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The Surprising Truth About Sniffer Dogs

Research has shown that drugs dogs routinely act based on the behavioral cues of their handlers, rather than acting on their sense of smell, raising important questions about the Fourth Amendment rights of anyone subject to search based on their actions.

I recently spent a full day at a major music festival observing police drugs dogs sniffing around the entrance, while their handlers bundled off festivalgoers into a nearby tent to have their internal orifices examined by policemen with latex gloves. I noticed that the Labradors followed procedure perfectly for about the first half hour of the day, sitting purposefully next to suspects. After half an hour or so, the dogs were clearly bored with their handlers' game and/or so overwhelmed by the aroma of drugs coming from all directions, that they spent the rest of the day casually sniffing festivalgoers' bottoms.


I was shocked to see that the dog handlers occasionally and seemingly randomly behaved in the same way when dogs sniffed punters' bottoms, as when they had sat bolt upright next to a suspect. I couldn't help but feel that it was a great injustice that it was clearly luck of the draw which poor festivalgoers were made to undergo the humiliation of unceremoniously spreading their nether regions before a torch-wielding policeman. Perhaps though, it wasn't luck of the draw. As I watched, I became increasingly convinced that the dog handlers were the ones covertly selecting their targets, rather than the dogs themselves.

A groundbreaking study into the behavior of sniffer dogs and their handlers published by Lisa Lit in the journal Animal Cognition in 2011 supports my suspicion. Researchers tested drugs dogs and their handlers with a couple of Machiavellian tweaks to standard study protocol: Firstly, there were no drugs; secondly, the handlers were told that there were drugs hidden in various places inside a church, labelled by sheets of red paper.

In order to trick the dog handlers into believing that they were participating in a genuine drugs study, the researchers carried a box of 12 genuine triple-wrapped half-ounce bags of cannabis past the handlers while they pretended to set up the experiment. In reality the box was never even opened inside the church. Instead of drugs, sausages were placed in some of the various hidden locations around the church. Some of these locations were labelled as containing drugs — indicated by a sheet of red paper, while some locations that were labelled as containing drugs contained neither drugs nor sausages. The experiment was double blind; the experimenters were not aware whether a location was a decoy containing a pair of sausages or a decoy containing what the handlers had been led to believe was cannabis.

Despite there never being any drugs whatsoever in any of the locations used in the experiment, 225 alerts were issued by the 18 handlers and their dogs, every single one of which was, of course, a false alarm. To the dogs' credit, the dogs were not swayed by the sausages, but to the handlers' discredit, there were drastically more false alarms wherever the red markers told the handlers that there would be drugs.

So what went on here? Did the handlers simply cheat and pretend they'd seen their dogs show the correct responses to smelling drugs, or did the handlers somehow lead the dogs to provide positive responses with unconscious cues? This is a difficult question, which requires further research, but a clue to the likely answer lies a century ago in a horse called Clever Hans.

Clever Hans was a Victorian horse who wowed crowds by apparently counting and performing mental arithmetic. It wasn't until an investigation by psychologist Oskar Pfungst that it finally became clear that the horse was in fact watching and interpreting the reactions of his human observers. The Clever Hans Effect may be a particularly important issue for dogs, which by their nature, are extremely adept at interpreting human cues, as any dog owner knows well.

Researchers have found some dogs will rely more strongly on human cues than even their own sight and smell when looking for food — going to look for food in an empty bowl that a human is pointing to, rather than a bowl full of food that it can see and smell. Dogs have also been shown to be able to interpret human eye contact, head and body orientation, and glances.

It seems that while drugs dogs certainly can detect smells such as drugs, if you are an innocent bystander and you don't want a policeman probing your insides, it is just as important what a policeman's subjective opinion of you is, as are the smells picked up by his or her dog. Whether or not this is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment, or fair in a civilized society, is a matter that should be up for debate. It is noteworthy that since Lit's groundbreaking findings were published in 2011, we haven't seen any follow up studies investigating the unanswered questions that have arisen from her research. According to an article published in Psychological Science, reliable sources have alleged that individuals with interests in drugs dogs have tried to shut down her research.

Regardless of their actual effectiveness, it has been argued that dogs can still be justified as a deterrent, even if it is their human handler who is really the one calling the shots. This defense is questionable however, as one recent study of ecstasy users demonstrated that most of the respondents had drugs in their possession the last time they witnessed a drugs dog and less than 7 percent of them were detected. Worryingly however, a minority of users responded by immediately consuming all of their drugs, putting themselves at risk of overdose, another fine example of how ill-thought-out policies can result in more harm than good.

Follow Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookGoogle+RSS, or join the mailing list. Image Credit: Andres Ruffo/Getty. Karl Krall/Wikimedia Commons.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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