New York Times,
Dogs and Their Fine Noses Find New Career Paths
By JENNIFER 8. LEE
A year ago, Jada, a frisky black mutt, was living in a
her days numbered. Today she commands hundreds of dollars an hour at
fate turned on her newly gained ability to sniff out something reviled
Last month, the Motion Picture Association of America started using two
dogs, Lucky and Flo, to sniff out DVD's in the cargo area of
had Lassie, then Rin Tin Tin and now Lucky and Flo," said Dan Glickman,
the president of the association.
Dogs have long been partners in law enforcement's searches for
narcotics, explosives and people (both dead and alive). But now their
keen noses are being put to use in a wider variety of areas, like
medicine, environmental protection and anti-piracy efforts. The number
of dogs with the new, specialized skills remains but a fraction of the
number trained for more traditional law enforcement uses.
Still, dogs are entering new career paths, learning to sniff out mercury
cows in heat.
"The dogs do better than bulls," said Lawrence J. Myers, a professor of
veterinary science at
success rate of impregnation attempts, a pressing demand in the dairy
industry. Dr. Myers, a leading expert on dogs' sense of smell, added
that because dogs "have no innate interest in cows in heat," it takes
repetitive training to teach them how to know when the cows are ready.
(The bulls do not benefit from the dogs' work. Dairy cows are usually
Dogs' sniffing prowess, well known for ages, lends itself to any number
of needs. "Cocaine or peanut butter: whatever you want to find, we can
train a dog to find it," said Bill Whitstine, Jada's original trainer
and the founder of the Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor, Fla.
Engineers are still years away from creating instruments as sensitive or
as flexible as a dog's nose. Until then, Mother Nature remains the
master engineer. "You can train a dog for anything that has a unique or
mostly unique odor," Dr. Myers said. In the case of DVD's, the smell
that Lucky and Flo have been trained to detect is polycarbonate plastic.
In the case of cancer, scientists believe that dogs may be picking up
biological compounds, like alkanes and benzene derivatives, that are not
found in healthy tissue.
The cancer detection research is in a preliminary stage, but some early
tests with a variety of cancers like lung and bladder show a success
rate better than conventional tests'.
Because dogs have 20 to 40 times the number of nasal receptor cells that
humans do, they can detect the tiniest levels of odors, even a few parts
per billion, Dr. Myers said. In addition, the dogs' nasal anatomy is
very effective at sampling air, so much so that researchers are studying
whether they can adapt it for a mechanical detector.
To be sure, dogs are but one animal with an extremely acute sense of
smell (think European pigs and truffles), but being man's best friend
helps with employment opportunities.
"I don't think you could ever get a police officer to get a pig around a
car for a narcotics search," said David Latimer, a dog trainer in
Birmingham, Ala., who has taught a dog to sniff out cellphones, part of
an effort to thwart terrorists who plan to use them to detonate bombs.
The dog has not been put to use in the field, however.
The training process is similar for almost all odors. For months, the
dogs are given multiple items in succession to smell. When they come to
the target odor - bedbugs or mold, for example - they get a reward.
Eventually they associate the odor with the reward.
"All animals strive for food, sex and praise," Mr. Whitstine said. "We
can't give them the middle one, but we can give them the food and
praise." The more odors a dog is being asked to pick out, the longer the
training. Mold dogs, for example, are taught to detect about 18 toxic
molds, some of which cause allergies.
The training has to continue even after the dogs start working, so they
remain sharp. Every day, Jada gets a refresher course from her owner,
Carl Massicott, who runs Advanced K9 Detectives in Milford, Conn. To
conduct the retraining, he built a contraption out of aluminum bars, a
lazy susan and plastic containers. He spins the wheel and says, "Jada!
Jada sniffed around the containers - one containing bedbug carcasses and
the others containing decoy materials like carpet and plaster. When she
got to the one with the dead bedbugs, she stopped. Then she tapped the
container with her paw. "Good girl!" Mr. Massicott said, giving her a
snack out of his waist pack.
He also uses live bedbugs for the retraining, which troubles his wife.
Once, one escaped. "We weren't going to bed until we found it," Mr.
Massicott said. Jada tracked the wayward bedbug down.
Jada needs only two minutes to check a room that can take a human up to
half an hour to inspect. She has rooted out clusters of bedbugs in
$500-a-night hotel rooms, elegant Park Avenue co-op buildings and Queens
low-rise rentals. She has found bedbugs behind radiators and in cracks
in the wall.
Many dogs who end up as career sniffers are rescued from shelters or
pounds, just as Jada was, because the most important trait for them is
not pedigree but personality. Trainers look for dogs that are eager and
enjoy games. A common test is to see if they react enthusiastically to a
"Some dogs are too smart," said Alice Whitelaw, who works for a
nonprofit conservation group in Montana and uses dogs to track wild
animal excrement for biological surveying. "They're like, 'I don't need
this. I could be lying down all day.' "
There are other limitations, since dogs are not machines. Jada can look
for bedbugs only six hours a day before her accuracy declines. Dogs get
tired. They are temperamental. They make mistakes in trying to please
their handlers. In fact, overly high expectations helped fuel a boom and
bust in termite-sniffing dogs in the 1980's. "We realize their
fallibility," said Mr. Latimer, the trainer from Birmingham who is also
training bedbug dogs. "I think that has caused them to gain in
popularity and, quite frankly, in credibility."
Also, using sniffing dogs makes economic sense only when there is
sufficient demand, like the recent surge in bedbugs in New York City.
As for sensing cows in heat, Dr. Myers sighed. "There is economic
interest, but not enough to sustain it."