Scent Tracking

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Scent Tracking

Detection Dogs Sniff Cell Phones in Prison

Detection Dogs Sniff Cell Phones in Prison

Cell Phones in Prison

Here in California, more than 2,800 cell phones were confiscated from inmates in 2008 (that’s just the number of cell phones discovered; no one can estimate how many phones remain concealed.) One prison official admitted selling phones to inmates last year, earning over $100,000. In 2007, only about 1500 phones were found in California correction facilities. So is cell phone usage in prison growing? Yes, but law enforcement’s means of detecting cell phones has also ramped up, thanks to the use of scent tracking detection dogs.

The problems aren’t limited to California. In the first four months of 2009, officials confiscated 549 cell phones from Texas prisons. South Carolina uncovered 2,000 cell phones in prisons last year, and Maryland prisons yielded 1,642 through routine searches. According to an article in Time Magazine, “in a recent sting operation in Texas, an undercover officer was offered $200 by a prisoner for a cell phone and only $50 for heroin.”

Why are cell phones so highy prized? Staying in touch with family members is one often-cited reason, due to the incredible expense of collect calls from prison. But inmates can also use them to plot their escape. “I had an inmate escape from one of my prisons just this week, and guess what he used to get his ride – a cell phone,” says Richard Subia, assistant director for California’s Division of Adult Institutions. “According to our investigation so far, he contacted a girlfriend by cell phone and had her pick him up in one of the local towns. We’re still out searching for him.”

Tim English, an investigator for the Inspector General of Texas, explains, “With a cell phone, you can arrange other things. That’s the beauty of the cell phone – you have access to the outside world.”

Exactly what “other things” are being arranged? You can probably use your imagination. Assassinations, retaliations, drug deals, witness tampering. Last year, a Texas death row inmate was caught harassing a state senator from a smuggled cell phone. Recently in Maryland, a man was convicted of murder after ordering a fatal hit on a witness scheduled to testify against him. The hit was placed via a cell phone in prison.

Martin O’Malley, the Governor of Maryland, sums up the situation well in Corrections Today:

Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of illegal phone calls are being made from our prisons. Anecdotal evidence is all you need to see that cell phones constitute a significant threat to security within our collective correctional systems and to our overall public safety.

The four states with the biggest numbers – California, Florida, Maryland and Texas – have therefore reached out to the dog training community to equip law enforcement with trained scent tracking detection dogs to sniff out the plague of cell phones in prison.

Detection Dogs

Scent tracking dogs have been succesfully used for detection by law enforcement for many years – most notably with bomb-detection and drug-detection. But cell phones? How is this even possible? Clearly different explosives and drugs have unique odors that can be tracked by dogs, but cell phones? There are so many different models in place. Does a dog have to be trained on every cell phone model, wireless provider and family & friends plan? How do they know the difference between an iPhone and a payphone? Or a Blackberry from a prison guard’s walkie-talkie?

In short: What does a cell phone smell like!?

Turns out the answer is a simple one: the one commonality among all cell phones is the chemicals used in their battery. Training a scent tracking dog to hit on the smell of a cell phone battery is no different from training a dog on heroin or Semtex. True, some dog breeds are more naturally gifted than others at scent tracking, but any dog that can learn how to detect a tiny trace of marijuana embedded in the side panel of a van can learn how to find a cell phone.

Advanced Dog Training

Here at the Zoom Room, among our Advanced Dog Training classes, we offer a Scent Discrimination course. And one of the highlights of our class is – you guessed it – teaching your dog to sniff out your cell phone.

Why do we do this? We’d like to say we’re doing our part to fight against assassination plots, escaped convicts and witness tampering, but our reasons are more mundane, amusing and practical. We’ve discovered that the other thing all cell phones have in common, besides their battery, is their owners’ tendency to lose them.

So Zoom Room Scent Tracking graduates are uniquely equipped with a dog able to sniff out their cell phone buried under the couch cushions, or stuck in that clutch purse we wore to that party then promptly chucked in the bottom of the closet.

An iPhone may have a cool “Find My Phone” feature. But even that technology can’t distinguish between your clothes hamper and your briefcase. Our bright Zoom Room scent tracking graduates can. We’re incredibly proud of them – whether they end up saving the world, keeping you from missing that important call, or just amusing the heck out of us.

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  1. doug carlson

    I work for the California Dept. of Corrections and am interested in training a cellphone detection dog for my institution. Do you have any training films or a training facility for my dog and myself in California?

  2. Zoom Room

    Dear Doug,

    We would be happy to assist you in helping you obtain training for your dog. Please contact our offices directly at 1-877-ZOOM-ROOM or send us an e-mail, and we can help you get started.

    All the best,
    Jaime Van Wye

    • Zoom Room

      Hi Kelly,

      Our new six-week Scent Discrimination class will be a regular offering throughout the year, beginning in January 2011. It’s a very different kind of training class than all the others we offer, but it’s super engaging, packed with science and smells. Even your own sense of smell will be put to the test… not just your dog’s! If you have more questions, just give your local Zoom Room a call or stop on by and they’ll be happy to share!

    • Zoom Room

      Hi Craig,

      In some cities, you will find SAR (search-and-rescue dogs) who are trained to find a lost pet. You can contact your local fire department, emergency services, or police to inquire, but the chances are fairly slim. Right now, many of the best trained SAR crews have been sent to Japan to help with the rescue efforts there.

      Your best bet is always to be as proactive as possible in putting up flyers with recent photos of your dog and contact information all around your neighborhood, as well as posting pictures and information on public bulletin boards online (such as Craigslist). If your dog is microchipped, your chances of recovery are vastly increased. If your dog is found and has no visible identification, a local shelter will scan for a microchip containing your contact information. If your dog isn’t microchipped, you should make regular calls to animal control and your local shelters to see if they have recently brought in a dog matching your dog’s description.

      We ourselves are a training facility and do not provide dogs for any purposes. We wish you the best of luck!

      – Your friends at the Zoom Room

  3. John Allen Gates

    I’m a correctional officer in the state of Alabama. We do not have any cell phone dogs. I am interested in becoming a cell phone dog training instructor. Can you please help me?

    • Zoom Room

      Hi John, we don’t have any facilities in Alabama at this time, but you might want to contact the Association of Pet Dog Trainers or another organization to find a good behaviorist nearby.