Art Market

Dogs Are Being Trained to Sniff Out Smuggled Artifacts

Isaac Kaplan
Jan 23, 2018 9:09PM

Photo by John Donges.

Anyone who has traveled through an airport or train station has likely witnessed the diligent canines that are tasked with sniffing out lawbreakers. These finely trained dogs can detect bomb-making materials, drugs, and even large amounts of money hidden inside a traveler’s luggage.

Now, a new program aims to expand the scope of what these dogs can smell to one day also include ancient coins, pottery, and other cultural heritage objects that were acquired illegally. If successful, these trained dogs could become instrumental to governments worldwide that are working to stop the international trade of looted objects, said Michael Danti, a consulting scholar at the Penn Museum, which is undertaking the initiative along with the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC) and Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research, Inc.

Conflict in Africa and the Middle East has made the long-standing issue of cultural heritage trafficking especially acute. Objects can arrive in the United States and other countries through various channels. Smaller pieces such as ancient coins, for example, are sometimes mixed in with contemporary currency and transported through an airport or the mail. Smugglers can also easily lie about the provenance of their loot on customs forms, making it appear as though they aren’t coming from a conflict zone.

Enlisting dogs to sniff out such objects at ports of entry, Danti noted, could stem the lucrative trade, which itself has been linked to the funding of groups such as ISIS. “There’s no one way that this is happening,” he said. “The illicit market has become highly diffused.”

Danti himself was stopped by a small beagle named Snuffy the Sniffer at the Philadelphia International Airport years ago, while returning from a government-sanctioned archeological dig abroad. The dog was trained to catch agricultural samples and had picked up on the dirt inside of plastic bags of ancient pottery shards in a suitcase.

The experience immediately came to mind when Red Arch executive director Ricardo St. Hilaire approached Danti with the proposal of training dogs to sniff out artifacts.

The project is currently in its first phase; a proof of concept will focus on training dogs to detect clay objects from Syria and Iraq. The process, overseen by Cynthia Otto, director of the WDC, is substantively similar to how dogs are trained to detect bombs or drugs. Researchers use absorbent material to harvest the odors of the ancient objects held in the Penn Museum’s collection; then, they use these materials to test the dogs. Those that are able to sniff out the scents receive a reward.

“Some of our dogs are fine with [the reward being] kibble, some of our dogs think hot dogs are the best thing ever, some of them like cheese,” Otto told Live Science. “We try and find out what’s most motivating and rewarding for that individual dog.” She noted that no one breed is singularly suited to the task, but that patient dogs will likely excel, given how difficult it is to detect the subtle smell of something like pottery.

Beyond the efficacy of the training, researchers are interested in whether the detection training is practical and can be implemented on a larger scale by government agencies such as Homeland Security. If this first phase is successful, and additional funding is secured, subsequent phases would involve testing the dogs outside of a laboratory setting, with the eventual goal of giving demonstrations to customs and border officials.

“This particular project has a lot of potential to disrupt the market,” said Danti.

Isaac Kaplan