Source: Information Age (Extract)
Posted: July 04, 2024

How exactly does a dog sniff out a SIM card?

Kirk has a passion for playing fetch that matches his enthusiasm for sniffing out electronic devices. As one of only 13 technology detection dogs in Australia, this yellow Labrador utilizes his exceptional sense of smell to locate minute pieces of tech, often crucial in serious and high-profile criminal investigations.

Mark Rice, team leader of training and development at the Australian Federal Police (AFP) National Canine Operations Centre in Canberra, describes Kirk’s dedication vividly: “You can see his entire body light up with excitement when he successfully completes a task.”

“It’s contagious,” Rice tells Information Age. “Watching a dog perform its innate skills, discovering items you wouldn’t expect, and then rewarding that achievement—it’s truly infectious.”

Rice expresses his deep satisfaction with his role: “Honestly, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

He explains the challenges the team sets for Kirk to detect even the smallest tech pieces, like SIM cards, yet Kirk continues to excel at every opportunity.

“Our Kirk has a big personality and a strong work ethic,” Rice emphasizes. “We’re constantly pushing the boundaries with him.”

According to the AFP, technology detection dogs have uncovered a wide range of items during police searches, including SIM cards concealed under shoe soles, USB sticks dropped into eskies, and electronic ankle bracelets buried underground.

“It has transformed our operational approach,” remarks Rice.

Approximately 40 percent of the dogs’ deployment is dedicated to child protection cases, though they are also integral in counterterrorism efforts, drug enforcement, and various state and territory police operations.

These dogs have been instrumental in high-profile cases such as searching the residence of accused mushroom killer Erin Patterson in Victoria. Recently, one dog made headlines for discovering missing woman Samantha Murphy’s phone at a dam near Ballarat.

Rice notes that Australia’s tech detection dog initiative, which commenced in 2019, drew inspiration from advancements in the United States. However, not everyone adapted to the program’s capabilities as swiftly as Kirk did.

‘Everyone was pretty skeptical’

Rice says Australian law enforcement became interested in technology detection dogs around 2015, when authorities in the US began successfully training such dogs and capitalising on their skills.

“At the time, everyone was pretty skeptical,” Rice says.

“Could a dog detect plastics and circuit boards in a world that’s full of plastics and circuit boards?”

In 2019, Rice and a colleague flew to the US for a fact-finding mission with local law enforcement agencies.

He says they left the US “with a really good idea” of how technology detection dogs could work in Australia.

“We were also really confident that with our training methods and the experience within our walls at National Canine Operations, we could really pump out a good product,” he says.

Rice acknowledges that initially, there was significant skepticism within the AFP regarding the effectiveness of technology detection dogs.

“We faced a major challenge in educating and building support within our own organization,” he explains.

“However, success speaks volumes and often serves as the best advertisement. So, we kept the program relatively low-profile until we achieved substantial successes. In policing, results truly speak for themselves.”

Rice emphasizes that technology detection dogs have consistently proven their worth, discovering crucial evidence at crime scenes that can significantly bolster prosecutions.

“This year alone, the dogs have uncovered over 180 items during more than 70 police search warrants up to mid-May,” according to the AFP.

“It all starts with having exceptionally well-trained dogs and a thorough understanding of effective training methods,” Rice adds.

Learning to smell plastics and circuits

In the realm of sniffer dogs, technology detection dogs are considered top-tier, according to Rice.

“This is because sniffing out technology is generally more challenging than detecting drugs, weapons, or explosives,” he explains.

One of the most formidable aspects of managing a tech detection dog program, Rice notes, is “talent acquisition” — and he’s not referring to recruiting humans.

“It requires a highly sensitive nose,” he elaborates. “We seek out dogs that possess superior genetic detection capabilities. Then, we train them to differentiate between ordinary plastics found in everyday items and those contained within electronic storage devices.”

“For dogs that don’t quite meet these criteria, we redirect them to other disciplines.”

Training starts early for these dogs, beginning at just 10 weeks old, and typically spans about six years of service.

Rice describes the training process as starting with simple exercises that gradually increase in complexity.

“It’s akin to starting with easy sudoku puzzles and progressing to extremely intricate ones,” he explains. “Technology detection dogs tackle the most challenging, expert-level sudokus there are.”

Initially, these exercises involve dogs investigating a few small openings with their noses. Over time, the openings become numerous and smaller in size.

Because electronic devices generally lack strong odors, trainers employ techniques to enhance the scent of tech items, aiding the dogs in memorizing their specific smells.

According to Rice, a crucial technique used in training is something known as a Herstik Wall.

“It’s like PVC pipes embedded in a wall with large openings that allow us to isolate and amplify odors,” he explains. “We essentially use the dog’s nose like a vacuum and manipulate air pressure to enhance detection.”

Rice emphasizes the importance of preventing contamination of electronics with substances like oils from human skin, which could complicate the dogs’ tasks.

“We’re meticulous about varying the training scenarios for the dogs, as they can quickly begin to search for human scent rather than the target technology devices,” he says.

As the training progresses, Rice states that dogs are exposed to environments that simulate the complexities and distractions found at actual crime scenes.

“We replicate scenarios with plenty of debris and challenging conditions, including the presence of other pets and dogs,” he adds. “This prepares them effectively for real-world deployments.”

Tech dogs ‘changed a lot of minds’

The AFP’s tech detection dog program received a $5.7 million funding boost from the federal government in 2021.

In May 2024, AFP assistant commissioner Alison Wegg said the dogs had been “instrumental in identifying evidence that has led to the conviction of a number of offenders”.

“Dogs conducting detection work sniff between five to 10 times a second,” she said.

“Their smell processing capacity is 40 times stronger than humans, and studies have shown they can find a scent as faint as one part per million.

“It is very important for us to continue to research and develop new concepts in canine capability to ensure we remain a step ahead of criminals.”

Some of the AFP’s first technology detection dogs will be retiring soon, but Rice says new ones will be ready to take their place.

He says that while running the program was initially seen as “very difficult”, the team have since “cracked the code” of sniffing out technology.

“It has really reinvigorated the team, and also just changed a lot of minds,” he says.

“We don’t know the limit of what a dog’s nose can do.”