4 min read


Can Dogs Smell Opioids?



4 min read


Can Dogs Smell Opioids?


We all know dogs are some of the most intelligent creatures on Earth. Dogs can be trained to sniff out drugs, guns, money, and more. Police and military dogs are often the ones to receive this special kind of training. 

If you have ever wondered how these dogs were trained or what they can actually sniff out and detect, you have come to the right place! Dogs can detect a wide variety of drugs, but is it possible for dogs to sniff and detect opioids? 

Let's take a look at if dogs can detect opioids, why they can, and how they are trained to accomplish this amazing task. 


Signs of a Dog Detecting Drugs

If you have ever seen a movie, TV show, or watched the news and they have drug-detection dogs at work, you are probably somewhat familiar with how a dog will act when they discover the drug or substance they have been tasked at finding. 

When a dog is out on a job, they have one focus, which is to find the specific drug the police or the military are in search of. This can be a wide range of substances and it depends on the mission at hand. The dog will generally be given a scent and then will be released to go and search for the drugs or they will often be kept on a leash in some settings, as well. 

The dog is mainly using their sense of smell to detect the drugs and will sniff around until something catches their attention. 

Once the smell they are looking for is detected, the dog is generally trained to signal they found something by barking. They may also put or touch their nose to the area where they have found something and will just stand there and not move. It may seem like they have found nothing or have given up to the untrained eye, but in reality, they are staying close to the substance they were supposed to find. Most are just trained to detect and find and then us their nose to point. 

On the other hand, some dogs are trained to alert in an "aggressive way." They will dig or paw at the spot and become very alert when they find the drugs. They are trained to never harm a person or to destruct any personal property the drugs may be in or around. 

Body Language

Here are some signs you may notice when a dog detects drugs:

  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Guarding
  • Pacing

Other Signs

These are some other signs you may notice if a dog detects drugs:

  • Pawing, Digging, Or Scratching At Something
  • Standing In Front Of Something
  • Touching Their Nose To Something

History of Dogs Smelling Drugs


Humans working with dogs and taking advantage of their very keen senses have a long history. 

Bomb-sniffing and detection dogs first made their appearance in the 1940s and were used to detect German mines in North Africa. By the beginning of the 1970s, dogs were being used to detect even more illegal substances like explosives, marijuana, heroin, an cocaine. As time progressed, dogs were also trained to detect meth and ecstasy. 

Dogs have been helping law enforcement for many years in helping to detect many times of controlled substances. They will signal to their handler when they find something. 

Detection dogs then were trained to help with finding other things as well, such as pests and agricultural products so they did not cross the border into the United States. We have also seen dogs being used to help with pest control and management. Pests like bumblebees, termites, and beg bugs are among some of the pests dogs have been trained to detect.

It is likely we will see in the future drug and substance detecting dogs gaining more fine-tuned and advanced skills to help the ongoing issue of illegal drugs in the United States and around the world as well. 

Science Behind Dogs Smelling Opioids


Dogs are generally not trained to smell opioids because they are so deadly that just smelling or touching them can cause a person or a dog to overdose quickly. Since dogs rely on their nose the most, this presents a large issue. 

This means it is tricky business when it comes to detecting all kinds of opioids. In fact, just salt-grain-sized pieces are enough to kill a person, and most certainly enough to kill a smaller dog. It is much too dangerous for dogs to practice sniffing out opioids in powdered form if such a small amount is so deadly. 

However, there has been quite a lot of progress happening in Canada with this issue, and we will explore that below!

Training Dogs to Smell Opioids


Since opioids are so deadly, training a drug-sniffing dog to detect them is extremely challenging. Canada is one of the leading countries to develop a training system that allows dogs to learn to detect opioids in a safe way. 

The RCMP began developing a new method in Canada in November 2015 and it began to be tested the following June. Instead of the incredibly deadly powered version, they created a liquid version of the opioid fentanyl by carefully combining a very small amount of the opioid and some water. The powder will dissolve in the water after some time and then they use a syringe to place this mixture into a makeup pad, which is highly absorbent. From there, these pads are placed into protective containers and then used to training with the dogs. 

The dogs are trained to sniff out these drug pads through walls, suitcases, makeup bags, and much more. This new liquid version allows the dog to sniff out the deadly drug, but without actually inhaling the substance so they are not at risk. 

The sniffer dogs have no actual interest in the drugs themselves. Essentially, they are trained like they are trying to find their favorite toy. When they first begin training, the dog will get a tasty reward when they show any small sign they have smelled or sensed the target smell (aka the drug.) 

As the training process continues, the dog will eventually only be rewarded if they alert to the drug they are assigned to find. On top of that, they will also only be given a treat or reward if they react with the proper signal they found something like sitting, staying, staring, or nose touching. Training is extensive and generally takes months of practice for both the dogs and the handlers. The dog must become certified and have the ability to work well with a team. 

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Safety Tips for Dogs Smelling Opiods

  1. Opioids are extremely dangerous. Training for this type of scent detection should only be done by professionals.
  2. Powdered opioids should never be used, as they can be inhaled as the dog sniffs and can lead to overdose.
  3. Specially derived liquid opioid forms can be used for training, but once again, should only be attempted by a professional dog trainer.

Written by a Samoyed lover Kayla Costanzo

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 03/19/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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