Can Beagle Dogs Smell Amphetamines?

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Introduction

Watch a Beagle for a few minutes and you quickly realize how important their sense of smell is. A beagle dog is never happier than when they are nose to the ground following an interesting scent trail. (Okay, eating is also right up there on the list of a Beagle's favorite things!) 

Traditionally we think of Beagles as a hunting dog, tracking the scent of a fox or rabbit. But what of other smells, such as that of synthetic substances like amphetamines?

Yes, Beagles can smell amphetamines. Indeed, any substances that give off odor molecules, no matter how weak, can potentially be detected by a Beagle. And if they're trained, the Beagle can alert their handler to their exciting find. 

Signs a Beagle is On a Scent Trail

From a fox to amphetamines the Beagle's nose is a finely tuned sniffing machine. Beagles seek out the source of a smell they wish to track down in two phases. The first involves tracking down the general direction of the object and moving closer, with the second phase all about pinpointing its exact location. 

To do this the Beagle moves rapidly at first, their nose scenting the air and moving side to side. This helps the dog identify where the scent trail is strongest and then progress along this path. The dog is alert and takes lots of shallow sniffs. 

As the scent gets stronger, the dog slows down. Their sniffing pattern changes to a few deeper breaths. This allows the dog to analyze the scent signal in more detail and pin it down to a definite location. 

Once the dog has found the location of the amphetamines, they may bark, paw, or simply lie down depending on their training. 

Body Language

A Beagle on a scent trail is an unmistakable sight. The eager Beagle has their nose glued to the ground and becomes deaf to the call of their owner, such is their concentration. In addition, you'll see these other signs:
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Ears drop
  • Pacing
  • Sniffing
  • Tail up

Other Signs

Beyond the more obvious body language tells, see if you can spot the following:
  • Rapid, shallow sniffing, then slower, deeper breaths
  • Zig-zagging back and forth

A History of Beagles

The earliest ancestors of the modern Beagle are thought to date back as early as 5th century BC. These dogs didn't have an official name and it wasn't until the 8th century AD that another tangible step in the development of the Beagle breed took place. 

At this time the St Hubert Hound was recognized, which in turn led to the development of the Talbot Hound. The latter has a similar appearance to the Beagle and was brought to England by the invading William the Conqueror. 

However, these dogs were a little slow and so Greyhound blood was added, to give them extra oomph. Interestingly, the dogs that first had recognizably Beagle-like features were tiny, in fact, they were small enough to fit in a pocket. As the centuries passed, their size increased until the 18th century when something approaching the modern Beagle developed. 

In the size and shape we recognize today, the Beagle was popular as a hunting dog, working as part of a pack, often for fox hunting. Today, it's a rarity to find a working dog and instead, this delightful, nose-driven breed makes for a loving (if somewhat naughty) pet. 

The Science of a Dog's Sense of Smell

It is estimated that a dog's sense of smell is between 10,000 to 100,000 more sensitive than ours. This is down to special adaptations in canine physical anatomy, plus specializations of the nose and brain. 

Take those dangly Beagle ears as an example. As the Beagle sniffs along the ground, those long ears flap backward and forwards, creating mini-eddies of air. This has the effect of directing odor molecules towards the nose where they are collected on the damp, leathery button. 

Then, when the scent molecules have been inhaled into the nasal chamber, there are huge numbers of olfactory (scent) receptors waiting to process the smell. Indeed, canine anatomy is so clever that when the dog breathes out, they don't blast the odor molecules back out. Instead, stale air is directed out along a different path at the side of the nose so that no precious smells are lost. 

Then there's the processing center in the brain (the olfactory center). People have just 0.03% of their brain dedicated to decoding smells, whereas for a dog it's 2%. All of this adds up to one very sensitive sense of smell. 

Training a Beagle to Smell Amphetamines

With training, a Beagle can be taught to follow the smell of amphetamines and then alert a handler to where it is. This is the work of drug detection or 'sniffer' dogs. The great thing about this is that the dog doesn't even know they're working. Instead, they think they're playing a fun game of hide-and-seek, with prizes for a good find. 

To start with, the dog is encouraged to enjoy a game of tug, using a clean (scent-free) towel. Next, a faint amphetamine aroma is added to the towel, and the dog is encouraged to play again. Once the dog is enthusiastically taking part in tug, a second towel (unscented) is introduced. The dog is offered a choice of towels to play with. 

If the dog chooses the unscented towel, the handler ignores the dog's requests to play. However, if the dog chooses the amphetamine-scented towel, the handler praises the dog enthusiastically and plays with them. 

Once the dog is regularly selecting the correct towel, things are made more difficult. This might mean hiding the amphetamine-towel amongst several clean ones or partially concealing it. 

As the dog becomes more accomplished at finding the right one, so the hiding places are made more difficult. 

How to React to a Drug Detection Dog:

  • Cute as a drug detection Beagle is, they also have a job to do. Always speak to the handler before approaching the dog, and ask if it's OK to give them a fuss.