Canine investigators trained to sniff out stolen artefacts

Researchers from the US hope specialist dogs will be able to detect pottery looted from war zones

A sniffer dog is pictured during the annual media conference of the main customs office at the airport in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on April 8, 2019.  / AFP / Daniel ROLAND
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Dogs are well known for burying their treasure – or old bones, at least – in the ground.

Now, though, a select group of canine investigators are being trained to detect real treasure that has been dug up and looted from archaeological sites in war-torn countries, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have collaborated with the Penn Vet Working Dog Centre to launch a programme – K-9 Artefact Finders – to see whether dogs can be trained to sniff out pottery and other artefacts in the same way that they can detect drugs, explosives and ivory.

“It’s really exciting because looting has an impact on a community’s identity,” said Kristin Parker, an archivist at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, who is attending this week's Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi.

“There is so much trauma in these areas [of the Middle East]. If you start to lose the artefacts, it’s just another layer of devastation.”

The dogs, mostly Labradors and German Shepherds, are being trained to pick up the odour of pottery samples.

When they succeed, they are given a food reward to encourage the behaviour. “Some of our dogs are fine with kibble, some of our dogs think hot dogs are the best thing ever, some of them like cheese,” Cynthia Otto, the executive director and principal researcher at the Penn Vet Working Dog Centre, said in an interview earlier this year.

“We try and find out what’s most motivating and rewarding for that individual dog.”

Ms Parker, who was speaking on a panel at the Culture Summit titled ‘How can new technologies support heritage in emergencies?’, stressed the importance of the initiative, explaining that looting in times of conflict is particularly prevalent.

“Looting can be quite lucrative, especially in times of conflict because what else do you have,” she said. “Everything else has been taken away from you in terms of your ability to make a living, so it becomes a lucrative business and the only way to stop that business is to stop the market.

“You can see [at art fairs in the West] that some of this looted material is still moving along, it’s crazy. [Prevention] has to come from many different efforts and the dogs are that latest effort."

If the project is a success, the team of scientists aim to demonstrate their findings to US Customs and Border Patrol officials in the hope that similar canine units will be trained and deployed.