A Nose for Loot? Dogs Training to Sniff Out Stolen Artifacts

A German shepherd with a policeman.
Can dogs sniff out stolen artifacts with their amazing noses? (Image credit: Shutterstock)

A team of scientists will train dogs to see if the animals can sniff out looted artifacts from the Middle East that are being smuggled into the United States.

Dogs have a greater sense of smell than humans and are already being used to sniff out bombs, drugs and ivory. Now, scientists are hoping the canines can also be trained to sniff out artifacts from Syria and Iraq, war-torn countries that have experienced widespread looting of archaeological sites.

"Terrorists, organized crime and common criminals are destroying archaeological sites on an industrial scale to cash in on illegal profits … that is why we need to find out if we can train dogs to help," said Michael Danti, a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in a statement announcing the creation of the K-9 Artifact Finders research program. [7 Stunning Archaeological Sites in Syria]

Detecting artifacts that are being smuggled into the United States is difficult, experts say. "Smugglers import stolen heritage into the U.S. by hiding them in packages and crates. Using canines to sniff out illegally dug-up artifacts would help customs officers quickly identify smuggling suspects, who usually falsify import forms when they traffic artifacts, which is a felony," Domenic DiGiovanni, a retired Department of Homeland Security customs officer, said in the statement.

Several institutions are collaborating on the program: the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law & Policy Research, and the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Dog training

To train dogs to sniff out artifacts, researchers will use techniques similar to those employed to train dogs to search for drugs and bombs, said Cynthia Otto, the executive director and principal researcher at the Working Dog Center.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum will provide pieces of ancient pottery from Syria and scientists with the Working Dog Center will capture any odor these pieces have by wiping them with absorbent material, Otto said. "We're going to train the dogs to recognize the odor that is associated with those pottery samples," Otto told Live Science.

To do that, the scientists will have dogs sniff material that has the pottery's odor on it. When the dogs sniff an object that has the odor, they get a "reward," and when they sniff material that doesn't have the odor, they receive no reward, Otto said. [Photos: Damage to Syrian Ruins Seen from Space]

The reward varies depending on the dog, but often consists of various types of food. "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. We try and find out what's most motivating and rewarding for that individual dog," Otto said.

The dogs include German shepherds and Labradors; however, the breed of dog will not be as important as the animal's temperament, Otto said. The odor from the pottery will likely be subtle, and it will take a patient dog to sniff it out, Otto said.

Scientists hope that the dogs can also be trained to sniff out pottery samples from Iraq and other regions of the Middle East, she said. It's not known if pottery from Iraq would smell differently to a dog than pottery from Syria. Ancient records in Syria and Iraq were often written on clay tablets, and scientists hope that the dogs will also be able to sniff those artifacts out.

If the dogs can be successfully trained, the scientists will seek funding to conduct on-the-ground tests (outside of a laboratory) the statement said. If those tests are successful, the researchers will create a demonstration program for customs officials in the United States and other countries.

Original article on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.