How much of their natural instinct to herd and being super-observant is at the price of their sense of smell? Indeed, can Border Collies smell cocaine?
Think about it. How often do you see a Border Collie as a detection dog? You're far more likely to see a Labrador, Springer Spaniel, or Bloodhound following a scent trail than a Collie. Does this mean Border collies can't smell cocaine, or are their other factors in play?
Signs a Border Collie can Smell Cocaine
When following a scent (such as cocaine), the Border Collie first works out the direction the smell comes from. Whilst still at a distance, when catching a hint of cocaine, the Border Collie uses a sweeper-style motion to find where the smell is strongest.
To do this, the dog may move forward in a zig-zag path, taking rapid, shallow sniffs as they go. What the dog is doing is checking out where the scent molecules are most dense to continue along that path. This 'minesweeper' approach brings the dog close to the source of the odor.
To pinpoint the cocaine, the dog then slows down. They move slowly, nose close to the ground, taking fewer, deeper breaths. This allows them to sample the odor molecules to draw more information from them. In the natural world of dog communication, this sampling allows the dog to work out how old the scent is, who left it, and if they are male or female.
Once on top of the cocaine, a detection dog is trained to react in a certain way. This may be barking at the find, or it can be something more subtle, such as lying down.
- Tail up
- Ears up
- Rapid, shallow sniffing
- Inhaling deeply
- Zig-zagging to-and-fro
- Head low to the ground
A History of Detection Dogs
For millennia, dogs have tracked, hunted, guarded, and herded, all of which are great assets to their owners. But in the 20th and 21st centuries there are more pets and less need for working dogs, so is the history of our interdependence over, or are we merely starting a new chapter?
This new story starts in the 1940s with the American Armed Services. They trained dogs to sniff out unexploded landmines in North Africa. The dogs did so well that people started to build on what else these fine noses could do.
In the 70s, drug detection dogs were common, scenting out illicit substances such as cocaine. From there, it was only a skip and a jump to train up other canine scent specialists. Dogs can be trained to sniff out everything from people buried under rubble to smuggled cash, concealed food, and can even alert physicians to patients with cancer.
In the current day, detection dogs are needed now more than ever, and have an important anti-terrorism role.
The Science of Border Collie Senses
We know this by looking at the processing centers in the brains of these dogs, that are concerned with sight and smell. Each breed has a different percentage of the brain given over to their specialization. Okay, so where does this leave the Border Collie?
Although the Border Collie is not a scent specialist, they do still have an enormous ability to process scent. So although they aren't considered a classic breed for drug detection work, the Border Collie would still make an excellent detection dog.
Training a Border Collie to Detect Cocaine
Training starts with the handler playing tug using a freshly washed towel that doesn't carry any scent. The dog is encouraged and praised for taking part, and the handler makes the game as fun as possible. Next, the clean towel has a small amount of cocaine odor applied to it. Then, the handler plays tug again.
Now, the dog is offered a choice of two towel 'toys'. One is scented with cocaine and the other has no odor. If the dog selects the clean towel, the handler ignores them and refuses to play. When the dog selects the cocaine towel, then it's game on for tug.
When the dog is regularly opting for the cocaine towel, then more towels are introduced. Again, these are unscented, so that the dog learns to pick the correct one from a pile of objects.
The final step in the training process is to partially conceal the scented towel so that the dog goes looking for it. Once they retrieve the correct towel, the handler makes a great fuss of the dog and rewards them