When police caught the second escaped convict from the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York near the Canadian border on Sunday a rumour emerged about how he, David Sweat, had evaded police for 23 days using pepper.
New York State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico told reporters that Sweat had thrown the scent-tracking dogs off his trail by sprinkling pepper in his wake.
But this is “very unlikely,” Paul Waggoner, associate director of Auburn University’s Canine Research Detection Institute, told Business Insider by email.
Pepper — whether it be black, white, or cayanne — would not throw off a trained tracking dog.
First of all dogs have an incredible sense of smell that is much more sophisticated than a human’s and operates thousands of times more acutely than our own noses.
Not only that, their noses are divided in two. Breathing air goes to one side, while the air the dog wants to smell goes to a separate area where the dog’s 300 million receptors sort through the aromas.
Using their super noses, tracking dogs are trained for years sniff out missing people, fugitives, bombs, narcotics, and even cadavers and even whale poop. That’s right, dogs can sniff out a dead body. And they can even be trained to seek out scents given off by drowned people.
Dogs are trained to deal with a huge variety of scents — for example at disaster zones — and successfully find their targets, Waggoner said.
Compared to that pepper shouldn’t be a problem.
“A strong odorant might momentarily interrupt tracking, but modern training of tracking/trailing dogs is such that it provides dogs with experience in working ‘through’ such circumstances,” said Waggoner.
This myth didn’t originate with Sweat and D’Amico, and it has long been debunked.
Mythbusters covered and debunked it in two episodes from 2007 and 2010. In their test, ground black pepper did not distract the bloodhound at all. The dog just sniffed right through it. The dog was able to track down its target in pretty much every situation it encountered on the show.
So can tracking dogs actually be tricked? This Quora post has plenty of ideas, but these responders agree that pepper will not do the trick.
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