This Nose Aims to Find Smuggled Artifacts

Roxie is one of the Penn Vet dogs being trained to sniff out antiquities form Syria and Iraq. Penn Vet Working Dog Center/Facebook

At the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, puppies are trained from a young age with the general skills they'll need for a career in some sort of detection.

As the center explains on its website, "We like to think of it as a liberal arts degree that will prepare them to go on to the advanced training that best suits their physical and behavioral strengths."

Once trainers figure out a dog's specific set of skills, the pup could end up specializing in search and rescue, diabetes alert, or become trained to detect explosives, narcotics, human remains or cancer.

Recently, some dogs have started training for a career in antiquities detection. Moxie, Roxie, Grizzlie, Pacy and Scout are learning to identify smuggled cultural artifacts from Syria and Iraq that have been hidden in crates and packages.

The "K-9 Artifact Finders" program is supported in part by Red Arch, a nonprofit group whose research includes investigating antiquities trafficking and archaeological site looting. For the first phase of the program, the dogs will learn to recognize the scents of freshly excavated artifacts, according to Red Arch. They're using cotton balls that are imprinted with the scent of the artifacts to make sure the real antiquities aren't damaged. If the program is successful, then they'll move to on-site testing.

"Finding target scents linked to illegally looted artifacts will equip customs officers with the advanced tool they need to nab heritage traffickers and their smuggled cultural property packages at airports, cargo facilities, and other ports of entry. In this way, humanity's rich culture and history can be recovered and preserved," according to Red Arch.

How it works

The dogs are learning to detect the smell of artifacts just like they would detect any other scent. They begin with basic detention skills. They search for their favorite toy or a hidden person. They they learn to apply those skills to a specified target odor, like explosives, drugs or, in this case, artifacts.

Cynthia Otto, executive director of the Penn Vet center, tells the Guardian that the antiquities program is unprecedented. When dogs learn, they are rewarded with play time or food, she said. "They absolutely love the work: that’s what is so wonderful."

Here, Moxie is learning to recognize odor from Syrian pottery.

How it could help

If the program works, the trained dogs could be used to sniff cargo, looking for cultural heritage artifacts.

"If the research proves successful, then customs officers may have a new law enforcement partner to catch smugglers," Ricardo St. Hilaire, executive director of Red Arch, told the Antiquities Coalition.

The dogs would sniff suspicious containers during cargo inspection, saving time for officers who would otherwise have to manually sort through them. The dogs could be deployed at an airport where they might be used to sniff luggage or they might be used at the port where sea cargo arrives.

St. Hilair says well-trained dogs may be the solution to stopping traffickers in their tracks.

"Smugglers must be detected and arrested so that we can disrupt the illegal trade that is looting our history and culture and lining criminals’ pockets with illegal cash," he says.