude while boasting the sensational sense of smell.
How Do Police Dogs Do It?
In terms of olfactory efficiency, the canine design is incredible. Like a bi-lateral conduit, police dogs have about three hundred million sensory receptors in their moist, spongy noses, the cellular structure of which helps a dog to “see” justice is done by inhaling, processing and coding odorants. It is like a super-computer on four paws. Funded by the Office of Naval Research, Professor Clive Wynne of Arizona State University (ASU) operates the Canine Science Collaboratory, which researches odor discrimination learning.
According to the ASU website, Dr. Wynne specializes in generating advanced methods to train canines to keep pace with terrorists who we know are devising ways to circumvent police dogs. In one 2009 case, for example, an underwear bomber wore an undergarment liner that was padded with a substance engineered by Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi-born bomb aficionado who concocted novel methods to mask explosive ingredients from detection by TSA authorities and airport police dogs.
Along with federal authorities, Dr. Wynne is developing ways to counter the methods of Asiri and similar nefarious bomb makers by exposing police canines to every possibility imaginable, especially since dogs possess the innate capability necessary to successfully train to prevent bomb blasts.
On the Trail of Justice
A sheriff’s office canine unit in Pasco County, Florida exemplifies the dynamic range of police dog skills and applications. Some are specially trained in narcotics detection, while others are trained in sniffing materials used in bomb-making.
As a retired cop who’s survived cancer, I was intrigued when I read studies indicating that dogs can smell cancer.
In an ongoing criminal prosecution in which the accused shot and killed a movie theater patron, the presiding judge initiated a personal/professional visit to the Cobb Theater. Like putting a picture to a voice, the judge, prosecutors, and defense attorneys attended a simulated version in the movie house. The crux of the visit stems from scoping the exact environment in the context of the Stand Your Ground law, which the defense is arguing. Judge Susan Barthle occupied seat #9 (the one the shooter used) and watched the same previews with the exact audio and lighting levels as the time of the incident. Per the judge’s request, precautionary measures such as “sweeping” the theater were performed by a law enforcement canine skilled in such matters.
Like an advance team in the military, the PCSO canine cops deployed their sniffing sleuth “Ace,” an acutely trained bomb-sniffing dog, before the judge and entourage entered the theater. Other than a few errant Juicy Fruits, Ace found nothing suspect. The judiciary assessed the crime scene unhindered and recorded all its nuances that may or may not be pertinent to the case.
Incidentally, the victim and his alleged killer, with respective wives, were a row apart and were there to see “Lone Survivor.” On that fateful day, one wife left as a witness, the other wife left as a widower on a gurney (a solitary bullet pierced her hand and lodged in her husband’s chest), and the lone survivor confronts the judiciary for shooting a man he claims he feared.
Canines Sniffing Out Bombs, Contraband, and Cancer
I know about the astonishing sniffing machines of dogs from my police career. With their fascinating sense of smell, I witnessed police dogs “hit” upon one tiny marijuana seed in a car. As a retired cop who’s survived cancer, I was intrigued when I read studies indicating that dogs can smell cancer. Given the super sensory capabilities I often witnessed in our police canine unit, I am hardly surprised by this feat and am elated that it transcends police culture and into medical science.
Similar studies show how attuned dogs are to things we grapple with, such as emotions. In short, your dog knows when you are melancholy, happy, angry, confused, depressed, or anxious (or when your fave football team dropped the ball, etc.). Dogs know when their owner (handler) is moody (hungry), in which case it will always happily partake in a meal break, the way best friends do. Dogs can’t talk, but they sure are intuitive.
Other than for folks who suffer from allergies, dogs are universally helpful in human welfare. As a policeman who stressed about job-related aspects, namely witnessing human depravity, around police and non-police dogs I always felt like a happy-hearted child. The loyalty, respect, playfulness, and mutually pleasing attributes between dogs and human counterparts alleviate plenty of roiling emotions that directly threaten human physiology and mental welfare.
Statutorily Certified Cops
Perhaps not common knowledge, police dogs are full-fledged police officers accorded all the authority and powers of arrest akin to their police handlers. Statutorily, police dogs are included in the police function. As such, mistreating (maiming or killing) a police canine has penalties clearly spelled out — it is not only animal abuse but also a crime against justice, for which violators are prosecuted.
When police dogs are murdered in the line of duty, they are given police funerals similar to the honor their human counterparts receive. Exactly like every police officer, police canines readily rush into perilous situations in performance of duty. With a police badge and insignia attached to their harness or vest, a police dog’s honor to serve the public is consistently demonstrated and especially encouraged by praise from its handler. Indeed, police dogs are loyal to the end.
The North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA) has trained/certified approximately 65,000 police K9 teams (police handler and police dog) in our nation. The Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP) chronicles K9s who perished in the line of duty and seeks from all police agencies information to compile its registry of police dogs who dutifully gave their lives so others could live.
These marvelous creatures we refer to as “man’s best friend” continue to exemplify stellar skills, symbolize loyalty, and epitomize police duty. The sheriff’s canine “Ace” is a proverbial ace in the hole when it comes to exceeding law enforcement service provisions, and I’m sure the Pasco County judge readily ruled on that stipulation.
Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.