Don’t Blame the Bloodhounds: Pepper Did Not Deter Dogs in Prisoner Pursuit

Who wasn’t riveted by the epic saga of two escaped prisoners on the run at the northernmost edge of New York, especially during the tense last few hours? Dramatic events had unspooled like a movie plot. Hundreds—at times thousands—of law enforcement personnel scoured the deep woods, with the desperate prisoners eluding capture for nearly three weeks.

There was one element of the news coverage in particular that stuck out for many dog lovers:

It was reported that the convicts may have sprinkled pepper over their tracks, throwing the search dogs off their scent.

Bloodhounds

and at least one German Shepherd were seen being used during the chase of Richard Matt (who was later killed) and David Sweat.

“We did have difficulty tracking, so it was fairly effective in that respect,” New York State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico told reporters, noting that officers found DNA from Sweat’s DNA on a picnic-style pepper shaker.

After Sweat was captured this past Sunday, the question of whether or not a trained search dog could be undone by a few shakes of a simple condiment became a topic of conversation here at the AKC and across the Internet. So, is it possible? The consensus: Very doubtful.

Alexandra Horowitz, a dog cognition expert at the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College is writing a book about dogs’ sense of smell. She told the New York Times,

“It’s extremely unlikely that that would work. [It] might disrupt the dog’s ability to follow the track, but the dog can ‘air-scent’ and get the track from the air.”

In the Times article, published on June 29, Dr. Horowitz went on to say that “there is no way that people can erase the olfactory information that they are leaving when they move through space and touch things in the world. The dog is more effective than the escapees’ attempt to elude the dog.”

Now back to that movie plot. There has been speculation that Matt and Sweat may have taken their idea from the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke,” in which Paul Newman’s character—an escaped killer, of course—comes upon a young boy and asks the child to bring him “chili powder and pepper and curry and the like.”

After Luke covers his tracks with the mixture, the bloodhounds that come upon his scent are seen pawing at their noses and sneezing, and their trail runs cold.

Anyone familiar with the extraordinary olfactory abilities of Bloodhounds, other scent hounds, and in fact most dogs, would protest: “That only happens in the movies!”

Was “Cool Hand Luke” the inspiration? 

No matter what your breed, you may enjoy learning tracking with your dog.

-Erika Mansourian

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