Police often use K-9 units to help with drug and fire investigations, but now some dogs are sniffing out something new. An Indiana man is training them to pick up on the smell of electronic devices like thumb drives and memory cards.
And a handful of police departments across the country are already using the dogs to help solve cases.
Getting Dogs To Recognize A Specific Scent
An energetic, black Labrador enters a training room at an Indiana State Police facility in Indianapolis. He immediately heads toward a series of three wooden boxes that have holes in the middle.
“The dog comes in and can cut their time in half, maybe within the first, ten, fifteen minutes can find devices that can come back to be great evidence for them.”
The dog isn’t seeking out treats. He’s searching for evidence.
“The dog’s name is Chase and he was a rescue dog,” says trainer Todd Jordan.
Chase is practicing to become an electronic detection K-9. Jordan’s trained several dogs to aid in fire investigations, but now he’s teaching them to sniff out the chemicals used in data storage devices.
“I had to pay a chemist to actually find the actual odor,” Jordan says. “So it’s an odor that’s within the actual SD cards, the thumb drives, cell phones.”
It’s an idea Jordan got after talking to a friend who works on the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Investigators can spend days searching for physical evidence in child pornography cases. Jordan thought if he could train dogs to detect the smell of the devices, it could help.
“When one of these search warrants takes place, there’s 20 investigators there,” Jordan says. “And the dog comes in and can cut their time in half, maybe within the first ten, fifteen minutes can find devices that can come back to be great evidence for them.”
And it seems to be working. Jordan’s first dog, Bear, helped collect evidence at Jared Fogle’s home. The former Subway spokesperson is serving time in prison after pleading guilty to child pornography and sex crimes last year.
Cecilia Wylie is a detective with the Internet Crimes Against Children Unit. She says Jordan’s dogs have helped quickly track down evidence in several other cases.
“We go into these houses that are just jam packed with stuff and, we’re human, we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to miss something,” Wylie says.
Police Departments Across Country Using Electronic Detection K-9s
Joliet, Ill. is one of several towns investing in the special K-9 units. Communities can purchase the dogs for about $10,000. Joliet officials say it’s already paying off.
The city got its K-9 unit named Cache in November. And his handler Megan Brooks admits she was skeptical at first.
“But I took him home for the weekend and I walked in the door and I screamed to my daughter ‘Would you please hide your cell phones because I’m going to come in with the dog and I want him to search for your cell phones,’” Brooks says. “She screamed back at me ‘No, mom. I haven’t been able to find my cell phone for two days.’ He actually found her cell phone. That’s when I became a believer”
Here’s how it works: Brooks points to an area she wants Cache to sniff out. And, when Cache hits on a scent, he takes two steps back and sits down. Brooks asks him to point to the area where he smells the device and he’s rewarded with a handful of food.
“The DEA came and asked for a consult … they aren’t going to waste their time if they don’t think this is real science.”
Brooks performs a demonstration with Cache in their Joliet office. He helps track down several devices, including a thumb drive and tablet computer.
“What we have here is a water bottle that looks like it’s just out in the open,” Brooks says. “But inside it’s a personal safe and we have a micro SD card and we have a thumb drive.”
Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow says he’s already getting requests from other agencies who are interested in taking Cache out on search warrants.
“The DEA came and asked for a consult,” he says. “So, that doesn’t happen, they aren’t going to waste their time if they don’t think this is real science.”
Glasgow anticipates more departments will see the value in purchasing a K-9 electronic detection unit of their own.
So does Jordan, who’s training his seventh dog for the job. He says they’re a tool investigators simply can’t duplicate.
“We can smell a drop of gasoline,” Jordan says. “To smell a micro SD, a human can’t do that.”
While much of the focus is on using the dogs to help with child pornography cases, they can help with any case that involves information being stored on a device.
Jordan’s used the dogs to help with a search for an anti-terrorism plot in Indiana and a serial killer investigation in Michigan.