The sword at your side

The blowing apart of the Belgian Shepherd dog, ‘Diesel’, in the Paris siege last month prompted a Twitter-storm of sorrow and remembrance under the hash-tag ‘JeSuisChien’; it also shone a spotlight on the role of the ‘sniffer-dog’ in both modern policing and combat.

During the siege Diesel’ was sent ahead by the French anti-terror unit, RAID, into an apartment complex to check for booby-traps; in the aftermath nobody has commented whether ‘Diesel’s modus operandi had included risking self-destruction, which indeed happened when a suicide-bomber emerged to blow herself up, killing ‘Diesel’ as well: the dog has since been feted as a French hero and President Putin has sent a replacement as a sign of solidarity.

In ancient times dogs were actually used as battle weapons, let loose to attack and break down the opposition. Mastiffs and other large breeds were used extensively by Spanish conquistadors against native Americans; and when Sir Piers Legh was wounded at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, his mastiff stood over his master until the end of the battle and protected him for many hours after, both returning home to Lyme Hall in Cheshire.

In World War II a particularly curious tale followed from a suggestion by a Swiss citizen living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. William A. Prestre proposed using large dogs as a major fighting-force against Japanese soldiers: Prestre convinced the military to lease an entire island in the Mississippi to house the training facilities where the army hoped to train up two million dogs. The idea was to begin island invasions with landing-craft that released thousands of dogs against the Japanese defenders, then followed up by troops as the Japanese defenders scattered in confusion.

One of the biggest problems encountered was getting Japanese soldiers to train the dogs with, as few Japanese soldiers were being captured. Eventually, Japanese-American soldiers volunteered for the training, but the biggest problem was with the dogs; either they were too docile, did not properly respond to their beach-crossing training, or were terrified by shell-fire. After millions of dollars spent and inconclusive results, the program was abandoned.

Other more recent examples include the guard dogs used in Nazi concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps the world over; there was the important role played by snarling police-dogs enforcing apartheid in South Africa as well as other politically turbulent events.

Most recently, the torture archive of the Abu Gharib prison documented pictures of dogs being used to terrorise Iraqi detainees; indeed interest in the evolving use of torture in the politics of state violence has prompted critiques of Foucault’s argument about the gradual disappearance of spectacular torture being supplanted by differing disciplinary techniques such as the use of dogs.

Today, social scientists point to the difference between the ‘sniffer-dog’, which might be a spaniel or other non-shepherd dog, trained purely to ‘sniff’, and the ‘policing dog’, trained to patrol and if required to ‘take down’ a suspect, in many cases coming from the shepherd breed: the first is the ‘smell of power’ and the other ‘the teeth of power’ but taken together they are referred to as ‘K9 (canine) protection’, even having its own publication, the US-based K9 Cop which refers to the police-dog asthe sword at your side’. Here it is worth bearing in mind that a common way of describing the power of law is to equate the law with ‘teeth’ or a ‘bite’ or similarly how ‘the law doesn’t have a bite’, due to having ‘no teeth’.

‘In the endless warfare of contemporary political order in which the complicated cultural practices surrounding drugs, the social dynamics surrounding crime and the political tactics surrounding terrorism are reduced to an amorphous and ubiquitous ‘enemy’ of good order, police discretion becomes a key to victory. And in this war, the sniffer-dog is in the front-line’: words by Mark Neocleous, professor of the critique of political economy, Brunel University, in a seminal article, The Smell of Power: a contribution to the critique of the Sniffer Dog.

Neocleous pointed out that while there has been a significant increase in the use of dogs around public transport terminals over the last decade, often said to be about the ‘war on drugs’, it is also clear that the increased presence of police-dogs in public spaces is part of more generalized security measures: dogs are becoming the public face of the ‘war on terror’, and thus the sniffer-dog is both an emblematic and a symptomatic figure in the universal warfare.

Police forces work on the assumption that police-dogs can detect a whole range of substances on a person: this means that for the most part the dogs are used not to identify individuals, along the lines of a fingerprint or retinal scan, but to identify (or, more correctly, to appear to identify) specific substances.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s agency for military research, has developed a ‘Unique Signature Detection Project’, formerly known as the ‘Odortype Detection Program’; since 2007 it has been working on a system of Identification Based on Scent (IBIS), trying to estimate the amount of odour that a human body might produce and over what distance a dog can smell a person.

‘DARPA wants to be able to detect, track, and even positively identify them [criminals and terrorists] from a distance … using nothing more than the heat and sweat that emanate from a person’s pores’, notes the Information Awareness Office report, Detecting Sweaty, Smelly Security Threats.

Both the Department of Homeland Security in the USA and the Ministry of Defence in the UK fund research into smell, in the form of Remote Air Sampling Canine Olfaction (RASCO). In the early 1960s the CIA produced a report called ‘Human Scent and Its Detection’, which considers in great detail the science of sweat production, including several paragraphs discussing the different functions of the eccrine, apocrine and sebaceous glands, and noting the different ways in which they produce smells.

RASCO is said to be more accurate than a retinal scan because a person’s smell is thought to be less controllable than their eyes, and dogs are trained to smell past the attempts to camouflage real smells with false ones: such projects have been assisted by the chemical industries aiming to get in on the security bandwagon: the European Network of Excellence in Artificial Olfaction and the International Society for Olfaction and Chemical Sensing now list security politics as a major research interest.                       Jasper Humphreys

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