Record Keeping for Maintenance Training of a Drug Detection Dog

by Stephen B. Phillips

Recently, Detection Dog trainers and handlers have been under fire from many different angles. We are seeing the defense lawyers in drug cases Routinely hiring Expert witnesses, some of whom are current trainers and Handlers, and some of whom are the PhD type intellectuals who have little or no practical Experience but plenty of book knowledge. We have been getting a lot of bad press as well as court decisions that are negatively affecting the work we try to do.

There have been several points that have been attacked recently, as evidenced by the 60 Minutes segment and the articles that followed called “Does The Nose Know” which is currently on the CBS website here. One is the fact that there is no Nationally recognized certification, as in one standard that is followed by all certifying associations. The American Working Dog Association standards are tougher than most and also the fact that many of the certifications are good for only one year. Also, the American Working Dog Association has prerequisites for many of the standards that must be met in order to certify with the organization. Requirements like this add credibility to the certification process. Some organizations still allow certifications to be valid for two years or more. Some associations have Presidents that are “King For Life” and make all the calls on what the association does and does not do. Make sure you are involved in an association that values input from members and that follows their own by-laws. It’s a good idea to be involved with more than on association and have more than one certification for you and your dog. Another bone of contention is the fact that many K-9 handlers do not keep good records of maintenance training and deployment. Many years ago, The DEA’s Head Counsel, Richard Madema, wrote a guide for detection dog handlers called Maximizing Scent Evidence. In it, he outlined several points of what should be included in all the maintenance-training records. Some of the more important things are often overlooked by K-9 handlers that he suggested. Here is a brief summery of what he thought should be included to give the K-9 and handler the best chance of the evidence they provided from being tossed in a court case:

Who was at the training session?
Who designed the problems for training.
Who hid the target substances
Type of target substance
Amount of target substances
Exact location of hide of target substance
Time hidden
Time searched
Results (successful or unsuccessful)
Comments (that would impact the search or performance of the K-9 or handler)

I also include weather conditions, air currents, proof of residual odor, and anything else that might have affected the search. Another good point in the guide is that you should not note a false indication unless you are absolutely sure that’s what you had, and that a dog hitting on residual odor has made a “non-seizure alert”. I believe this guide is still available from the DEA at this point, and if you can’t find it there, you can always check out Herb Mullican’s website Special Canine Services. For those of you not familiar with Herb, he has the biggest database of articles, books, and military info act that is available anywhere. If it was published, he has it or knows how to get it. One thing that the head of US Customs told me was that they only keep their maintenance training records for a limited amount of time. If you have 90 days worth of maintenance training records, then throw out the first page every time you add a new page, you have more than enough, if it is coupled with certification, to show the performance record of your dog. If you have all your records from the last five years, you are opening yourself and your dog up to criticism and possible attack by a defense lawyer who has hired an expert to go over all your paperwork.

So, in reality, I take what I believe to be a sound idea from several different sources to compile my own training records, and that is what I pass along to my handlers. The big thing is to document what really happened in the training sessions. If the dog missed a find, document it, then document the corrective actions you took to correct the problem to the point the problem has disappeared. If the dog false alerted, write it down, and show the steps you used to correct the problem. If an expert witness looks through your training records and sees a rosy report that shows the dog is 100% all the time, be assured you will fall under attack. Also, the last point I’d like to bring up is the K-9 “lingo” we all seem to use. Much of it has been “borrowed” from behavioral scientists and applied to dog training. We all know that if there is a problem with a K-9 going to trained final response on a non-target odor that we have a problem. For instance, if the dog is going to trained final response on baggies (which happened to one dog that was at the North Carolina seminar). We can easily spot the problem; the dog is associating the odor of the plastic along with the odor of the drug, and is sitting or scratching at both. So we have to EXTINCT the problem odor. We know what is meant by extincting the problem odor, but a jury does not. We all have a tendency to throw around other behavioral terms as well. Titration comes to mind. It was used on a post on another chat group, and if you asked three different people on the group what it meant, you’d get three different answers. Now imagine you, a lowly K-9 handler is on the stand and you have a PhD in behavioral science asking the questions!!! Is he going to be able to trip you up? Undoubtedly! Are you going to be able to “out explain” him? No way! Can he make you look foolish, unprepared and unprofessional to the jury? You bet if you’re not prepared! The point of all this is to get you to think about what you say and think about what you write in your training log. You don’t have to throw in terms like that to impress anyone. No one expects you to be a behavioral scientist. Say what you have to say in plain English. Write it down that way too. That way, you’re not arming the defense.

In closing, I’d like to say that many of the incidents that have gotten us all bad press recently, deserved on their own to get bad press. Look at the Goose Creek incident in 2004 (not the first one from Texas). Look at the Russ Ebersol case. Did they deserve to be singled out as poor examples of how things should be done? Yes they did! Unfortunately, for every case like that, we have to be more vigilant in doing what we do correctly. Otherwise, we will find ourselves being even more tied down in case law than we are at present.

Training Records should be maintained in accordance with your District Attorney’s recommendations and should follow your Agency requirements.