Military, airport, and police dogs need to get better at their critical mission of finding bombs, chemicals, and illegal drugs. Could a $1 million study of diet, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, be the answer? Cornell University’s Joseph Wakshlag presented the findings from the research at this week’s Companion Animal Nutrition Summit in Atlanta, GA.
We all know the problem. Detection dogs who are supposed to be sniffing out contraband aren’t always right.
This February, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released embarrassing video suggesting that the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) dogs tasked with finding bombs in our nation’s airports simply didn’t have a clue. Each TSA dog team costs the taxpayers $64,000 a year, for a shocking total of $100 million annually — and yet the GAO suggested that there is no real evidence that the dogs can find explosives.
Another embarrassing case had to be settled by the US Supreme Court on Feb. 19. A Florida drug dog trained to sniff out popular drugs of abuse not once, but twice, fingered the same guy. The first time, the accused held some precursor chemicals that led to his arrest on his manufacturing charges. The second time, he held no illegal substances at all.
The court ruled that Florida law enforcement didn’t have to provide extensive evidence of the police dog’s training and skill to make their case in court — which is probably a good thing for that county’s prosecutor. The dog in question has been retired.
So it’s safe to say that some of the detection dogs out there could use a little fine-tuning.
In Wakshlag’s presentation, he said that his team could train dogs to find contraband with a greater than 90 percent accuracy — and even more with the right nutrition. His team tested a conventional high performance diet, a regular adult dry dog food, and the regular food mixed with corn oil.
Why corn oil? “Corn oil has lots of polyunsaturated fats, similar to what you’d find in a lot of nuts and common grocery store seed oils,” he explained. And polyunsaturated fat is associated with a better sense of smell.
It worked. Dogs on the corn oil diet were better at finding three different kinds of explosives — TNT, smokeless powder, and ammonia nitrate.
What’s contrary to our normal expectations about good diet is that because of the added corn oil, which is high in fat, the corn oil mix was quite a bit lower in protein than the other two diets. But that worked out too.
When a dog eats a lot of protein, its body temperature is raised, and it begins to pant, affecting its ability to smell.
Here’s one of the GAO videos that shows an airport detection dog that missed the explosives:
I think it will take more than corn oil to fix what’s broken there, but proper nutrition has to be a good start for police dogs and other detection canines.
[police dog photo courtesy “echoforsberg” and Wikipedia Commons]