By Mark Mathis
Urban Legend seems to have decided that police dogs are in trouble, given the new legal status of marijuana in Michigan. Misguided reporters and trainers have at times claimed the dogs would need to be euthanized or retired. Those tales have been repeated until just about every corner of the internet has taken notice. While it all makes a great story, our four pawed friends are rather safe and secure in their jobs.
I’ve spent over 20 years training police dogs, testified in court as an expert on their training, written a boatload of professional articles, have a couple thousand street uses under my belt, and thoroughly enjoy the art of training a dog. Recently, several agencies have consulted me about the best path forward given the new status of marijuana in Michigan. My goal here is to simply provide a small primer to help give a clearer understanding of what is happening right now behind the scenes. If you love dogs, psychology, or even marijuana this should be a pretty fascinating read. I’ll try my best to keep it to everyday terms.
You must first understand how the dogs are initially trained. Police Dogs aren’t drug junkies, looking for their next fix of their favorite drugs. They are actually rabbit junkies, looking for the next animal to pop out of a box and try to run away.
Most American police dogs learn their drug odors in a game that looks like a dog version of three card monte. A whole host of drugs and tennis balls are placed into one box. The dog then has to figure out what box contains that all important odor. Once the dog locates the box and offers a correct behavior a ball/rabbit pops out and the chase is on.
A trainer will help a dog learn this process. When broken down it is pretty simple:
1. Use your nose to smell the boxes;
2. Find a box with the right smell;
4. Sit down;
5. A “rabbit/ball” pops out,
6. Great fun ensues.
In a matter of days the average police dog trainee can reliably search four random boxes and pick out the drug odors with great consistency. When you are a high drive police dog, rabbits rock!
Has your house dog ever watched you fix a sandwich at the counter and wanted some? Yours may whine, bark, scratch, jump, steal, bite, or watch intently for a dropped morsel. Each dog has a package of behaviors they will offer in an attempt to get what they want. These behaviors are your dog’s “rolodex.” (For my younger readers think of a favorite phone list that you access on a moment’s notice). Trainers reward the ones they want and help eliminate the ones that aren’t helpful.
If your dog gets food every time he barks, that behavior is going to move up the favorite list. If your dog jumps 22 times and each time is unsuccessful at getting food he will eventually start offering another behavior that actually works. The rolodex card that is reinforced will be accessed more quickly and the rolodex card that is never rewarded will disappear.
At the end of the three card monte, drug-dog kingpin edition, we remove the tennis balls from the boxes and use drugs only. The dogs have no problem finding the drugs without the tennis balls around anymore. (We still toss in a ball from a new mystery spot once the drugs are found.)
Finally, the dog will search a host of boxes: drug filled, empties, and boxes with just tennis balls. The dogs initially go to the tennis balls and start rolling through their rolodex of possible behaviors that would make a rabbit magically appear. It simply does not work. The dog will give up and go over and sit next to the drugs… and hocus-pocus a rabbit pops out! In very short order the dog could care less about tennis balls in a box — they do nothing in the all important game of rabbit. The offered and rewarded behavior for locating tennis balls disappears through “extinction”.
The Marijuana (Reefer)
Whatever concerns you have about legal Marijuana, don’t let police dogs be one of them. The dogs will go back to “basic” training. Through the game of rabbits and rolodexes trainers will make the previously offered behavior when smelling marijuana extinct.
We’ve eliminated responses to other odors using this game. Other odors are be placed out during a normal training day to make sure a dog does not indicate on it. On many training days you’ll find everything from wallets, cigarettes, tennis balls, food, and baking powder hidden in search areas. This is done as a confirmation to make sure that the dog is only indicating on the illegal substances. Marijuana, once it no longer elicits a response, will become another of these other distractor odors.
It’s harder to unlearn a behavior than learn it. So the task of eliminating any response to marijuana will take some time, consistency in training, and effort. Given a couple months the dogs will be able run across marijuana and leave it alone… just like they do tennis balls, tobacco, and McDonald’s quarter pounders.
How about right now? There are a smattering of dogs in the state that have never been trained on marijuana, including one in the N3 readership area. There are others undergoing this “extinction” training. There are still others in the state that plan to slightly modify use for the immediate future.
In simple terms the big issue is that Canine Teams that use their dogs to enter a vehicle without a search warrant will need a documented training and certification record. That record will need to show they reliably indicate only on items that are illegal to possess. Dogs that indicate on Quarter Pounders, Marijuana, or tennis balls won’t be able to be used for a search warrant exception.
So please fear not for your local police dog. Michigan’s Canine Teams are well positioned to adapt to a changing legal landscape.
Police Dog handlers, and dog lovers, can rejoice the internet isn’t always right on the details. Legal Marijuana isn’t really a concern of the average police dog. The dogs will be happy to hear that forced retirement shouldn’t be right around the corner.