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Study: Police Dogs Are Influenced by Their Handlers' False Prejudices

A new study shows that some police dogs let their handlers' beliefs take precedent over their trained noses. Scary stuff.

In a scary new study published in the the journal Animal Cognition, researchers discovered that bomb-sniffing dogs are susceptible to the prejudices of their handlers.

The researchers recruited 18 dogs certified by law enforcement agencies. As a test site, they used four rooms in a drug-and-explosive-free church. The researchers left the first room untouched. In the second, they taped up a sheet of red paper. In the third, they hid a few Slim Jims as a decoy. And in the fourth, they taped red paper to a stash of Slim Jims.

The dog handlers were told they might encounter the scent of pot or gunpowder up to three times per room, sometimes marked with red paper. It was a flat-out lie—there were no target scents. But the dog teams still called 225 false alerts—most often at the site of the red paper, whether there were Slim Jims there or not.


At face value, this information is no more frightening than any study saying mistakes happen—so we get some "false alerts," big deal. But what makes this research especially frightening is the knowledge that police work is increasingly inextricably linked to practices like racial profiling. Bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs are standard sights in American airports and cities anymore, as are concerns about police treatment of Muslims, Latinos, and blacks. And, thanks to science, we now know that innocent minorities being questioned by canine police units don't only have to navigate biased cops, but biased dogs as well.

photo (cc) via Flickr user jfinnirwin

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