Detection Dogs: Valuable Companions Performing Valuable Services
Humans have benefitted enormously from our relationship with dogs – and vice-versa. In fact, some scientists have suggested that “Dogs may have even been the catalyst for our civilisation.”
The current theory is that dogs chose to be domesticated; they picked us. Wild dogs lurking around human encampments were tolerated if they were friendly and non-aggressive. Friendly proto-dogs evolved rapidly both in their appearance, and importantly, their ability to read human gestures. In fact, dogs are even better at reading human gestures than our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos.
For early humans, having increasingly smart and perceptive dogs around offered a lot of advantages. Hunting became much more successful, and they provided an additional layer of protection from predators and hostile strangers.
Detection dogs today are being used for everything from locating drugs, electronic devices and firearms, to detecting bed bugs, endangered species and even cancerous tumours.
It was also a good choice for dogs – apart from the rare occasions when they were insurance against starvation. Humans provided shelter, companionship and a reliable food supply. Over time, the bond between humans and dogs deepened enormously, and dogs’ uncanny abilities have evolved to serve people in increasingly varied and important ways.
Still helping to keep us safe
With up to 300 million scent receptors, dogs can separate all manners of scents with ease. Combined with their ability to take direction and act on our behalf, it’s little wonder that dogs have played a significant role in keeping people safe.
Today that includes the training and deployment of ‘detection dogs’ to address a broad range of threats. This trend started in the 1960s and ‘70s when large numbers of detection dogs were deployed in the U.S. in an attempt to minimise the volume of drugs reaching the streets. Since then, the use of detection dogs has spread from the obvious to the downright unusual. Detection dogs today are being used for everything from locating drugs, electronic devices and firearms, to detecting bed bugs, endangered species and even cancerous tumours.
And perhaps not surprisingly, one of the biggest drivers of the detection dogs market today is their effectiveness in counter-terrorism efforts.
Head over heels
With the increased scrutiny on terrorism globally in recent years, the number of sniffer dogs on the streets has risen dramatically. The Executive Committee at NASDU, The National Association for Security Dog Users notes: “Detection dog work has increased significantly over the past decade. In the late ‘90s clients had very limited knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of detection dogs, but over time the private security industry, as well as uniformed services, have worked tirelessly to educate end users, providing a service that is not only extremely well executed, but also meets the needs of the current climate. Commercially it makes sense to employ detection dogs due to their tremendous sensing ability - they have no preconception of areas or individuals which allow all searches to be carried out with the same vigour and intent.”
Detection dogs are now an essential part of explosives detection units with a growing number of countries looking to expand their use in security programs. This demand has seen their value skyrocket, yet dogs with the right abilities are in scarce supply, putting additional pressure on security agencies and other users to find reliable sources.
Handlers are similarly sought after. Assisting a detection dog is a physically demanding job requiring the ability to remain alert and focused for lengthy periods of time. In military or police roles, dogs and their handlers often need to be on call 24/7 in the event of an emergency.
It’s a dog’s life…
As you might expect, working around drugs, bombs and firearms isn’t always the safest of career choices.
Detection dogs today are exposed to a multitude of different risks, much like their handlers. As well as being central to bomb detection units domestically, detection dogs are also much-valued assets when it comes to identifying explosives in conflict zones. The U.S. Navy SEALs, for example, deployed a detection dog in the operation to capture Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
The recent earthquakes in central Italy provide another example of the value detection dogs can bring to search and rescue teams. An eight-year-old girl was rescued 16 hours after the collapse of her Pescara del Tronto home. Leo, a four and a half-year-old Labrador, was able to give “strong signals” to his handlers in less than 40 seconds of searching the rubble of the property.
The vetting process
Labradors are a common choice for detection dogs, as are Spaniels and Alsatians. More often than not, these dogs are owned by their handlers rather than external organisations, meaning the cost of training a dog usually falls on the individual.
A detection dog’s lifespan is around 10-12 years, yet most detection dogs don’t start the training process until they’ve reached at least a couple of years of age. Once they are ready, basic courses can cost several thousand pounds; yet training more specialised dogs can be both a lengthy and costly affair. NASDU suggest the cost of a detection dog can range between £3000 - £8000. They are also cautious when discussing the amount of time it can take to train a dog, noting that each dog learns differently, and training should not be rushed in case it affects their performance.
Paws for thought
A common misconception amongst handlers is that they can be covered with standard pet insurance. Detection dog handlers who take out pet insurance policies for their animals may find themselves in for a nasty shock, as most pet insurance policies specifically exclude animals used “for security purposes or connected in any way with a trade, occupation or business.” These exclusions mean coverages suitable for detection dogs need to be purchased from insurers who specialize in this unique class and offer bespoke coverage.
Those looking for an effective insurance solution should take care to assess the different triggers. A good insurance solution will provide coverage options for death, poisoning, theft, transit and ‘loss of use’ – a term used to describe when a dog loses its ability to perform the function(s) for which it has been trained.
The loss of a detection dog can have a severe impact on the owner’s livelihood. Training a new, specialised detection dog comes at significant expense, and in the interim, a handler can be left out of work. Often handlers may not have funds available to purchase a replacement dog. By choosing specialised insurance that covers the dog while it is working, the owner will have peace of mind that the insurance will respond, should the worst happen.
So whether we chose dogs or dogs chose us as the current research suggests, making sure our canine companions are as well protected as possible seems a worthy investment, given the vital services they perform.