Can Beagle Dogs Smell Benzodiazepines?

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Introduction

With heightened concerns about security, it's not unusual to see a sniffer dog checking the bags of people attending a big event. The dog is most likely trained to detect explosives to keep people safe, but this is just one example of the wonderful way in which a dog may use their nose to sniff out substances for one reason or another. 

Most typically, we expect to see breeds such as the Springer Spaniel working with their nose. This is because Springers have an especially awesome sense of smell, indeed, they represent a group of dog breeds called 'scent hounds.' 

It's no coincidence that dogs that are great at following an odor are scenthounds, and another member of this sniffy group is the Beagle. Indeed, with the Beagle being a highly food-motivated dog, they can be readily trained as sniffer dogs, and can be trained to sniff out prescription medications such as benzodiazepines with no problem. 

Signs of a Dog Sniffing Out Benzodiazepines

Sniffer dogs work with a handler who will direct the dog's attention to the general area to be searched. The handler will give the Beagle a scent of the drug they're searching for, so as to focus the dog's attention.

The handler then encourages the dog as they approach the area, by saying "Yes" or "Go" in an excited voice. The dog will sniff the air generally, to pick up any hint of benzodiazepine molecules in the air. This involves the dog sweeping their head from side to side. This helps the dog detect where the scent is strongest by surveying the air more widely to zoom in on where it's most concentrated. 

The dog approaches and as the scent gets stronger, they inhale more deeply. This means the dog moves more slowly so they can take more time to check out each spot. 

Once the dog has found the benzodiazepine, they may react in different ways according to their training. Contrary to popular belief, most sniffer dogs do not react wildly with barking and excitement. Instead, most are trained to be discrete and merely sit or lie in a special manner, in order to alert the handler to the find. 

The handler then rewards the dog for a job well done. For a forever-hungry hound like the Beagle, this is most likely with a tasty titbit of a food reward. 

Body Language

A working sniffer dog is truly a creature driven by their nose. Here are some clues that a dog is on a scent trail.
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Head tilting
  • Panting
  • Wag tail
  • Pacing
  • Sniffing
  • Paw raised

Other Signs

Other, more subtle signs include:
  • Sitting or lying in front of an object
  • Sniffing with increased intensity

History of Dogs Smelling Drugs

Humans have made use of the dog's sense of smell since they first partnered up around early man's campfires. Those early peoples used dogs to track down prey and help them to be more effective hunters. It isn't until the middle of the 20th century and World War II that dogs were formally trained as sniffer dogs. 

The first recognized sniffer dogs worked for the American Armed Forces, scenting out unexploded mines in North Africa. These dogs saved many lives and it quickly became apparent just how useful having detection dogs could be. 

By the 1970s, dogs were being trained to detect substances - including illegal drugs. As the effectiveness of sniffer dogs went from strength to strength, their use as working dogs expanded. Wherever there was a need to find substances that were difficult for people or machines to detect, there was a potential role for a sniffer dog. At first, their efforts were directed to illegal activities such as smuggled money, drugs, firearms, accelerants, and explosives. 

Although dogs have been used for centuries for rescue and recovery work, latterly these roles became more formalized. Dogs are now trained to detect people trapped in earthquakes or collapsed buildings, along with tracking lost people, or even detecting human remains. Indeed, highly specialized dogs are able to sniff out certain diseases such as cancer or signal when a diabetic has dangerously low blood sugar.  

The Science of a Beagle Smelling Benzodiazepines

The Beagle is a scent hound. The latter are a specialized group of dog breeds who have a more highly developed sense of smell than other dogs. This is because the Beagle has more scent receptors and a larger processing area for smells than many other dogs breeds (and many times more than a human.) 

Indeed, let's compare a Beagle and a human. Once the Beagle has sniffed up a scent molecule, they have around 60 square inches of scent-sensitive membrane lining the nose on which to capture it. This is compared to one square inch in the human nose. Once that molecule is detected and nerve messages are sent to the brain, it is processed by the olfactory (scent) center. The Beagle's olfactory lobe is an impressive 40 times larger than the same structure in the human. 

And this is without considering that black, leathery nose itself. It is designed to be slightly moist so that scent molecules stick to it. The shape of the nostril also creates micro-eddies of air which sweep scent odors up into the nasal chamber so that even the faintest of smells can be harvested for processing! Pawsome! 

Training a Beagle to Smell Benzodiazipines

When fully trained, a sniffer-Beagle is actually seeking their favorite toy, rather than drugs. But it just so happens that they have been trained to link the smell of the drug in question, with that toy. For example, let's take the example of a Beagle who loves playing tug. 

The handler starts by using a freshly laundered towel that carries no smell of its own. They play tug with the dog and reward them with praise and treats for a good game. The dog is encouraged to play tug regularly so that they look forward to the game and look on the tug as a reward in itself. 

The next step is to wrap a small quantity of a benzodiazepine into the towel. The dog then has a game of tug and begins to associate that specific smell with a highly enjoyable game. Once the dog has linked the smell of benzodiazepine to their favorite game, the handler conceals the towel containing a small amount of drug. 

The handler, in a game of 'hotter / colder', encourages the Beagles to detect the towel by scent, and then rewards them with a game of tug. This is repeated lots of times with the towel being hidden in different locations, and hidden with towels that are not scented, so the dog has to find the correct one. 

Taken to the ultimate conclusion, the towel is removed from sight but the benzodiazepines are hidden. The dog now detects the drugs and their reward for finding them is a game of tug with a favorite toy or towel. 

How to React to a Beagle Smelling Benzodiazepines:

  • A working sniffer dog is doing an important job. Always ask the handler for permission before approaching and distracting the dog.

Safety Tips for Beagles Smelling Benzodiazepines:

  • Beagles are highly food-motivated, so take extreme care that the dog doesn't eat what they find on the off-chance that it's tasty.