The friendship between humans and dogs goes back tens of thousands of years, but in just the past decade, ingenious police officers have found a new way for the partnership to flourish. In 2013, the Connecticut State Police started training dogs to detect electronic storage devices such as hard drives and cell phones, which are at the heart of so many modern crimes.
But aren’t hard drives and cell phones odorless? Actually, no. The program began when Jack Hubble of the Connecticut crime lab discovered that all electronic storage devices contain a chemical called triphenylphosphine oxide (TPPO), which has an odor so faint humans can’t smell it, though trained dogs can. The program has been a huge success: today, there are dogs trained to sniff out TPPO at police forces around the country.
Dogs solving tough criminal cases
These days, the Connecticut State Police have two electronic storage detection (ESD) dogs on their team, and provide dogs and training to law enforcement agencies as far afield as Alaska and Louisiana, according to Sargeant Anthony Guiliano, supervisor for the Connecticut State Police K-9 Unit. Most frequently, these dogs are used in cases involving child pornography, which can hinge on detectives finding hidden hard drives or other devices containing criminal images of abuse.
Guiliano had one of his first experiences with ESD dogs on just such a case. “We were serving a search warrant on a residence in Connecticut, a suspected child-porn case,” he told me. “And we—myself and the other troopers—had searched this entire house. We brought the ESD dog [Selma] in—this was the first ESD dog in the world … and behind the television she was able to find a hard drive that we missed. Had she not found it, we would have missed that piece of evidence.”
ESD dogs are increasingly being used in other types of investigation, too. “The investigators are being creative and the dogs are being used for things that I’d never even thought of,” says Todd Jordan, chief trainer and owner of Indiana-based Jordan Detection K9, which supplies ESD dogs directly to police forces as well as to the nonprofits Neighborhood Electronic Detection Canine and Operation Underground Railroad. For instance, Jordan told me, dogs that have graduated his program have been used in counter-terrorism cases, to find cell phones that have gone flying after fatal car wrecks, and even to investigate insider threats such as surveillance devices in corporate environments.
What makes a great electronic storage detection dog?
For both the Connecticut State Police and Todd Jordan, Labrador Retrievers are the ESD dog of choice. “They’re very social, they have a good drive, they work, they’re levelheaded, even-keeled. They’re an all-around great utility dog,” Guiliano told me. And as every Lab owner knows, they also love to eat — an important attribute, since ESD training revolves around food rewards.
Many ESD dogs were originally trained to assist people with disabilities, but failed out of those highly competitive programs for behavioral quirks that don’t matter in an ESD dog — like the instinct to chase after small animals, for instance. Since they’re highly trained and active, these dogs love to work. “I try to get dogs from places like that,” Todd Jordan told me, “to give a dog another purpose.”
Jordan typically trains his dogs for four or five months before pairing them with a handler for extra training. And for the Connecticut State Police and Jordan alike, maintaining training is essential: a slip could make the difference between a child abuser being caught and remaining at large. And with investigators finding ever more uses for ESD dogs’ skills, it’s essential that these pups remain sharp and eager to learn. This is why Todd Jordan prefers food rewards to play rewards: since the dogs he trains only eat when they’ve successfully detected their target odor, handlers have no choice but to keep up with daily training.
Detectives, and so much more
Their willingness to work and eager stomachs aren’t the only reason Labs are the favored breed for ESD work. In fact, these pups are “almost like a dual-purpose dog,” Todd Jordan told me. Since their work mostly centers around child pornography cases, they’re often brought in to search the homes of suspected pedophiles—sites that might also be home to unsuspecting spouses or children who have been abused. In these situations, handlers often invite the suspect’s family to pet and play with the ESD dog, which can radically de-escalate and defuse a traumatic situation.
The dogs also provide comfort to the investigators themselves. The work of investigating crimes against children can be emotionally and mentally grueling, involving studying and reporting on the precise contents of confiscated images and videos of abuse. A brief break to pet a friendly Lab can work wonders in supporting investigators through difficult tasks like this. And, Todd Jordan notes, this secondary function also allows the dogs to use some of the skills they originally trained for, in their first careers as support animals.
With more law-enforcement agencies seeking out ESD dogs by the day, many more dogs will be saving and soothing human lives in the years to come.