“No such Thing”


Steven D. Nicely


Research behavioral science terms and you will find that in the context used by dog handlers and trainers there is no such thing as “alert.” At least on court has taken that notice and wrote their though on using it in their opinion. A Tennessee Appeals Court wrote "In lieu of the verb “alert” that is often used to describe the olfactory stimulation of a drug-sniffing dog, we use the intransitive verb “react.” “Alert” is a transitive verb that, conventionally, takes an object or else must be used in the passive voice. See STATE OF TENNESSEE v. KEVON FLY


For a dog to exhibit a specific behavior it has learned when a particular stimulus is present it must go through the sensory system processes. Which consist of three basis steps or processes.


First is detection. If the dog is trained correctly it is searching for a specific stimulus. In the case of a drug dog it is looking for a specific drug odor(s). The moment the dog detects an odor cannot be detected by human senses. A dog can detect an odor and choose not to react. When the dog does detect an odor this is known as jnd. jnd is an internal perception that something different in the environment has changed.


Once a jnd has occurred and the dog decides to react it exhibits and orienting response. The dog is simply attempting to locate or line itself to the stimulus, and investigate. If the dog is not at the source or as closes as physically possible when it had its jnd it begins to search for more stimulus. Through the search process the dog is detectring more, less, or none of the stimulus that was orginally detected. A well trained dog will work the stimulus until it reaches the source.

An orienting response is not sufficient for probable cause. This is supported by various state and federal courts. Some trainers believe it is sufficient. It has been my experience that trainers who believe this also have teams that have are very low in accuracy rate in field conditions. A dog that fails to exhibit its learned or final response after it has detected the target is simply improperly trained. Trainers who train realistically teach their dog to exhibit the final response under any circumstances. They also place distracting odors to habituate the handler not to raise expectations when the dog exhibits an orienting response. The dog itself cannot be habituate to all possible odors that may attract its interest and cause it to exhibit a orienting response. However the handler can be habituated to these responses.

When handlers are not habituated to not react to a dog's orienting response they unknowingly exhibit a host of behaviors that may or may not be detected by humans but can be detected by the dog. For example, some dogs are capable of hearing the change of heart rate in their handler. Other differences that are so small observing humans cannot detect influence the dog's behavior. When teams are trained in such a manner that the dog does not encounter distracting or novel stimuli, or the handler's has not been repeatly exposed to orienting responses without the presence of a distracting odor the handler's behavior itself can be part of the stimuli needed to cause the dog to respond. In 2002 on four different occasions four different United States Border Patrol dog failed to respond to approximately 6-8 pounds of different drugs that were less than six inches from their nose. The person carrying the drugs was in legal possession and exhibited no indicators. It was real world conditions and the dog sniffed and walked on by. This is because the dog has been trained if the handler is not acting in a particular fashion it is not to respond to the target odor.



In training the orienting response has value. For example testing has shown a dog will show interest in x amount of odor hidden in specific circumstances but will not exhibit its learned response. If it is desired the dog exhibit such a response in the presence of this stimulus the orienting response is a signal to induce the learned response and reinforce that behavior. Once the dog is exhibiting the response in training then it must be tested. Again in field conditions the OR has no meaning except something of interest.


Dogs that have been brought under the stimulus control of specific odors may still investigate new stimuli, or a stimulus that is associated with the target odor. This is why in many cases a dog will exhibit the exact behaviors it does when working the target odor, focus on the stimulus even draw deeply and then walk away. Handlers who have never been given the chance to see this in training often believe the dog has detected the target odor and may subconsciously induce a response. The dog can also cue off of a handler’s actions to include heartbeat. Trainers who do not expose the dog to odors that will interest the dog may in fact not only be teaching the dog to respond to novel odors they may be teaching the handler to cue the dog. All dog handlers should go through training to habituate them to response made by the dog to novel stimuli.


Once the dog has decided it has detected a stimulus that has resulted in positive reinforcement before it should exhibit the learned response for that stimulus. Then and only then can the handler begin to believe probable cause exist.

Alert means the dog is awake and aware of its surrounding. What handlers are looking for is the learned or final response. Anything less is mere speculation.

  revised 08/20/07