Dog owners in Mississippi likely know that their canine companions have very sensitive noses, so it may surprise them to learn that police dogs often alert to the presence of drugs during traffic stops when there are no controlled substances to be found. It is not the dog’s nose letting it down in this situation: It is the dog’s training. This is because police dogs, like all dogs, are extremely loyal and desperately want to make their handlers happy; this desire to please sometimes leads them to ignore their sense of smell.
Law enforcement ignores study
Researchers from the University of California studied the influence that police dog handlers have over their canine charges in 2011. The researchers discovered that K9 unit dogs were far more likely to alert when their handlers suspected that the vehicle contained drugs. The researchers also noticed that the cues the dogs received from their handlers were often subtle and unintentional. Law enforcement could have used the results of the study to improve police dog training methods. Instead, they chose to ignore the study in favor of Polish research conducted three years later that ostensibly showed how to eliminate false alerts.
The problem with the Polish study was that every car the dogs checked contained drugs, which means that a false alert was not possible. The reliance on flawed studies is one of the reasons why so many police dogs excel in training and then fail in the field. One K9 unit dog in Washington alerted every single time it sniffed the air around a vehicle, and a police dog in Illinois alerted to the presence of drugs during 93% of its air sniffs. Drugs were only discovered in 29% and 60% of those searches, respectively. Results like this have prompted groups advocating for criminal law reform to call for a change in the way K9 officers are trained.
If you are stopped
If you are pulled over and a police dog alerts while sniffing the air around your vehicle, the courts have ruled that police have probable cause to search your car. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has limited police powers in this situation. If your traffic stop was delayed for an unreasonable amount of time so that a police dog could be summoned, an experienced criminal defense attorney may argue that the search was unconstitutional and that any evidence seized should be excluded.