The Human Mind: More Powerful than you Think?

Do sniffer dogs really find drugs all on their own or are their human handlers the ones pointing the way?

Well, a web article in The Guardian suggests that it is merely a placebo effect and that sniffer dogs get most of their information from their handlers even if it is subconsciously.

The study called “Handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes” was conducted by Lisa Lit, Julie B. Schweitzer and Anita M. Oberbaue and was published in the January issue of Animal Cognition.

The three researchers took 18 dog and handler teams to test if the hypothesis was valid.  They had a four room building where they ran a search for drugs.  They had placed various boxes to be “found” by the sniffer dogs.

Sometimes there was nothing for the dogs to find.  Other times there was an empty box with a sign on it, telling handlers this was a target.  Sometimes there was a box of delicious sausages and often there was a box of decoy sausages, with a sign on it, telling the handler this was the target.  The interesting part is that at no time were there any explosives or drugs in the boxes, although the handlers thought there were.

The dogs were supposed to do the searching and handlers were told to ignore the signs.

The results showed that the dogs kept finding the empty boxes, when the humans could see the marker saying where they were.  Although the human handlers thought the dogs were finding these boxes, in fact, it was the humans themselves. As suggested in a recent article in Science Daily “The results suggest that the dog and handler teams’ performance is affected by human handlers’ beliefs, possibly in response to subtle, unintentional handler cues”.

Are the dogs sensing their handler’s unconscious display of emotions or perhaps reading their nonverbal behavior in some way?  What do you think about this study’s bold suggestions?

2 responses to “The Human Mind: More Powerful than you Think?”

  1. Keith D. says:

    This is interesting. First of all, the study doesn’t indicate that the scent dogs aren’t good at indicating on the scents they’re trained to indicate on.

    But even more compelling is that they appear to be responding to subtle, unconscious cues by their handlers. That being the case, it’s entirely within reason to believe that dogs could also be trained to indicate on those same subtle, subconscious cues by potential criminals or terrorists.

    In that light, this study seems to suggest that the dogs can be trained to be even better at helping to secure an area than we’ve ever thought possible. It’s interesting that none of the articles linked to made that connection.

  2. John H. says:

    Golden! I’d like to see more of these studies. How our subconscious affects systems around us, particularly social systems.

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