A Dog Bites Meat Story: Dogs Sniff Out Meat More Effectively than Drugs

This Vancouver Sun article reports that dogs are much more effective at sniffing out meat than drugs [HT: Steve Bainbridge]:

Federal search dogs at international border entry points have a penchant for sniffing out one thing more than anything else: meat.

In fact, dogs trained to find animal products turn up meat around 20 times more frequently than drug-sniffing dogs find narcotics, according to government documents obtained by Postmedia News under access-to-information legislation.

The release of the data comes as federal officials question the necessity and effectiveness of the dogs, with the Canada Border Services Agency dismantling some of its search-dog teams over the past year – a move the federal union believes will erode the ability to quickly search incoming cargo and seize drugs and firearms.

The article gives lots of explanations for this entirely unsurprising finding. But it ignores the obvious points that dogs like meat a lot more than drugs. Meat is edible while drugs (usually) are not. Thus, your average canine has evolved to be a much better meat detector than drug detector. In addition, as I discussed in this post, drug-sniffing dogs often err because their main objective is to please their human handlers rather than find the drugs as such; as a result they tend to signal “false positives” if they sense that that’s what the handler wants. By contrast, meat-sniffing dogs have reasons of their own for finding meat. The point is so glaringly obvious that this could be considered a dog-bites-man story – except that it is actually much more common for dogs to bite pieces of meat than humans.

Unfortunately, there is a more serious side to the story. Despite the fact that drug-sniffing dogs have a high error rate, government policy – and even Supreme Court decisions – are often based on the assumption that they are far more accurate than the evidence shows.