Phone Sniffing Dogs: A New Weapon Against High Tech Crime

It is dogs against high tech criminal activity in prisons?

Posted Dec 18, 2011

Although our lives are being impacted by a greater and greater use of complex technology, our low tech companions and work mates, namely dogs, seem to find new applications all of the time. Often dogs are better at solving problems than high tech devices. Here is an example involving the control of criminal behavior.

One of the most recent problems problem that dogs have been called out to deal with involves cell phones. At first blush, to those of us outside of the penal system, cell phones do not seem like any kind of threat. However inside a prison, cell phones defeat some of the purpose of incarceration. They are among the biggest problems prison officials face. Criminals with cell phones continue to run their gangs even while locked up. In the past five years, prisoners in Maryland and Tennessee used cell phones to help organize murders, run drug operations, and plan escapes. In Florida a prisoner used a cell phone to threaten and intimidate witnesses that were to be called to his trial. In Texas, a death-row inmate used a smuggled cell phone to make death threats against a state senator.

For prison administrators the continuing miniaturization of cell phones has become a problem. Their small size has made it easier to smuggle phones into prisons and to conceal them. Cell phones have been shot over prison fences tied to arrows, using potato guns, or flown over on model airplanes. They are also concealed in packages, food deliveries, or in body cavities when a girlfriend visits. California seized 4,000 illicit cell phones from its prisons in 2009.

You might think that the solution lies with technology, and it should be possible to simply to jam the cell phone transmissions in the prisons. However in the United States, Federal Communications Commission regulations forbid such interference since this would also affect normal legitimate phone use and emergency calls and many prisons are located in urban settings where residents in nearby neighbourhoods would be impacted.

Another obvious high tech solution involves electronic devices to pick up active cell phones. While such devices do exist and their circuitry can sense the presence of an activated mobile cell phone they have major limitations. First, their range is limited, but more importantly, the moment the phone is switched off these devices no longer can to detect its presence.

When high tech fails one has to resort to lower tech alternatives. Thus it was suggested that dogs might be able to detect the scent of cell phones and their various components since it is known that some of the electronic parts, such as the lithium batteries, do leak low levels of chemicals into the air, and there are distinctive chemical components in circuit boards, screens, and casings which might also do so.

I was approached by one group of individuals who wanted to train dogs to detect cell phones but didn't know how to go about getting a useful training scent to teach the dogs what they were looking for. To provide this I took a few large airtight glass boxes (of the sort used to store biological specimens) and had them carefully sterilized. Into each of them we put a collection of cell phone parts and components, along with some 2-inch square sterile gauze pads. The boxes were sealed and were reopened 10 days later. By this time the basic cell phone smell that had built up in the closed container was intense enough so that even we nasally-challenged human beings could detect it. It is hard to describe the smell in words, however the scent was a sort of a sweet metallic smell that I might fantasize that a newly built robot would have, with perhaps a faint ozone-like overtone. It made me wonder if people would really carry such rank smelling objects as cell phones in their pockets if our human noses or anywhere as nearly sensitive as the dogs. The gauze pads that were stored in these boxes had absorbed this odour and were then placed in airtight plastic bags. These scent impregnated pads could be pulled out later when the dogs are being taught their jobs, thus allowing them to be imprinted on what a cell phone smells like.

Once the target scent has been isolated for training, dogs learn very quickly to seek out cell phones and components, and seem to greatly enjoy the work. At the command of their handlers the dogs  work a room clockwise and bark, scratch, sit or give some other indication that they've hit on something. They are also able to detect smells 15 feet over their heads. Often, their handlers hoist them onto shelves or bunks so they can sniff out items in hiding places such as vents or other elevated locations.

According to dog trainers and handlers, it is not the scent location problem that causes some dogs to flunk out of the program, but rather aspects of the prison environment itself. Some dogs become uncomfortable trying to navigate the slippery floors in the cell block. Others can't deal with the noise. A particular problem affects dogs that are worried by heights. On the top tier of cells you are looking down through a floor grating at a drop of four or five stories. Some dogs simply won't walk on that surface.

As of this writing cell phone detection dogs are being used in a number of states including New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia with test programs underway in Florida and California. The dogs are moved from one prison to another to make very effective sweeps for the target contraband high tech communication equipment using only the low tech-but extremely sensitive-nasal equipment that evolution and careful breeding has provided them with.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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