Detector Dog Service

Dogs have one of the most acute senses of smell of any creature in the animal world. This not only allows them to detect the presence of prohibited or regulated substances, but more importantly, to pinpoint their locations.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) currently has detector dog teams strategically located across Canada, serving both travellers and commercial operations. The detector dog teams work in all modes of travel such as air, highway, marine, and rail and in postal and courier centres.

What are they looking for?

The CBSA has specialized dogs trained in the detection of:

  • narcotics (e.g. cocaine, heroin, ecstasy);
  • firearms;
  • currency; and
  • agriculture products (e.g. pork, beef and chicken) that could contain harmful pests and diseases.


The CBSA's Detector Dog Service (DDS) program has been in operation since 1978. At that time, Canada Customs responded to the identified need of providing front-line officers with a more effective method of detecting and interdicting narcotics and firearms. Detector dogs were seen as a possible tool and a pilot project was initiated in Windsor.

The program's reach has extended in recent years, with dogs being used to detect items other than drugs and firearms. In 2003, a currency detector dog pilot project was launched to help CBSA officers with their authorities under the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act. The currency detector dog teams have now become part of the DDS program.

Since January 2005, the DDS program has included food, plant and animal detector dog teams from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.


The DDS plays an important role in the detection of prohibited or regulated goods entering the country and in assisting the CBSA to fulfil its border protection mandate by:

  • significantly increasing opportunities to interdict narcotics, firearms, currency and food, plant and animal products;
  • deterring smugglers while increasing the public's awareness of the CBSA's innovative enforcement approaches;
  • assisting CBSA officers in conducting examinations and eliminating labour-intensive searches; and
  • improving service to the travelling public by reducing the time needed to screen or examine passengers, luggage and commercial shipments in the least intrusive manner.

In addition, detector dog teams assist other law-enforcement agencies in their execution of search warrants for drugs/firearms and currency.

CBSA officers and their detector dogs also conduct demonstrations at schools and for community service groups. During these demonstrations, handlers provide general information on drugs and firearms, currency and food, plant and animal products and demonstrate their dog's trained abilities. This service is aimed at educating young people and the general public while providing information about the CBSA's role as a law-enforcement agency.


Detector dog teams receive intensive training at the CBSA's Learning Centre in Rigaud, Quebec. At the Learning Centre, they are trained to recognize the specific scents that they will be employed to detect, whether the scents are from narcotics, firearms, or agriculture products. They also become familiar with the circumstances and situations under which they will work.

The CBSA offers detector dog services to other enforcement agencies in Canada and abroad, such as police forces in Blainville, Châteauguay, Montréal, Toronto, federal and provincial correctional authorities, U.S. police forces in New York and Florida, and the Bermuda Customs Service.

Passive vs. Active

When the program initially started, all drug/firearm dogs were trained to indicate actively by scratching, digging, biting and barking at the source of the contraband odour. This was an effective way to deter drug and firearm smuggling. Primarily, only passive dog training is now conducted.

In 1993, the Passive Detector Dog Service was introduced. Passive dogs are trained for all aspects of the customs working environment, but are especially effective in inspecting travellers for body packs and hand-carried items that are used to smuggle contraband.

Passive dogs will sit beside the source of the trained odour. The docile and friendly nature of the dogs allows CBSA officers to peacefully circulate with them among arriving travellers. Passive detector dog teams are working in all regions throughout Canada including international airports in Halifax, Quebec City, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.

Course Content

During the 10-week basic training, the dog handlers learn how to care for, maintain and train their dogs. The dog handlers are also trained in understanding the environment — particularly air currents, dangerous areas — and learn to understand the "cone of scent."

Odour particles always travel in the shape of a cone. A cone of scent is always concentrated and narrow at the source and becomes wider and more diluted the further it travels.


The CBSA has very high standards for its dogs and only 1 out of 10 submitted to the evaluation process is accepted into the DDS program. After only a few exercises, it can usually be determined if the dog has the potential to meet the Agency's required expectations.

After the initial training course the dog handler must maintain a training schedule to keep the dog working at a peak efficiency level.

A detector dog training specialist will assess each detector dog team annually to ensure that they are working at an effective level.

About the Dogs

The CBSA uses several different breeds of dog, but has primarily employed the Labrador Retriever for drug, firearm and currency detection and the Beagle for food, plant and animal detection. Dogs are matched with CBSA officers to form detector dog teams.

The life of a detector dog:

  • they are usually 11 to 16-months old when their training begins;
  • those that are trained to detect food, plant and animal products live in commercial kennels so that they are not continually around food smells from the handler's household kitchen. Dogs that are trained to detect drugs, firearms and currency live with their dog handlers;
  • the dogs are transported in air-conditioned vehicles that act as a mobile kennel when the dog is at work;
  • typically, the dogs work for 8 to 10 years; and
  • when the dogs retire, their handlers get the first option of taking them home to live with them or finding them a suitable good home.

What the CBSA looks for in a potential detector dog:

  • natural ability and the desire to retrieve;
  • good physical condition;
  • size (15-40 kilos);
  • alertness;
  • boldness (i.e. not being afraid of the varying situations and environments that they will be working in);
  • temperament; and
  • sociability.

About the Dog Handlers

The dog handlers must be border services officers and be dedicated to their job. They may be required to be on call 24 hours a day and must be willing to travel to other locations on short notice. They must also be dedicated to their dogs, while both on- and off- duty.