The following principles must be understood before analysing a K-9 alert.
1) All dogs have the ability to smell narcotic odours. What separates a police K-9 from all other dogs is the police dog is trained to communicate the presents of a narcotic odour to the handler. This communication is called an alert. An alert includes noticeable behaviour changes in the dog followed by a scratch near the odour source. Behaviour changes include a sudden head jerk in the direction of the odour source, slowing of the wagging tail, and a facial expressions change. Breathing patterns change as well and can be noticed while the dog increases the rate of sniffs with a closed mouth to allow more odour to pass through the snout for analysis. If the K-9 detects the odor of a narcotic during this process, s/he communicates this to the handler by scratching near the source. Behaviour changes without a scratch is not enough to announce an alert just as a scratch without behaviour changes is not an alert either. Both must be witnessed by the handler to announce the K-9 is detecting the odor of contraband.
2) Unlike humans, a dog has the ability to separate odors mixed together. When presented with a bowl of stew, a human sees all the different ingredients but smells one odor. A K-9 can smell, distinguish and separate each ingredient contained in the stew. S/he smells numerous odors and not just one. This explains why masking odors often used by smugglers do not work. If a smuggler wrapped a pound of marijuana in sheets of fabric softener, followed by a good wrap of foil and finally placed in a can of coffee, a dog smells the fabric softener, the foil the coffee and the marijuana. This “odor separation process” takes time! A K-9 cannot properly separate odors if s/he is rushed or hurried through this process. Because K-9’s can detect and separate odors, it is important to conduct exercises teaching the dog what odors provide the reward. For instance, during training, a dog is rewarded for alerting to a baggie of marijuana. Empty and uncontaminated baggies must then be presented to the dog for an alert. When the K-9 alerts, he is discouraged by giving a command of dissatisfaction and the pulled away from the baggies. This step is repeated until the dog stops alerting on plastic baggies. If this step is skipped, the handler is soon left with a “trashy” dog that alerts on every odor that surrounded drug odors during training. A K-9 must also have room to work through invisible scent cones created by a multitude of odors surrounding the vehicle. K-9’s must have this space to track the odor’s source. K-9 handlers should allow the dog to work freely by grasping the very end of the leash as not to restrict or manipulate the dog’s movements. In the video, the handler can be seen pulling and pushing the K-9’s head instead of allowing the dog to work freely. While teaching K-9 narcotic detector classes, I would often tell the students who made the same error “Don’t work the dog, let the dog work!” After correcting this poor habit many times with students, I learned the reason for this phenomena is the handler’s fear of his or her dog not performing by showing disinterest in the vehicle. A K-9 lacking proper motivation to search a car is very embarrassing when the handler’s peers watch the dog stare at traffic instead of searching for drugs.
3) After a K-9 has alerted, the handler encourages the dog by repeating statements such as “get it, get it, get it out of there.” These verbal commands excite the dog into scratching harder and faster and should never be used on actual street searches until the presence of a drug is confirmed by an officer. If the dog is encouraged to scratch, and no drugs are found, the dog is left with the impression that a scratch on a door for legal odors or no reason at all is what the handler desires causing the K-9 to be considered “dirty.” This term means the K-9 will scratch on anything to get his reward. If drugs are located, the K-9 should then be brought back to the previous alert area and encouraged to scratch. When the desired scratch is achieved, the handler “pays” or rewards the dog by throwing him/her a toy. The repeated process of verbally encouraging an alert and then rewarding the dog for compliance makes it possible to manipulate ANY AND ALL POLICE DOGS into scratching WITHOUT A NARCOTIC ODOR BEING PRESENT! This is referred to as a “false or forced alert.”