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There seems to be no end to the things scent-detection dogs can be trained to find. A dog’s nose is a powerful tool for discovery for everything from banned cell phones in prisons to deadly bacteria to bedbugs. Can that amazing sense of smell help to preserve an important part of humanity’s cultural heritage, as well?

Areas in the Middle East and North Africa are undergoing widespread looting of important archeological sites. War and political unrest have made many countries vulnerable to the loss of cultural property. According to the organization Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law & Policy Research(Red Arch Research), between 2012 and 2013, in a time of civil war in Syria, the declared value of United States imports of “antiques” from Syria climbed 133 percent. Similarly, the import of “antiques” from Iraq grew 1,302 percent during a period of unrest between 2009 and 2013.

Syria and Iraq are losing part of their cultural heritage, and the illegal profits are funding organized crime and terrorists. According to the United Nations Security Council, terrorist groups are looting and smuggling cultural property to build income and support their recruitment efforts. That makes it even more critical to stop the illicit trade of antiquities across the U.S. border.

So far, efforts to curb the flow of these stolen treasures have met with limited success. It’s difficult for customs officers to find artifacts that are hidden in crates and packages. Not to mention the added complication of falsified import forms. To turn the tide, Red Arch Research has developed the K-9 Artifact Finders Program. It hopes that dogs can be trained to help customs officers identify smuggling suspects by sniffing for illegally looted cultural artifacts at cargo facilities, airports, and other ports of entry into the U.S.




Red Arch Research has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum and the Penn Vet Working Dog Center to train dogs to sniff out smuggled artifacts. This is the first time this training has been carried out, and it requires actual artifacts to teach the dogs the scent they will be looking for. Artifacts, such as pottery, will be used. All will be lawfully and freshly excavated from the Fertile Crescent region in Iraq and Syria, an area that is a prime target for looters.

The first phase of the project will involve four dogs from the Penn Vet Working Dog Center’s training program that were chosen for their physical and mental abilities. This is precise work that demands a patient personality. The training techniques will be like those used for bomb or drug detection. First the odor of the pottery will be captured by wiping it with absorbent material. Then the dogs will be given several samples of material to sniff. When they smell a sample with the pottery odor, they will be given a treat. When they smell a sample that doesn’t have the odor, they will not get a treat.

Once the dogs have been imprinted on the pottery odor, their odor discrimination skills will be tested. If these tests prove the dogs can detect the odor of the artifacts, then Red Arch Research hopes to raise enough funds to move to the second phase of the project, testing outside of the laboratory. If the dogs can succeed out in the world, then the final phase of the project would involve creating a demonstration program for customs officers. These specially trained dogs might become the newest tool officers have to prevent the smuggling of archeological treasure and to recover and protect humanity’s cultural heritage.