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Setting Standards for Canine Detection

WHEN LEADERS in the area of canine scent detection set out to establish best practices and certification standards for their trade, some of them worried that finding consensus would be like herding cats. But the process, begun in 2005 and scheduled to continue into next year, is going smoothly, according to executive board members of the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal detector Guidelines, or SWGDOG.

The push for best practices and voluntary certifications for dogs and handlers stemmed from heightened scrutiny of canine evidence in court and from a desire to set common criteria that end users can expect providers to meet.

At present, there are many different qualification standards in the marketplace that have been set by agencies and professional groups, including the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Transportation Security Administration; the National Narcotics Dog Detector Association; and the U.S. Police Canine Association. The goal is to find common ground among the standards. Each group is represented on the 55-member SWGDOG panel, which is drafting guidelines in nine separate areas.

It has agreed on the first area, general guidelines. Four other areas will likely be finalized before the end of the year: dog selection; kenneling and health; handler selection; and presentation of evidence in court. Three other topics are expected to stay open for public comment until April 2007: research and technology, substance dogs, and scent dogs. The final area—common terminology—is being completed piecemeal, along with the eight others.

SWGDOG’s general guidelines call for annual recertification of dog-handler teams, requiring a 90 percent success rate for detection in various scent and substance tests. That is not currently the universal standard; for example, the National Narcotics Detector Dog Association requires only 75 percent detection.

The proposed guidelines for dog selection concern issues such as health and personality; they would require, for example, that a young prospective dog demonstrate a strong “hunt drive” to recover a favorite toy in different environments and amid unfamiliar people.

The draft guideline for handler selection calls for thorough training in everything from the basic canine care and fundamentals of dog training to common methods of scent concealment.

The proposal for courtroom testimony covers the basics of taking the witness stand, and it further recommends that handlers brief prosecutors on the fundamentals of canine detection before going to court. SWGDOG also recommends that a handler be ready to demonstrate that his or her dog trains regularly in differentiating between target substances and those intended to conceal or distract.

SWGDOG executive board member Mark Rispoli, a professional dog trainer, attorney, and former police handler, says that feedback from handlers has been positive. However, one contentious issue has been whether tests should be doubleblind, with neither the dog nor the handler knowing where scents were placed.

In current testing, handlers may know the location of the find. Pending SWGDOG evaluation guidelines call for one double-blind test, plus other single-blind tests, including some in which the handler knows the number of scents placed and others in which the handler does not, including one without any scents placed.

SWGDOG hopes the guidelines will become general practices, but it does not intend for them to become mandatory.