Drug Detection Dogs in Schools: Are They Worth It?

In what ways have the establishment of drug detection dogs impacted the possession of drugs by students in schools? Bomb dogs were first used in the United States back in the 1940s. According to the University of Dayton, it wasn’t until the 1960s when dogs were training to also find drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. My curiosity stems toward whether the use of drug sniffing dogs in schools has brought down the presence of drugs in schools since then. However, I also wonder whether there have been any legal issues concerning these searches. One article by the Journal of School Violence explores the data on school security measures. The study held a survey administered to 230 high school students questioning the safety of drug sniffing dogs in schools. According to most of the students, drug sniffing dogs do actually help reduce the presence of drugs in schools.[1] However, this does not seem to be the case everywhere. In my widespread research, I found that some studies say that drug sniffing dogs are ineffective and not worth it, while other studies say that drug sniffing dogs are highly effective and reliable. If there is no solid consensus on the effectiveness of drug dogs, then why are they still in use? There are many tools used by police officers that determine whether a person is under the influence of drugs or possessing drugs. This includes urine tests, roadside checks, and drug sniffing dogs. None of these tools are completely accurate in their job, which is checking for drugs or intoxication. In these situations of examination, officials lean more towards conviction and false positives rather than innocence. Why does our police system strive to implicate and incarcerate individuals much more than exonerate or prove their innocence? With the examination of drug sniffing dogs and what use they have upheld around the country, this research will hopefully argue that the modern police system is unreliable in its ability to enforce drug laws.

An article by ACLU Washington actually has a few statistics on how often drug dogs have signaled false positives in their searches and caused anxiety to students that did not deserve a more extensive search. The article starts with an incident back in 2011, when a high school in Washington conducted a drug search with the use of drug detection dogs. Two students were pulled for further searching; one student did end up having marijuana in their bag, while the other had no signs of drugs in any of their belongings.[2] Lisa Sullivan, the author of this article, suggests that drug sniffing dogs may be doing more harm than good. She claims that several studies state that drug dogs are prone to false alerts. Sullivan provides a link to these “several studies,” but the page shows up as “not found.” Nevertheless, records from one Washington school district claimed that eighty-five percent of the time, dogs were mistaken when alerting about a substance.[3] Another study in Chicago found that there was a fifty-six percent error from drug dogs when conduction roadside automobile searches. Surprisingly, the error actually increased to seventy-three percent for Hispanic drivers.[4] Some factors that may play into the error include officer racial bias, poor training, and accidental cues. Sullivan claims that there is hardly any evidence supporting the reduction of drug possession in schools because of the drug sniffing dog programs. Given that it can cost a district anywhere between $12,000 and $36,000, it seems Sullivan does not think that these programs are socially, efficiently, nor financially worth it. 

Officer Darin Tucker with K-9 Officer Jax at Concord High School in 2018.

According to Charles Russe from the University of Dayton, drugs in schools started becoming a problem back in the 1960s, which is when drug sniffing dog programs were starting to be implemented. This 2013 publication, contrary to Sullivan’s article, claims that drug sniffing dogs are actually highly effective and reliable. Most courts see enough of an impact from the programs that when challenged under the Fourth Amendment, the use of drug sniffing dogs in schools was maintained.[5] A Pennsylvania court case from 1998 (Commonwealth v. Cass) stated that the use of drug sniffing dogs in a locker search of 2,000 lockers was justified when it led to the discovery of drugs in one student’s locker.[6] The student who filed the case was fighting against the use of drug sniffing dogs on lockers because it was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. However, the court ruled the search to be a “minimally intrusive invasion of the student’s limited privacy interests in his locker; officials forewarned students of the possibility of a search… the drug dog was used to limit the search’s intrusiveness.”[7]

Also included in the argument against legislative issues are times when a drug sniffing dog signaled a false positive, but officials still found other school prohibited items. For example, in 2002 a federal trial court in Alabama found that a student had been sent to alternative school for having an X-acto knife and large pocketknife on school property. The item was found after a dog alerted its handler of narcotics in the student’s car.[8] Though no drugs were found in the vehicle, the student still violated the school’s regulations against weapons. Another federal court trial in Tennessee back in 2008 found a student was disciplined after a drug sniffing dog alerted their handler of the student’s vehicle, which led to alcohol being found within his belongings. The search was deemed constitutional after the dog was proven to be “properly trained and possessed the requisite indicia of reliability.”[9] Another court case in Texas in 2010 also rejected a student’s claim against the use of drug sniffing dogs after marijuana was found in her backpack. While the drug sweep was random, the search consisted of the dogs sniffing only the belongings of the students and not the student’s themselves, keeping the search legal.[10] Drug searches by sniffing dogs are constitutional if the students are only separated from their belongings for a short period, if the search is minimally intrusive, and if educators had an immediate need for the search due to a significant amount of evidence.  The conclusion of Russe’s paper argues that drug sniffing dogs are indeed an effective and anti-invasive way to help educators maintain a safe learning environment through keeping it contraband-free. 

            We have talked a lot about drug sniffing dogs alerting during their school sweeps, and it leading to the discovery of at least something prohibited in schools. But what happens when these false positives don’t lead to anything? How does it make the students and the teachers feel? A New York high school teacher by the name of Julie Gorlewski wrote about her and her students’ firsthand experience with being checked by drug sniffing dogs. The day, she describes, started out very normal with the teacher scolding her students being bad for the substitute.[11] The next day in class should have been followed by a writing assignment discussing the class’ reflections on their poor behavior. Instead, the day started with an announcement by the principal stating a Code 10. This is a drill where students and teachers practice hiding and appearing away from the classroom in the event of a school intruder. After the drill, the principal instructed the students to remain in their classrooms while police officers scanned the building with drug sniffing dogs.[12] After a few minutes, two police officers with a dog entered the teacher’s classroom, to their surprise. While the dog was searching the student’s belongings, the teacher describes the officer agitating and exciting the dog enough to make a mess of one student’s belongings. Gorlewski recalls feeling powerless in her own classroom. She says, “Questions haunted me: Should I have asked the officers to be more respectful of students’ supplies? Should I have modeled an appropriate reaction to inconsiderate behavior by authority? Were the officers’ actions inappropriate? What if I had had illegal substances in my purse or my coat? Was this search constitutional? And, most important, what was my role in this situation, as a teacher who tries to create a safe space for democratic dialogue?”[13] It has been ingrained into schools’ rules to keep the environments drug-free, thus drug searches in a way seem inevitable. However, Gorlewski says she felt violated in a way and felt like her classroom was invaded. 

In February 1990, the National School Safety Center—partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education, and Pepperdine University—released a resource paper on student drug searches. The paper starts out by explaining how teachers and administrators have felt a need to do more to maintain a drug and weapon free environment given the increase of such prohibited items. Similar to Charles Russe’s paper, the author mentions that several searches have been disputed in state courts, while some have made it as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. According to the author, schools can actually conduct searches more easily than law enforcement officers, who need a warrant to conduct a search and need probable cause. Where law enforcement officers need to meet a probable cause standard, school officials have fought to only need to meet a reasonable suspicion standard for the alleged purpose of maintaining discipline and a safe school environment.[14] Teachers and school administrators are given explicit instructions in the searches based on reasonable suspicion so as to make it non-intrusive and constitutional.  

The paper provides two federal court cases that have different rulings towards having drug sniffing dogs on school campuses. One case from 1981, Doe V. Renfrow, ruled in favor of using dogs in schools to detect drugs. This court case ruled that a sniff of a student was not considered a search, thus avoiding a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Doe V. Renfrow case considered the use of drug sniffing dogs to be reasonable given the large number of drug incidents at the school in question.[15] Another court case from 1983, Horton V. Goose Creek, had a different outcome. Students from the Goose Creek Independent School District were informed that trained dogs would be sniffing for over 50 illegal substances on campus.[16] If an officer was alerted by a dog, the student’s possessions were to be inspected in an office. When alerting a vehicle, the student would be present to open the doors and trunk. When alerting a locker, school officials opened the locker and it would be searched without the consent or knowledge of the student.[17] A few students were unhappy with the way the search was conducted, and brought the case to court, claiming the school violated their Fourth Amendment rights. The Horton case determined that “dog sniffing of students’ lockers and cards is not a search.”[18] However, school officials are not to search the students’ belongings solely because of the dog’s reactions. 

            The National Criminal Justice Reference Service also has a 1972 report by the Southwest Research Institute called “Training Dogs for Narcotic Detection”. It is a thirty-page manual that explicitly details how to train a dog to detect marijuana, hashish, opium, cocaine, and heroin. The manual starts out by listing the advantages of using dogs to detect narcotics. This includes the fact that dogs can detect odors humans can’t, that they can be trained to detect more than one substance, and that they can be trained to search an area more efficiently than a human can.[19] The manual also goes over a few clarifications on the topic of addiction of drugs to dogs and the selection of dogs. Essentially, there is no evidence that leads to the conclusion that narcotic dogs could become addicted to the narcotics they have been trained to detect.[20] Additionally, there are certain breeds, such as German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers, that have the characteristics to make for a good narcotic detecting dog, but there is no breed requirement for the selection.[21] The manual is broken down into an introduction, basic training procedures, advanced training procedures, use of trained dogs in narcotic search, and causes and remedies for poor performance situations. The manual is very lengthy and shows that not just any dog can be selected to work in this field. It involves a lot of extensive training and there are many evaluations along the way to determine whether the dog is on the right track to becoming a fully trained narcotic detecting dog. Even though some dogs signal false positives in real life situations, there is still a lot done to make sure that happens as minimally as possible. 

            Another source I found is by the Metropolitan Police Department Training Division from Washington D.C. and is titled “Canine Training Section.” It is a fifty-five-page manual that goes over the reasons in which a police department would need a canine, the ways a canine unit would benefit a department, and the logistics of getting and maintaining a canine unit. According to the manual, most police department canines are donated to the department, but some could cost up to $200 per dog. In addition, the yearly upkeep of a trained dog can be anywhere between $300 and $500 per year.[22] The manual then goes over some basic information on canines, basic training instructions for a handler and their dog, sense of smell, things to look for in terms of the dog’s health, etc. One section is dedicated to the topic of narcotic detection dogs. The manual explains the establishment of three narcotic detection dogs in Washington D.C. to progress in the elimination of drug abuse back in February of 1969. It explains the expectations in the selection of both a handler and of dogs. Additionally, it has information on materials needed for training, training methods for each week up to eight weeks, and a summary on how much time it takes to train a narcotic detection dog depending on the ability of the dog to work with the handler. From the time the manual was published in 1980, approximately 130 police departments in the United States had established canine units.[23] Although there’s no way to know exactly how many police dogs are active today, the North American Police Work Dog Association estimated in 2010 there are over 50,000 working drug detection dogs in the United States.[24] The manual supports the case that although there have been a number of false positives given by narcotic detection dogs, there is an extensive amount of training that both the handler and dog have to go through to ensure that they are as accurate as possible. Additionally, it seems that the amount of times that the dogs are correct benefit the department a larger amount than when they are incorrect.  

            An FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin from August 1989 has a section by Kimberly A. Kingston J.D. called “Hounding Drug Traffickers: The Use of Drug Detection Dogs.” The column starts with a narrative about a drug detection dog named Winston, who in his career has confiscated “over $52 million worth of drugs, $14 million in cash proceeds from drug sales, and several million dollars’ worth of drug-related assets.”[25] According to the article, drug detection dogs are recognized to have a strong value to both law enforcement officers and courts. The article goes into detail about fourth amendment guidelines established by the Supreme Court and lower court cases for the use of drug detection dogs in certain areas such as public places, third-party controlled areas, private residences, and motor vehicles.[26] Following these guidelines ensures that any drugs found as a result of dog sniffing are admissible as evidence in court. The article expands on each area listed and defines any boundaries set by the court that drug detection dogs and their handlers should respect to stay with the guidelines of the fourth amendment. As I mentioned earlier in my research, there have been a number of court cases from students against drug detection dogs and their handlers violating their fourth amendment rights. Although there are set guidelines to avoid these situations, officers will not always be perfect when performing their procedures, which is why sometimes we still see the court cases on whether a fourth amendment right was violated or not. 

K-9 Officer Winston

            In my research, I have found two major disparate studies about the effectiveness of drug sniffing dogs: one claims that they do more harm than good while the other claims that they are highly effective and reliable. What does this difference mean? One flaw from the article by Lisa Sullivan claiming that drug sniffing dogs are inefficient is most of the studies were determined from a few cities in Washington and one study from Chicago. Thus, it doesn’t seem like enough to conclude that drug sniffing dogs are not beneficial for the entire country. There are also too many different factors pertaining to dogs such as level of training, handlers, environment, breed, etc., to be able to determine why a drug sniffing dog or their handler may have made a mistake. It is evident from my research that there is a significant amount of information and tips for having a successful drug detection dog. Additionally, there are many guidelines and boundaries implemented to the handlers to ensure they are respecting citizens’ rights. The war on drugs, racial bias, accidental cues, insufficient training, and failure to upkeep training are all reasons why a drug sniffing dog may signal a false positive in their search. Unfortunately, the modern police system has proven to be unreliable in its ability to enforce drug laws, and thus has to err on the side of caution in situations of false positives. Human error and racial bias also contribute towards exciting a drug sniffing dog and thus giving them an accidental cue. In any case, although there is a lot of precautionary literature to keep everything safe legal, sometimes the eagerness to find something becomes a factor in these false positives. 

Works Cited

[1] Ben Brown (2006) Controlling Crime and Delinquency in the Schools, Journal of School Violence, 4:4, 105-125, DOI: 10.1300/J202v04n04_07

[2] Sullivan, Lisa. “Drug-Sniffing Dogs in Schools Make Every Student a Suspect.” ACLU of Washington, October 16, 2017. https://www.aclu-wa.org/blog/drug-sniffing-dogs-schools-make-every-student-suspect.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Russo, Charles J., “Sniff Dogs in Schools: Do the Noses Know?” (2013). Educational Leadership Faculty Publications. 148. https://ecommons.udayton.edu/eda_fac_pub/148 

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Russo, Charles J., “Sniff Dogs in Schools: Do the Noses Know?” (2013). Educational Leadership Faculty Publications. 148. https://ecommons.udayton.edu/eda_fac_pub/148 

[10] ibid

[11] Gorlewski, Julie. “Teaching English in the World: The Crucible and Drug-Sniffing Dogs.” The English Journal, vol. 96, no. 2, 2006, pp. 72–74. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30047132.

[12] Gorlewski, Julie. “Teaching English in the World: The Crucible and Drug-Sniffing Dogs.” The English Journal, vol. 96, no. 2, 2006, pp. 72–74. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30047132.

[13] ibid

[14] National School Safety Center and Pepperdine University. “Student Searches & The Law NSSC Resource Paper.” PDF. Malibu, February 1990. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/136284NCJRS.pdf

[15] ibid

[16] ibid

[17] ibid

[18] National School Safety Center and Pepperdine University. “Student Searches & The Law NSSC Resource Paper.” PDF. Malibu, February 1990. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/136284NCJRS.pdf

[19] National Criminal Justice Reference Service. “Training Dogs for Narcotic Detection.” PDF. San Antonio, July 1972. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/41753NCJRS.pdf

[20] ibid

[21] ibid

[22] Metropolitan Police Department Training Division. “Canine Training Section.” PDF. Washington D.C., January 1980. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/66848NCJRS.pdf

[23] ibid

[24] Ingraham, Christopher. “The Surprising Reason More Police Dogs Are Dying in the Line of Duty.” The Washington Post. WP Company, April 26, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/20/the-surprising-reason-more-police-dogs-are-dying-in-the-line-of-duty/

[25] Kingston, J.D., Kimberly. “Hounding Drug Traffickers: The Use of Drug Detection Dogs.” PDF. Washington D.C., August 1989. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/121996NCJRS.pdf

[26] ibid

IMAGE 1: Twardosz, Gina, and South Bend Tribune. “Concord Schools Introduces Drug-Sniffing Dog.” South Bend Tribune, November 24, 2018. https://www.southbendtribune.com/news/education/concord-schools-introduces-drug-sniffing-dog/article_a28eb511-df8a-5b28-aaf3-cec507163a16.html.

IMAGE 2: Kingston, J.D., Kimberly. “Hounding Drug Traffickers: The Use of Drug Detection Dogs.” PDF. Washington D.C., August 1989. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/121996NCJRS.pdf

1 thought on “Drug Detection Dogs in Schools: Are They Worth It?

  1. I think that this was definitely a topic worth studying. I applaud your in-depth research, including the use of manuals and court cases, among other resources. In the media, one always sees articles on false positives with a cheap roadside drug test called NARK II or other tests but I have never seen articles on false positives with drug detection dogs before. With some of the unreliable statistics mentioned in your study, I understand why people have a concern over 4th amendment rights regarding unreasonable searches and seizures of their private property. Perhaps police think that the more people they arrest for drug use, the better their performance as a police officer, and thus the greater the success of the country’s war on drugs.




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