By Nicholas Tamarin

HIGH TIMES asks the experts whether K9 units’ bites justify their barks in an effort to explore the assertion that police dogs act as “probable cause on four legs."

If you live in New York City, or pass through any area designated as a terrorist target in the decade following 9/11 -- from airports and train stations to government buildings -- there’s a good chance that you’ve encountered a K9 unit deployed in a public sweep. While there is nothing to fear if you’re carrying drugs while passing by bomb-sniffing dogs (they are not trained to detect drugs) or even K9 drug units you might happen to run into (there is no threat of random detection as dogs must be directed by handlers to begin their sniffing and it’s illegal to randomly target individuals in public places) there is an increasingly disturbing trend in how law-enforcement is utilizing K9 units when they pull you over.

A recent study conducted by the Chicago Tribune analyzed three years of data from police departments in the suburbs of Chicago and found that just 44% of dog alerts resulted in the discovery of drugs or paraphernalia, and that the average false alert resulted in a stop lasting almost a half hour. The numbers are even more staggering for Hispanics drivers -- the success rate was a mere 27%. Even accounting for alerts triggered by drug residue, the numbers suggest that the dogs are either being poorly trained or are responding to cues from their handlers like leading them too many times or too slowly around a vehicle.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Davis and published in January states unequivocally that “handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes,” and that detector dogs are cued by their handlers 85% of the time. Lawrence Myers, an associate professor of animal behavior at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine told HIGH TIMES that he’s “disturbed by the number of dog-handler teams that are not well trained,” while Steven D. Nicely an expert at K9 Consultants of America – who started training dogs in 1973 as a military policeman, became a police officer in Texas, and has been a professional dog trainer since 1989 – says that he’s convinced that “the majority of detector dog trainers are not very knowledgeable.

If there is in any silver lining in all this for pot possessors it’s that the same glaring incompetence that’s pervasive in false detections can lead to canines being so poorly trained that they’re unable to detect non-trace amounts of illegal substances in the majority of cases, according to Nicely. In a Japanese university study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2009, researchers state clearly that “a dog’s response to commands is influenced not only by the relationship with its owner, but also the owner’s dog-handling ability.” The ability of law-enforcement trainers can seriously be called into question then when Nicely says that in his review of “approximately 30 drug detector dogs’ field performance … the average probability of non-trace amounts [of drugs] being seized is 39%.” He says properly training dogs could easily lead to non-trace amounts beings seized 80% of the time'

Edwin Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois asserts that “dog sniffs should be banned absent individualized reasonable suspicion that a car contains illegal drugs,” in other words, evidence besides a dog’s bark. Illinois State Rep. Jim Durkin, a Republican former prosecutor from Chicago’s Cook County has called police dogs “probable cause on four legs” and sponsored a bill in 2007 with the aim of creating a certification board to create standards that all police dogs would have to meet. The bill died in a Senate committee.