MOVE OVER ROVER AS DRUGS CHECKS GO HI-TECH
THEY have been at the forefront of the war against drugs for years,
scurrying around the country's airports on the trail of illegal drugs.
But the Labradors and springer spaniels of the sniffer dog squads at
Scotland's airports and ports have found themselves out of a job after
becoming the latest victims of new technology.
New scanning devices which are as sensitive as the best sniffer dogs
in the business are to be introduced after initial trials proved
They cost about UKP30,000 compared to up to UKP17,000 to train a dog and
its handler, but do not need to be fed, taken for walks or played
with, and can work round the clock.
Queues of passengers will no longer be scrutinised by Rover and Spot,
who instead will be relegated to 'backroom' jobs like searching large
containers or the holds of ships.
Only last week the scanners, which can detect particles of drugs as
small as a billionth of a gram, were credited with helping Customs
officers seize cocaine with an estimated street value of UKP500,000 at
Dave Clark, the head of detection for Customs and Excise in Scotland,
said: "We call it our electronic dog. Real dogs only work for a few
hours a day, but with this thing you just switch it on and it works
"You can have six officers working and taking swabs to the machine,
which will tell you whether the person has come into contact with drugs.
"We're just investing in a whole lot more of these machines throughout
Scotland now that we have seen their effectiveness.
"A dog might only work for three hours out of a shift. They have to
rest, be fed, taken for a walk and that sort of thing. From my
perspective the machines are great, they are giving us much better
Customs officers use the Ionscan or Ion Track devices by taking a swab
sample from baggage and putting this under the 'nose' of the machine,
which breaks down the substance into its basic components.
The particles are then held within the scanner on an electronic gate.
When this is opened, they travel down a tube on to a collector.
Different particles take different amounts of time to reach the
collector, and this can be measured.
In just eight seconds, the operator will be told whether there is any
trace of drugs and, if so, what type. They can also be used to detect
explosives, although this is dealt with by airport security, the
police and army.
Clark said the sensitivity of the machines was such that they were
used as an "indicative tool".
"If you get a reasonably high reading, you go into it much more," he
Customs officers would use their discretion if very small amounts were
found. Someone who had used drugs while abroad but was not carrying
them would be advised to admit this as it would be a plausible
explanation for a very low reading.
Lying could lead to a luggage and full body cavity search as Customs
officers attempt to find the source of the drugs.
"Our drug seizures are definitely up; cannabis seizures and class A
seizures," Clark said.
The latest success came last Wednesday when eight kilos of cocaine
were discovered, partly because of the scanners.
A 30-year-old British man appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court the
following day charged with illegally importing the drugs on a flight
from Prague via Copenhagen and was remanded in custody.
However, dogs do have some advantages over machines: their agility and
enthusiasm in tracking down a scent. Customs plan to continue using
dogs to search larger areas.
Clark said: "There's still a place for sniffer dogs. You'd put them
into a container, but in dealing with passengers in a controlled area
we would use the machine."
Richard Bayliss, of international firm Smiths Detection, which makes
the Ionscan machine, had no qualms about doing man's best friend out
of a job.
"I'm sure they have better jobs to go to. The handlers can look after
them and they will make people happy when they become nice little
pets," he said.
"The machines we are talking about have detection capability down to
nano-grams, billionths-of-a-gram sensitivity.
"A dog will just tell you if it's found drugs. The machine doesn't
just tell you that, it tells you the precise type: cocaine or heroin
"And the machine can work 24 hours a day. It doesn't need sick leave,
holidays and doesn't get pregnant."
He said the amount of particles found was an indication of how much
contact there had been with a drug.
"If someone had been handling it or using it, you are going to get
such a big hit there will be no shadow of doubt they had been using
it," Bayliss said.
"If I had been using cocaine and I shook hands with you, it could
transfer onto your hands. If you were checked the machine could find
particles of cocaine on you, but the Customs officers could then check
your bags and clear you.
"Each time we work with Customs, they take care. If we find you've got
cocaine or heroin [particles] on you, they want to search you in some
However, animal trainers defended the role of the sniffer dog and said
a machine would never be able to take over completely.
Major Peter Downing, of the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray,
which trains dogs for the military, Customs and other agencies, said:
"It wouldn't happen within the military. We call them specialist
search dogs and the types of dogs we use would never ever be replaced
by a machine. That's just not a practical proposition."
However, he admitted: "In a more static environment such as an
airport, it might be."
Pros and Cons
IN THE battle between dog and machine, each has their own strengths
Two canine teams could search an area the size of Hibs football
stadium in about an hour and a half, but 30 people with scanners might
take a whole day to cover the same area.
A dog's vital edge is that its nose is directed by a brain trained to
catch the slightest whiff of a scent and follow it to the source.
Scanners come into their own in situations where a large number of
people need to be individually checked.
Nearly eight people a minute can be processed by the ion machine,
which will almost instantly tell customs officers what drugs they are
dealing with and how much of a trace has been found.