Drug dogs false alert over 200 times in UC Davis study

  • by Russ Belville, NORML Outreach Coordinator February 4, 2011

    One of the favorite tools of law enforcement officers looking to bust cannabis consumers is the K-9 unit (or as George Clinton once called ’em, the “dope dog”). These dogs are highly trained to use their super sense of smell to detect narcotics and explosives. Paired with a handler, they are often called in to search suspect vehicles in traffic stops and signal, or “alert” when contraband is detected.

    Researchers at UC Davis decided to put the K-9s to the test and it didn’t turn out well for the cop’s best friend. These detection dogs, whose alerts are used to justify search warrants and convict cannabis consumers, gave false alerts more than 200 times.

    Where's the ball? Where's the drugs? Where's the food? I'll do anything to make you happy, master!

    (SF Gate) The accuracy of drug- and explosives-sniffing dogs is affected by human handlers’ beliefs, possibly in response to subtle, unintentional cues, UC Davis researchers have found.

    The study, published in the January issue of the journal Animal Cognition, found that detection-dog teams erroneously “alerted,” or identified a scent, when there was no scent present more than 200 times — particularly when the handler believed that there was scent present.

    “It isn’t just about how sensitive a dog’s nose is or how well-trained a dog is,” says Lisa Lit, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Neurology and the study’s lead author. “There are cognitive factors affecting the interaction between a dog and a handler that can impact the dog’s performance.”

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/pets/detail?entry_id=82270#ixzz1D2nQC9Ir

    The researchers took 18 drug dog teams to a church, where it is likely no drugs or explosives had ever been placed in the past.  The cops were told there might be up to three target scents in any one of four rooms.  If they saw a piece of red construction paper in the room, that indicated where a target scent was placed.

    The first room was left untouched.  The second room had a piece of red construction paper on a cabinet.  The third room had two sausages and two tennis balls placed as decoys.  The fourth room had the decoy scents and the red paper.  However, none of the rooms had any drugs or explosives.

    There shouldn’t have been any alerts, but, in fact, handlers indicated their dog had alerted in every room.  There were more alerts in rooms with red paper (which piques the cop’s interest) and no corresponding increase in rooms with sausages and tennis balls (which would pique a dog’s interest).

    In other words, at best, dogs are responding to the subtle non-verbal cues of their masters to find drugs or explosives where the human thinks there should be drugs or explosives.  The cop suspects you have pot so his body language makes the dog alert.  At worst, the cop is purposefully cuing his dog to alert when he wants a handy excuse to violate your 4th Amendment rights.

    Three years ago in Aspen a member of the NORML Legal Committee, Dan Monnat, gave an expert presentation of the faulty use of drug dogs to convict cannabis consumers.  Listen to the presentation below to get a good idea how law enforcement misuses the K-9’s testimony in court.

    Dan Monnat – Aspen Legal Seminar 2008 – Drug Dogs

    62 responses to “Drug dogs false alert over 200 times in UC Davis study”

    1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rachel FigueroaLevin, UMMA, Suzanne TwoTon, Todd Rodriguez, PAFORMEDICALMJ and others. PAFORMEDICALMJ said: RT @NORML: #NORML Drug dogs false alert over 200 times in UC Davis study http://tinyurl.com/4kknd8g […]

    2. Matthew James says:

      Sorry to sound dense—but I’m not sure what this all means. As in, besides being another example of erred technology in law enforcement, what does this suggest for pot users? If a dope dog alerts his handler and you’re not carrying, then it hardly matters; and if you are, then you got caught breaking Caesar’s laws, right? (Or is there more here…)

      [Russ responds: It means a couple of things:

      #1) Pot smokers are being busted daily through improper use of drug dogs, and

      #2) Well-trained criminal defense attorneys are going to use data like this to get evidence against you discovered through use of a drug dog thrown out of court.

      Never consent to a search. The police may threaten to go get the drug dog. Ask them if you’re officially detained and whether you may leave. If they say you may not, stay there and wait for the dog. Watch them carefully. As soon as you can, make notes of everything you remember the dog and the handler doing, and then immediately get yourself an attorney.

      And of course, STFU. Keep quiet. Use your right to remain silent. If cannabis consumers didn’t implicate themselves by what they say and allowing police searches without warrants, at least half of all marijuana arrests would be ended. Don’t make their job easy!]

    3. peter brush says:

      why do I have to allow your “application” in order to share this on FB?

    4. Mark says:

      When I was in the Army about 28 years ago, the MP’s ran the drug dogs through my barracks. I was suprised when a DI told me the dogs alerted on my locker.

      I consented the to a search of my locker by the DI that notified me and another DI. I consented to the search because I figured the Army owned my ass and the only drugs I had in my locker were a carton of cigs and asprin or tylenol. I also had a box of cookies and candy that my mom sent me.

      Guess what the dogs alerted to. Jus’ sayin….

    5. kirk says:

      encouraging i suppose as it could lead to the eventual elimination of a dog alerting as legal probable cause…

      wait, what was I thinking?… if reasoned,fact based info played any role in America’s cannabis prohibition policy it would have ended years ago. ah well, it was nice for the moment the idea lasted.



    6. Cypress says:

      I have to comment on this post – because I find the use of this study and its finding over the top. This study – although very interesting and warrants further research in the area – does not have any true bearing on the legalization of marijuana.

      Any true scientist can poke holes in the research method of this study that can easily discredit its use in a court room setting to try and have a search warrant thrown out: small sample size, lack of testing in a room that actually did contain drugs, lack of repeat findings.

      As for the comment above “At worst, the cop is purposefully cuing his dog to alert when he wants a handy excuse to violate your 4th Amendment rights.” This is such an inflammatory comment and comes across as quite silly because if you actually read the study they very specifically point out that this is happening “possibly in response to subtle, unintentional handler cues” – key word here being unintentional – so not “handy excuse to violate 4th Amendment rights”

      This study was conducted to further understand the communication between animals and humans – and the researcher’s conclusions…
      “It is important to recognize that these findings do not mitigate the abilities of these handler/dog teams to perform successfully. Our data, together with our previous findings and those of other researchers, continue to emphasize that many cognitive factors can affect handlers, dogs and the handler-dog dyad. Further research is required to characterize these factors in order to optimize working dog and handler performance. Also importantly, the sensitivity of dogs to social cues as suggested by this study points to the potential to develop good models to study social behavior.”

      I also find it important to point out that working dogs in this role are not just used to find “cannabis users”, they are also used to find other harder drugs, possible bombs, people trapped in emergency situations, or to locate dead bodies. Taking this study and misrepresenting the findings on the internet makes light of the good these dogs can really do.

      This is such a sad misuse of scientific research and as a strong proponent for the legalization of marijuana I am sad to see this type of blog being posted in support of reforming these laws.

      [Russ responds: If you don’t think police have misused K-9 units and purposefully caused them to alert on cannabis consumers when the officer spots a Grateful Dead sticker on a car, you are dreadfully naive. But you got me; until we can run a test that reads a handler’s mind, all we can prove is unintentional cues from human to dog.

      The point here is not to discredit the ability of a K-9 to find drugs, explosives, or even trapped or dead people. The point is that a dog is not a scientifically reliable instrument of detection and to convict cannabis consumers based on searches OK’ed by a dog and not a judge is a miscarriage of justice.

      I don’t come by these comments merely off the reading of one SF Gate story on one UC Davis study. Please listen to the Dan Monnat presentation attached. Do some research on the use of drug dogs in America. Using K-9’s for bomb detection and finding trapped or dead bodies is a completely different situation than using dogs to uncover cannabis smokers.

      Take the “Dead Sticker on a VW Bus” example. The cop pulls over the long-haired guys with some pot-friendly band sticker. The cop suspects the guys have weed, but has no probable cause. He brings over the dog and (to be fair to your point) his non-verbal cues unintentionally cause the dog to alert. A search is performed and, lo and behold, a baggie of weed is found. A-ha! The drug dog was accurate and we praise its ability and we accept the search and we bust the guys. But did the dog really smell the weed or react to the handler? If it’s the latter, we’re allowing cops to make warrant-less searches and harass people because their dog is sensitive to the cop’s body language.

      Now, take the same scenario, but no weed is found. The guys are harassed by the side of the road, all their belongings are out on the shoulder, a dog has scratched and torn all around the interior, perhaps damaging the vehicle, certainly costing these guys an hour or more out of their day. The guys will be sent on their way and the cops will justify the alert by supposing there must have been drugs in there at some time and the dog was smelling the residue (I’ve heard it from their lips in court). Now we’re allowing cops to make warrant-less searches and harass people because the cop doesn’t like your favorite band and choice of vehicle.

      To take 18 handlers through 4 rooms twice each and come up with over 200 false alerts is stunning. That’s 144 searches (18 * 4 * 2) and just half, 72, had red construction paper. Considering they were told there could be up to three target scents in each room, the maximum possible number of alerts would be 432. So 200 false alerts? I think that would cause any jury to pause…]

    7. […] food? I’ll do anything to make you happy, master! (SF Gate) The accuracy ofArticle source: http://blog.norml.org/2011/02/04/drug-dogs-false-alert-over-200-times-in-uc-davis-study/ Related Reading: End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack (Tim LaHaye Prophecy […]

    8. Jeedi says:

      Many times I think these animals just want to please their handlers. You get a cop that is just looking to bust marijuana users, and really hate ‘dopers.’, and this kind of thing is going to rub off on animals who are devoted to these people.

    9. Nick says:

      Hello Russ,

      I am writing to comment on your reply to Cypress’s comment.

      Even though this study is interesting, and I agree that in an ideal world dogs would not be used to detect marijuana, the reality is that our criminal justice system uses dogs for this purpose, and has for a long time and will continue to for a long time. You’re going to have a hard time convincing a judge that the cop was giving “unintentional cues” to the dog. Any judge will laugh at that defense.

      In my opinion, if you are suspected of having weed, and you possess a small amount, and it is almost inevitable that this will be discovered, it is usually to your advantage to come clean. You have a much better chance of the cop simply confiscating the herb and warning you if you’re up front and respectful to the cop than you have of a judge throwing out your case because you insist the cop gave the dog “unintentional cues”.

      [Editor’s note: Wow. Your opinion is worse than useless, it is dangerous. Never, ever “come clean” with law enforcement unless you’re keen on arrest, prosecution and possibly prison rape! Only a fool would not assert their fourth and fifth amendment rights when encountering police trying to enforce Cannabis Prohibition laws.

      Lastly, judges don’t throw out cases because defendants admit to possessing cannabis…they punish them with fines and/or prison.]

    10. Mike R says:

      Not that I have any desire to defend prohibitionists or the encroaching police state, I can’t believe no one is asking…

      We’ve had to suffer a lot of ridiculous and dishonest prohib propaganda. One of the kinds I like the least are “studies” where an “alarming” number is given, but never a total. OK, so dogs alerted false 200x. Horrible. Once is not acceptable in my mind. Still, it would make it look a lot more important if it said:

      Drug Dogs false alert 200 times out of 1000. I can actually understand that. Need to have more integrity in reporting than the prohib Nazi’s.

      [Editor’s note: Thanks for splitting hairs. Basically, the question is, you’re either for dogs invading your privacy for cannabis or you’re not, not how the way the dogs fail to identify the presence of contraband consistently is described in a blog headline.]