The best from man's best friend

Achieving optimum performance of detector dog teams and exploring tactics for survival in police canine


     Field deployable electronic sensors or instruments can't top dogs, which have been increasingly in demand since 9/11.

     "Canines are still our best detection technology," says Kenneth Furton, Ph.D., who's been an analytical chemist for about 20 years and worked with detector dogs for about 15 years.

     For the foreseeable future, he says detector dog teams will remain one of the best tools available for contraband interdiction and homeland security.

     Best practice guidelines and a bill to mandate uniform standards set out to make the best even better.

     The reliability of detector dogs was increasingly under attack about the same time that the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal detector Guidelines (SWGDOG), co-chaired by Furton, was forming in 2003. At that time, peer-reviewed research was limited and best practices for the certification of teams were lacking, according to SWGDOG.

Best practice guidelines
     The vision of SWGDOG is to enhance the performance of detector dog teams using best practice guidelines. The 55 SWGDOG members, with local, state, national or international representation, also recommend best approaches to the use of detector dogs with electronic detection devices (orthogonal detectors). The combination of canine teams and instruments maximizes detection capabilities, Furton adds.

     While SWGDOG has put together consensus-based best practices for most of the police canine industry, it is not working on best practices for patrol dogs at this time.

     So far, SWGDOG has published seven guidelines focusing on terminology, general guidelines, selection of serviceable dogs, kenneling and health care, selection of handlers, evidence presentation in court, and research and technology. The guidelines are available on the Web site (www.swgdog.org) free of charge and published in Forensic Science Communications. Additional guidelines specific for human scent and substance detector dogs are expected to be published this year. Ultimately all guidelines will be collected in a book. The guidelines are living documents and will be updated based on recommendations by the community and SWGDOG members, and revised at least every two years, says Furton, a professor and associate dean at Florida International University (FIU).

     The continuous improvement process for the guidelines starts by obtaining feedback from practitioners and various other stakeholders.

     "The only way this process can be successful is to get feedback from the community because ultimately they are the ones who are going to be impacted to the greatest extent," says Furton, who is the founding director of the International Forensic Research Institute at FIU. "Even though we're not doing certifications, when you publish best practice guidelines, there will be increasing expectations for teams and agencies to follow best practices. It's very reassuring to see such a response."

     Comments generated from the Web site are shared with subcommittee chairs as well as the executive board, and every comment is considered at the membership meeting. If a document ends up being drastically revised, it is sent back out for public comment for another two-month period.

     At every step in the workflow process, there must be a three-fourths vote of the 55 members and a unanimous executive board vote to move a document to the next step.

     Furton emphasizes that while SWGDOG provides guidelines, it does not issue mandates, nor does it specify how teams should train. Just as there are many different ways to put together instruments that have similar detection capabilities, he says there are many different ways to train excellent detection teams.

     "In the end, it's best to talk about how the dog performs rather than the best way to train the dog," he says.

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