False positives raise questions about police dog training

Ohio residents likely know that our canine companions have far more sensitive noses than we do, which is why the military uses dogs to sniff out roadside bombs and law enforcement uses them to find drugs. However, these working dogs are only as effective as their training makes them, and studies suggest that the way police dogs are trained leads to a worrying number of false alerts in the field. The problem is that a dog’s fierce loyalty and desire to please its handler can override its sense of smell, and most police departments train their K-9 officers in a way that encourages rather than prevents this behavior.

Training shortcomings

If police methods were truly effective, police dogs would perform the same way in the field as they do during training. This rarely happens, and it is not uncommon for K-9 officers to perform exceptionally well in training and poorly in the real world. These training shortcomings were recently highlighted in a media article about a police dog in Ferry County, Washington, called Karma. Karma received perfect scores during evaluations in 2018 and 2019, but only 29% of the alerts the K-9 officer gave in the field led to drug seizures.

A widespread problem

Figures like this worry criminal law advocacy groups, but they are far from unusual. The article also mentions a police dog in Virginia that alerted to the scent of drugs when no drugs were present 74% of the time and a K9 unit in Illinois that issued an alert in 93% of its air sniffs even though only 60% of the vehicles actually contained controlled substances. A 2011 study conducted by researchers from the University of California exposed these problems, but it was widely denounced by law enforcement.

Traffic stops

The courts have ruled that an alert from a police dog gives officers probable cause to search a vehicle, but traffic stops cannot be delayed simply to call K-9 units to the scene. If you are pulled over and charged with drug possession after a police dog alerted during an air sniff, an experienced criminal defense attorney could seek to have the evidence excluded if the traffic stop was delayed unreasonably.