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How reliable are drug-sniffing dogs?

There is a reason that dogs are called “man’s best friend.” More than any other animal, dogs have evolved to be in close companionship with humans, work alongside them, and intuitively read their facial and body language. For these reasons, dogs are more than just pets. They can be trained to do everything from helping those with disabilities to fighting crime.

Unfortunately, dogs may not be as reliable as we think when it comes to a particular crime-fighting tool: sniffing out drugs. According to a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, there are very real problems with the way police dogs are used to justify warrantless searches.

The problem is not with a dog’s sense of smell, but rather with its handler’s priorities. Dogs inherently want to please the humans they interact with, and research has shown that many drug-sniffing dogs respond more to the body language of their handlers than to the scent of drugs. This essentially means that if the police officer has a hunch about the presence of drugs, he is consciously or unconsciously cuing the dog to “alert.” Some dogs are even given a treat only when they alert, which means they have incentive to do so regardless of whether they smell drugs.

Why are false alerts a problem? In short, because they give police officers a blank check to search anyone based solely on their own hunches. Normally, a search warrant would be required, unless there was probable cause. Drug-sniffing dogs that alert to please their handlers provide that probable cause, however inaccurate it may be.

The takeaway here is that like many law-enforcement tools, drug-sniffing dogs are far from perfect. If you are facing drug charges and a dog was involved in your initial search, please contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help you understand your rights and legal options.

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