Can Beagle Dogs Smell Methadone?

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Introduction

You may have seen sniffer dogs at airports or policing festivals. Most commonly, you'll see Springer Spaniels or Labradors working with their noses, but what about other breeds, such as Beagles?

Can Beagles, with their superior sniffing power, pick up the smell of methadone?

Actually, yes they can. Beagles, along with other scent hounds have a well-developed sense of smell and can be trained to pick up any number of drugs or illegal substances. Should the need arise, it's perfectly possible to put those skills into practice to detect methadone or other drugs. 

However, Beagles are also notorious for being food-motivated and can lose focus when faced with tasty titbits. It might just be that the criminal intent on hiding a secret supply of methadone simply needs to distract a Beagle with a supply of cookies!

Signs a Beagle has Detected Methadone

There are two aspects to the work of drug detection dogs. The first is picking up the scent and tracking it down to the source. The other part is alerting the handler to their find.

A Beagle that picks up an interesting scent will behave with natural enthusiasm (one of the reasons we love Beagles so!). A trained sniffer Beagle needs to be taught to rein in this excitement and alert their handler in a more discrete manner. 

Typically, a trained drug-detection dog will mark a find by lying down in front of it or by raising a paw and pointing. The aim of using such discrete signals is to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to their find. 

Alternatively, your regularly happy-go-lucky Beagle will react in an altogether less restrained way. 

For example, when picking up the scent initially, the Beagle will look alert, head down and tail up. They tend to sniff in a sweeping pattern, which helps to locate where the scent trail is strongest. At this stage, the Beagle makes lots of rapid shallow sniffs and trots rapidly forward. 

As the dog draws closer to the methadone, they will slow. This is marked by the dog taking fewer breaths, which are deeper. This allows the Beagle to analyze the scent more deeply. This is part of the dog's natural behavior to 'read' scents and draw down information such as how old the scent is, who left it, and whether the marker was male or female. 

Body Language

Things you can expect to see when a Beagle is on the scent of methadone include:
  • Alert
  • Pacing
  • Sniffing

Other Signs

Other giveaway clues that the Beagle is onto a scent trail are:
  • Excitement
  • Slow, deep sniffs
  • Tail up
  • Nose down

A History of Drug-Detection Dogs

We tend to associate a breed such as the Beagle with hunting and tracking an animal's scent, rather than drug detection. After all, the Beagle is a scent hound - much beloved by hunters. Indeed, the Beagle represents a dog specialized to use their nose, in the same way that other breeds are specialized to track by sight or movement. 

Mankind has made use of the canine nose since those early days with cavemen around their campfires. From hunting and tracking, the ability of a dog to follow a scent has been utilized for centuries. 

It was, however, only in the 20th century that the ability of dogs to find none-prey related objects was first used. 

The first 'sniffer' dogs were used by the American Armed Forces in the 1940s. These dogs were used to sniff out unexploded landmines in North Africa. They were hugely successful and saved many human lives as a consequence. 

By the 1960s and 70s, the use of a dog's nose to detect had diversified out into other substances such as drugs, smuggled foodstuffs, and even illicit cash. In the modern day, dogs are trained to detect a wide variety of things from cadavers to low sugar levels in diabetics. Indeed, explosive detection dogs have an ever-growing role in the fight against terrorism. 

The Science of Beagles and Their Sense of Smell

Beagles are a scent hound. This means their nose is a specialized tool which is great at picking up odors. Indeed, this specialization is down to the sheer number of scent receptors within the dog's nasal chamber and the development of larger areas in the brain devoted to decoding smells. 

The big-daddy of all scenthounds is the Bloodhound, with around 300 million scent receptors. But the Beagle comes close on their heels with a respectable 225 million scent receptors. This compares with the underwhelming 5 million receptors that the human species possess. 

But the Beagle has other adaptations that make them awesome at following a scent - the most obvious of which is that black leathery nose and those gorgeous dangly ears. The moist surface of the nose helps odor molecules cling to it, while those long ears cause micro-air currents which waft scent molecules to the nose, offering them up for analysis. 

In addition to all the scent receptors in the nose, the Beagle brain has an unusually large scent-processing center in it. This helps the dog register and decode the scent messages picked up by their nose. So not only can a Beagle detect very weak smells, but they have the brain processing power to decode them. 

Training a Beagle to Detect Methadone

Drug detection dogs are trained using reward-based training methods. This is where the dog looks upon sniffing out methadone as a game which is rewarded with a treat. 

There's often a preselection process where dogs are assessed to see if they have the necessary character for drug detection work. A prerequisite is a keen nose and an obsession with playing games such as tug or ball (the latter are used to reward the dog).

The dog's first lesson involves playing tug with a clean, scent-free towel. The handler engages the dog in a game of tug, and frequently praises and rewards the dog. The next step is to rub the towel with a small amount of methadone scent. The game is played again with this towel and the dog is praised. 

Moving on, the dog is offered a choice of two towels: One that is odor-free and the other impregnated with methadone scent. If the dog chooses the clean towel, they are ignored. If they choose the methadone toy, the handler excitedly engages them in a game of tug. 

Thus, training progresses with the methadone-scented towel being hidden amongst other objects. Only when the dog selects the correct towel are they rewarded with praise and a game. 

Over time, the dog is taught to recognize not just the towel but other objects that smell of methadone. When the dog finds them, they are then rewarded with a game. Voila -a trained drug-detection dog! 

How to React to a Beagle Sniffing Out Methadone:

  • Always ask the handler of a drug-detection dog if it's okay to approach them. It's important not to disturb a working sniffer dog.