With the constant miniaturization of electronics, digital information can now be stored on a microSD card the size of a fingernail. Which makes it almost impossible for detectives to find when searching through a cluttered house or storage locker.
Enter electronic storage detection (ESD) dogs. It’s a new breed of service dog trained to sniff out cell phones, thumb drives, hard drives, computers and tablets, no matter how tiny they are.
More and more, ESD dogs are used across the country for cases such as political or corporate espionage, fraud, terrorism and other crimes. They can even sniff out hidden cameras in office buildings or the homes of CEOs, designed to pick up competitive intelligence. Nothing is safe from the finely honed nose of an ESD dog.
Training to pinpoint the scent
The idea for training Electronic Storage Detection (ESD) dogs began in 2012 as a joint effort among the Connecticut State Police computer crimes unit, their canine unit, and the forensic lab.
A chemist in the laboratory was able to isolate triphenylphosphine oxide (TPPO), a compound used to coat circuit boards in storage devices to prevent overheating. The canine unit started training dogs to recognize pure TPPO in a jar. Once the dogs imprinted on the scent, the trainers used smaller and smaller amounts of TPPO, hiding it in various areas for the dogs to find.
When a dog finds the scent, it’s trained to alert the handler by sitting down and pointing its nose toward the object. Successful dogs are rewarded with food.
In some cases, dogs may be trained to find another chemical, hydroxycyclohexyl phenyl ketone (HPK), a compound typically found on storage media such as CDs, DVDs and floppy disks.
While there are other ESD dog training services around the country, the Connecticut program generally requires about five weeks to imprint the dogs to the scent and six weeks to train dogs with their handlers as a team.
A job made for Labrador retrievers
To date, the vast majority of ESD dogs belong to a single breed: Labrador retrievers.
The breed’s easygoing temperament makes them ideal to search in areas crowded with people, without getting nervous or distracted. The dogs are also typically high energy, often food motivated, and have an insatiable drive to please people. For these dogs, a methodical search through a suspect’s house is generally all fun and games.
Training is ongoing
A properly trained ESD dog can find thumb drives, even when they’re disguised as lighters or cufflinks. They can track down a computer, when it’s turned off. Even when dogs nose out hard drives that have been erased, forensic specialists may be able to recover valuable files that have been deleted.
Of course, training doesn’t stop once they’ve successfully completed the program. Handlers need to continue putting dogs to the test to keep their training fresh. Even so, it’s not all hard work and no play. Dogs get to go home with their handlers, where there’s plenty of time for belly rubs and snoozes on the couch.
The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.