4 min read


Can a Dog Smell Pills?



4 min read


Can a Dog Smell Pills?


Dogs are very intelligent creatures, and because of this, they are highly trainable companions. With a bit of professional training, pups have the ability to sniff out pain pills and other contraband. Because of this, dogs are commonly used by law enforcement and other agencies to help stop drug trafficking, catch criminals, and even save lives! 

Whether at the airport, a train station, or another security checkpoint, it is likely that you have seen one of these drug-detection dogs. These canine companions are trained to use their sniffers to detect all kinds of odors.

Contrary to popular belief, drug-detection dogs have been around for quite some time, first gaining popularity in World War I. However, today, drug-detection dogs are even more commonly utilized, as they are capable of detecting drugs, money, or pests. 

So if you're wondering whether dogs can smell pills, the answer is an unwavering yes. Read on to find out why!


Signs Your Dog Smells Pills

Dogs are trained to react to the scents in a multitude of ways. Even further, the level of accuracy in scent detection may vary slightly depending on the dog or breed. In identifying a particular scent, dogs are first given a scent of the drug they are looking for. When a scent catches a dog's attention, they will alert their handler. 

On TV, sniffer dogs are commonly seen loudly barking or jumping at locations or objects where they've detected something. However, this is not the most common reaction. Some dogs are trained to alert their handler with barking, while others are not. 

Common "alerts" are: touching their noses to the area where the drugs are hidden, sitting in front of the location and staying there until their handler comes by, or digging/pawing at the location of the scent. Keep in mind that sniffer-dogs are never trained to harm a person or to destroy any personal property the drugs may be in or around. Their job is simply to sniff-out and locate.

Just like there are some humans that are naturally good at things, there are some breeds of dogs that are naturally better with scent detection. German Shepherds, Basset Hounds, Beagles, and Bloodhounds are known for their superior smelling abilities. You will see that these breeds are commonly used as security or police dogs for different law enforcement agencies.

Body Language

Here are a couple of signs you may notice when a dog detects a scent:

  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Whining
  • Jumping Up
  • Sniffing
  • Raise Ears

Other Signs

A couple of other tell-tail signs that your pup is onto something include:

  • Pawing At The Object Or Location
  • Pacing Or Standing In Front Of The Location
  • Touching Their Nose To The Location
  • Guarding The Location
  • Digging

The History of Dogs Smelling Pills


Dogs were initially used by law enforcement agencies in the US by the 1970s to combat the rising drug problem. Pups were trained to sniff out a range of illegal contraband, such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and crack. 

As drugs have changed over the years, so has the dog training. Dogs can now detect methamphetamine and ecstasy. 

Generally, dogs don’t give much attention to drugs and will only alert to a substance when they have been trained on the substance and instructed to by their handler. Further, dogs are only utilized to sniff out illegal substances. Drugs such as tobacco or over-the-counter and prescription medications are not within their training guidelines. 

Even further, states and municipalities are increasingly legalizing marijuana use, and police officers are not training drug-detection dogs to detect marijuana as a result.

The Science Behind Dogs Smelling Pills


A dog has the ability to smell 10,000 to 100,000 times better than us humans, simply because they have around 300 million scent receptors in their noses! Talk about pawesome! Because dogs have such a strong sense of smell, they can easily be taught to detect certain smells through intense training methods.

As of now, sniffer-dogs are not being trained to smell opioids because they can be very deadly - simply smelling or touching them can cause a person or furry friend to overdose. Since dogs rely on their sniffers when detecting drugs, the potential threat of overdosing is an issue. 

While salt-grain-sized pieces of opioids can kill a human, a significantly smaller amount can kill our smaller canine companions. Advocates and police officers alike maintain that it is too dangerous for our puppers to sniff out opioids in powdered form since an unsubstantial amount can ultimately be deadly.  

However, substances in pill form, like pain pills, are perhaps the least offensive of the drugs as they are less prone to inhalation.

Training Dogs to Smell Pills


Drug-detection dogs go through seriously intense training before they are able to work professionally. Certifications can be for a whole range of abilities - for instance - police units, body searches, explosive device searches, and drug searches.

Certified dogs must be ready and capable of detecting certain substances accurately and efficiently. While sniffer-dogs are usually trained to detect hard drugs, dogs are still capable of smelling pills and other medications - with the right positive reinforcement, dogs can be trained to sniff and detect just about anything. Sniffer-dogs are trained in a way to make them feel like they are trying to locate their favorite toy or to get a treat in return. The bottom line is to treat the identification as a game to encourage the dog to play. Dogs are heavily rewarded throughout the training process.

If you are interested in training your dog to detect pills or other drugs, reach out to a local private organization. Certain organizations are known for providing drug-detection training services to parents, businesses, halfway houses, among others.

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Written by Olivia Gerth

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 06/09/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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