Sniffer Dogs

I love dogs, and one of the things I’ve been researching is how to include a dog of some kind in a crime story. Aside from including a pet or perhaps a savage dog attack, you can include a sniffer dog as one of your recurring characters!

Also, I basically used this post to include lots and lots of pictures of dogs on my blog!


What is a sniffer dog?

A sniffer dog offers specialist support to investigations of various kinds, depending on what it is you want the dog to detect. They are trained to identify a specific scent including drugs, money, explosives, firearms, human diseases, crime evidence, blood, mobile phones, people and well, pretty much anything else you need them to identify.

You may, therefore, see a sniffer dog referred to as one of the following: K9s, detection dog, cadaver dog, arson dog and human remains detection dog (HDR).

A sniffer dog is trained to search people, vehicles, baggage and containers for the trained scent. Once the scent is identified, the dog indicates to the handler that they have found it. The handler, usually a police officer, can then conduct a ‘stop and search’ to try to ascertain the item.


Which breeds are used?

In the UK, the following breeds are most often used as sniffer dogs:

  • Beagles
  • Border collies
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labradors
  • Springer Spaniels

Although you might also see breeds such as German shepherds, Dobermans and Malinoise working as police dogs, these are better suited to chase and attack. The above listed dogs are chosen for scent detection specifically because they not only have an unmatched sense of smell, they are easy to train, have bundles of energy and most importantly, appear friendly to the general public.


Why use a sniffer dog?

A sniffer dogs’ nose sensitivity is 1,000 times better than a humans, and they can single out a specific scent even if there are dozens of others present at the same time. This even includes being able to find a specific scent when attempts have been made by a criminal to mask it with a stronger smell or even tightly seal an item. For example, in 2013 a man attempted to smuggle cocaine in socks smeared with Vicks vapour rub into the UK, but was unable to fool sniffer dogs: read the full story here.

A sniffer can dog can also trace scents that are up to ten years old, so you can definitely include them in your cold case stories.


How exactly does a sniffer dog work?

A verbal cue sets the dog off searching for its specialist scent. A handler may intervene if they discover smaller areas they want the dog to investigate, but largely it’s a waiting game for the dog to detect something.

Once a dog has located its trained scent, it signals to its handler a pre-learned behaviour. This could be a bark, scratching in the area of the scent, or ‘passive dogs’ are trained to simply sit down.

In the UK, a sniffer dog indicating the presence of the scent is grounds for the handler to conduct a ‘stop and search’. Handlers will have a police or military background or be trained security officers.


Problems with sniffer dogs

Sniffer dogs are not 100% accurate, and sometimes a trace scent is detected that may have nothing to do with the ‘suspect’ in question. For example, think of the number of people who have previously handled the cash in your wallet; there are bound to trace elements of tobacco, drugs and blood.

Some people fear that being ‘sniffed’ by a sniffer dog is an infringement of their rights; they do not give prior consent to being sniffed and yet if a sniffer dog does so and indicates to their handler they have found something, you can be searched.


Training a sniffer dog

Puppies are recruited at between 2-18 months old and undergo socialisation and basic obedience training at around 12-18 months old.

The dog is selected and finally gets to meet its handler, with whom he will go through 14 weeks of intensive training. The dogs will also be retested and retrained throughout their careers as sniffer dogs to ensure they still meet standards. Dogs tend to be retired around the age of 8 or 9, sometimes going to live with their handler as a pet or being rehomed.

Watch sniffer dogs in training in this short video:

Case Study: Cadaver Dogs

Cadaver dogs are trained to locate remains. Specifically, the can detect: bones, blood, body parts, tissue and residue scents; this last one means they can detect a location that recently had remains laid or buried there.

A cadaver dog can sniff out human remains above or below ground, and even a body that has been weighted or tangled underwater; these dogs can sit in a boat over a body of water and indicate the location of the remains.

You can even train a dog specifically to identify remains of a certain age: a dog could be trained to locate recently decomposed remains, or historic graves years old.

These dogs are often used alongside ground-penetrating radar and magnemotry techniques to locate human remains over sometimes vast areas.


Include sniffer dogs in your story!

  • Is your main character a dog handler in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or perhaps a plane crash?
  • Does your sniffer dog detect illegal firearms during an airport search that were used in a recent killing?
  • Is your sniffer dog used in a cold case?
  • Maybe you could tell the story from the point of view of the dog itself!
  • Does your sniffer dog find a body part whilst out on a training drill which kickstarts your story?
  • Will your sniffer dog be a recurring character?


Over to you

Have you used a sniffer dog in your story? Tell me about him/her in the comments!

Leave me a reply!