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K-9 detection training: Using simulants, pseudo scents, and real odors

Part one of a two-part series

There is a lot of discussion about training aids for detection, both in the area of explosives detection and narcotics detection.

Many trainers and canine handlers do not know what the differences are between what are commonly referred to as pseudo scents and simulant scents, and how they relate to the “real” samples of explosive compounds or narcotic compounds we are ultimately trying to detect.

There are a number of products on the market claiming to be “the best” product on which to train your canine.

What Value?
Many of these products have not been independently, scientifically tested or evaluated, and many of the commercial products are protected by patents (and thus as trainers or handlers we have actually no idea what we are putting in front of our dogs).

Some companies are producing “pseudo scents” for K-9 training. Others are producing “simulants” for K-9 training.

If you do an Internet search on these terms you will find the manufacturers have the loudest voices in proclaiming the value of training their aids.

However, as K-9 trainers and handlers we are left to wonder, as I have wondered in some cases, “what is in that bag of stuff I am teaching my dog to find?”

Detecting explosive compounds or street narcotics is the ultimate goal for a K-9 handler or trainer. Because they are contraband, these items are not always easy to come by due to the regulations involved in their possession and use.

Pseudo and simulant compounds are commercially available and easy to procure and handle without special licensing, making them an attractive choice for K-9 handlers and trainers.

Although they can be sometimes very expensive to buy, pseudo scents and simulants have many advantages according to their manufacturers. Some manufacturers claim that a small amount of the pseudo scent can mimic large masses of the real compounds they represent.

They are often touted as better than the real compounds for training your canine. These claims are hard to sort out.

What IS That Stuff?
Generally, we should be skeptical of any product that hasn’t been independently scientifically tested. Manufacturers have a vested interest in selling their product and we shouldn’t put trust in the product until we are satisfied with an understanding of what the product actually is, and how and why it might be better.

Listening to a person with a Ph.D. explain their product to you can be impressive. Most of us in the K-9 field are not chemists, and just have a rudimentary understanding of chemistry, making it easy to be impressed by the knowledge of someone who has spent a career in the field.

But no matter, we must be able to really understand what is in that bag of stuff I’m teaching my dog to find.

There is a gut reaction, I think, for many K-9 trainers to say, “If I want my dog to find street cocaine, I should train him on samples of street cocaine, and if I want my dog to find the explosive C4 in the field, I should train him on samples of the compound C4.”

There is elegance to this simplicity, and in fact this very tradition of teaching your dog to find the compound you are actually looking for has produced a lot of “street finds” and a lot of seized narcotics and explosives using K-9s. Understanding the chemistry behind detection science, however, may give us an even better way to train our dogs to be even more accurate and reliable.

If simulants and pseudo can help us produce a better K-9 product, we would be foolish not to use them.

Let me begin with an example. Police officers are often trying to detect something in the people they come across in the execution of their duties. That “thing” they are trying to detect is a lie.

But a lie is often hard to detect. Because of this we use things connected to the lie to help us untangle the truth. In many cases there is a physical manifestation of a lie. Rapid heart rate, perspiration, odd speech patterns, and eye movements are just some of the things that often come along with telling an untruth.

Thus we use these physical clues as indicators of the lie itself. There may also be another lie used to assist in covering up a bigger lie that is easier to sort out. As we uncover this smaller lie, we can make it easier to detect the bigger lie.

A Few Definitions
With simulants and pseudo it is much the same. We may want to detect C4 but there are things related to the C4 that are present that might be easier to detect, but have a very high correlation to the contraband itself. A few definitions will help us to understand the situation.

Any compound — be it C4 or “street cocaine” — normally has an active ingredient that makes the compound of interest to law enforcement. In C4, the active ingredient is an explosive known as RDX.

In street cocaine, the active ingredient is known as Benzoylmethylecgonine (cocaine). However, in each of these compounds, there are other things. These other things can be simply classified as being by products/impurities, or fillers and additives.

In C4, there is an impurity called hexamine, and there are a number of fillers/additives such as plasticizers, binders, and taggants that may be present.
In “street cocaine,” there is a byproduct called methylbenzoate, among others, and fillers that may include baking soda and other sugars used in the cutting process.

Thus, the substance we are detecting has a group of items in it. When heat is applied to the substance itself, for example, the liquid or solid material of interest to us (the C4 or the street cocaine) turns into a vapor. The vapor is a combination of gaseous forms of the active ingredient, byproducts/impurities, and fillers/additives. It is a soup with lots of ingredients.

This begs the question, “Which of the ingredients of the soup are more detectible by our canines?”

Is it the active ingredient or maybe one of the byproducts or even one of the fillers? Vapor pressure is a word you will often see related to the amount of an ingredient represented in the gaseous form of a chemical.

If the chemical has a high vapor pressure, it is well represented in the vapor around something. If it has a low vapor pressure, there is less of it in the air around the chemical compound of interest. This can be measured.

That’s all for today. Next month, in part two of this article, we’ll classify simulants into four categories, and hopefully you will see how real samples, simulants, and pseudo are related.

References and Notes
Michael, Ph.D. The Mystery Behind K-9 Scent Training Aids. Presentation given at the K-9 Cop Magazine Police & Military Working Dog Conference, Nashville TN, September 30 – October 3, 2012.

Special thanks to Michael Re Ph.D. of Signature Science LLC for providing me with research material and proofreading the science in this article. Signature Science LLC manufactures TrueScent™ which are type 1 simulant K-9 Training Aids.

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