The Dog Should Search Vehicle Interiors First


Steven D. Nicely


In every incident a drug detector dog responds to the exterior of a vehicle the dog should be allowed to search the interior. Actual physical searches by officers should not be conducted until the dog once again responds to the interior of the vehicle. Then the area or point of the response should be searched. If no contraband is found the search should be terminated.


Think of this if the dog could detect the odor emitting from the interior of the vehicle while it was outside of the vehicle then detecting it on the inside should be easy. This would save valuable time, it will reduce intrusion into items that do not contain drug contraband.  A "canine sniff" by a well-trained narcotics detection dog, however, does not require opening the luggage. It does not expose noncontraband items that otherwise would remain hidden from public view, as does, for example, an officer's rummaging through the contents of the luggage. If in the case of Place the item would have been a vehicle instead of luggage would the court had required the dog to reveal the exact location of the target?


The use of drug detector dog is under attack and some of it is justified. In the early days we used to be taught that dogs did not make mistakes. We were taught only the handler knew what the dog was doing and why. It was taught the handler could give the best assessment of reliability of the dog. We were taught that every time the dog responded it was to be rewarded. All of this is untrue and leads to non productive responses in the field.


Although some courts have ruled a dog’s response anywhere on a vehicle is probable cause for search does not mean you have to stop using the dog. The biggest excuse used to justify a dog’s response in field conditions when no drugs are found is residual odor. This is just an excuse taught by trainers who lack the knowledge of other triggers that cause the dog to respond when it should not. Nor do they possess the knowledge of how to test for these trigger and develop training of how to extinguish the behavior. Those trainers are costing tax dollars, aiding drug smugglers, and may directly lead to the loss of the use of drug detector dog as we know it.


What can be done?

Department administrators should adopt a policy that no officer will search the interior of a vehicle unless the dog has entered and identified a location to respond by exhibiting its final response.


Why is this important?

When a dog does respond to the exterior of a vehicle and the response was caused by the target odor the odor itself is not free flowing as it would be outside. Vehicle parts impede the odor flow causing it to pool, or concentrate in areas. The odor when it finally emits from the vehicle is often forced out through small vents. At the point of escape the concentration of odor is sufficient for the dog to detect and exhibit its final response. Once the door, for example, is opened the odor escapes.

If the odor was the result of residual build up the source may not be detectable by the dog. It is everywhere but no where an in insufficient amounts to trigger a final response. The dog may sniff intently in areas that it has found targets before but move on as the odor is not there. Dogs that are correctly trained can quickly determine if a detectable source of odor is available and will response. If the dog has been correctly trained the handler remains outside the vehicle in sight. After the dog has searched the interior and no source or high concentration of odor was detected it will simply exit the vehicle if it has been trained correctly.


When departments institute this type of policy they demonstrate to the public and the courts they are not out to search every person they encounter in hopes of finding drug contraband. Instead they are showing they are truly interested in both drug seizure and protecting privacy.


How should the dog search the interior?

  1. Prior to entering the vehicle remove all luggages, boxes, etc and have the dog sniff them outside the vehicle. Do not open unless the dog responds.
  2. Enter on leash the point of response or the closes entry point.
  3. Slightly open the entry point and allow the dog to sniff.
  4. Divide the interior into section and search each section until the source is detected or the interior is complete.
  5. When completed leave.


If contraband is actually inside the vehicle the dog if properly trained will lead you to the source.