Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

K-9 Forensics

Handling Dogs

Justin Spence is the president of K9 Intercept (, located in Orlando, Florida. He's also a member of Dogs Against Drugs/Dogs Against Crimes, an international K-9 organization that conducts "puppy patrol" demonstration programs for school kids. His dogs specialize in finding narcotics and explosives, and he certifies dogs and handlers in substance and firearms detection.

A handler with a German shepherd from K-9 Intercept might be hired to inspect the facilities of a business for the presence of illegal drugs. In the event they find marijuana or cocaine, the dog shows a "passive alert" response, which means that it sits and then places its nose in or on the target container, rather than barking or showing agitated behaviors. Bringing such dogs in for random inspections proves to be a good psychological deterrent.

Another service that the company offers is executive protection in situations where an assignment may expose someone in the company to the risk of explosives. The dogs can "sweep" a room or building for specific types of odors associated with bombs.

According to Spence, the keys to effective teamwork are proper initial training and continued maintenance. "You cannot expect the dog to do its job if it was not trained properly," he insists. "Also, you cannot expect solid 100% results if you do not train with your canine on a regular basis. You have to constantly remember to keep the training fun for the detection dog, because to them it's a game. The contraband odor is their 'toy' and they always want to find their toy. The moment it's not fun for the dog—and for the trainer—you have lost."

It's essential that the handler know his or her role in the partnership. "You must know what the dog can do and what the dog cannot do. You also have to share a bond in order to learn the dog's body language in certain situations, especially detection work. I can tell when my dog is about to 'alert' by his body language alone."

By this he means that the scent of the target contraband spreads out and forms a wide area known as a cone. Within this area, the dog can pick up the scent and narrow down the precise location. Spence can tell right away when the dog has entered this area, even before it gives a definitive signal.

"You as a handler must know what you are looking for," he says. "You have to know about the specific odor, how it travels, and how the environment you are searching affects it." For example in a closed room with air vents, the vents may pick up the odor in one place and push it across the room. In that case, a dog may alert the handler in the wrong area. "To get a pinpoint hit, you have to know where to run the dog."

A good detection dog, he explains, can usually pinpoint an odor even through other odors. "The contraband odor just can't hide. That's his 'toy,' and he'll get it!"

Whatever the need for a detection K-9 may be, Spence finds working with dogs satisfying, because he's doing his part to get drugs and guns off the street and to keep people safe.

Yet just having a scent isn't always sufficient. The handler featured in the next chapter became an inventor and thereby changed the way this work is done.


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