Skip to content

Canine Detection

Explosives detection dog teams can provide a versatile, mobile and real-time search and detection capability that can offer significant benefits to many operations

Last Updated 28 February 2023


Explosives detection dog teams can be used in a variety of operational scenarios to indicate the presence of explosives. This is achieved using an appropriately trained canine and handler team indicating the presence of an odour which the dog has been trained to find in the operational environment in which they have been trained to work.

Application and use

Explosives detection dog teams can provide a versatile, mobile and real-time search and detection capability that can offer significant benefits to many operations. They are most commonly applied to aid the search of one or more of buildings, areas, vehicles or bulk deliveries, but also have the potential to be an efficient and effective tool for screening people at Crowded Places and other high footfall locations. Detection dogs may also be trained to detect firearms, as well as a wide variety of other contraband, such as narcotics. Combining capabilities - for example training a dog to detect explosives and firearms or explosives and narcotics - should normally be avoided unless a common operational response is acceptable.

Detection dog capability arises from a handler and dog working effectively as a team; a handler may operate one or two dogs, but a dog should not be shared between handlers. In order to provide an effective capability, dogs need to be trained to detect the materials of interest, trained in the relevant search discipline, and trained in situations and environments that replicate the specific operational scenario. Training should be conducted regularly in order to maintain capability, with additional training undertaken as necessary when any performance issues are identified or when new capability needs to be introduced. Detailed training records should be kept.

Dogs are intelligent animals, and this underpins their ability to search. However this makes them able to learn unintentional cues from handlers during training which can undermine their performance in the operational environment. The ability and behaviour of the handler cannot be underestimated in enabling the performance of the dog. A good handler, both during training and in the field, is essential to achieving and maintaining good detection performance.

The welfare of the dogs needs to be considered at all times. Organisations must ensure that any dogs are worked within their capacity and rested and exercised regularly and in suitable environments. Unfortunately there is no definitive answer as to how long a dog can work effectively without a break - every dog is different and different search tasks will place different physical and mental demands on the dog (and handler). A competent handler should know their dog and be able to spot signs that a break is needed.

A detection dog will typically "indicate" by freezing and looking at what it perceives to be the location of the source of a trained odour. It is important to understand that any such indication by an explosives detection dog does not mean that an explosive threat (material or device) is definitely present; the dog may have smelt something benign but similar to a trained odour, or residual odour from the previous presence of explosives (e.g. when screening a vehicle that has previously transported explosives legitimately).

A dog may also show "interest" in a particular area or item without indicating; this may, for example, occur when the dog encounters an odour similar, but not identical, to a trained one. As signs of interest may be quite subtle, it is important that the handler understands their dog sufficiently to reliably spot them.

The handler therefore plays a key role in continually observing and assessing the situation as search activity proceeds, and in determining and initiating an appropriate response when the dog indicates or shows interest.

Whilst canine detection offers many advantages, like all technologies and techniques it is not perfect; it should not be used in isolation and the skill and experience of the operator (the handler in the case of detection dogs) is key to achieving an effective capability. Canines can offer a particularly useful detection capability to screen complex vehicles, abnormal loads, bulk deliveries, or large areas that cannot easily be screened by other methods.

Public and Private Sector Detection Dog Capability

Government bodies in the UK use detection dogs for a variety of purposes. Government detection dog teams (comprising a dog paired with a handler) are subject to standardised training, assessment and annual licensing (with exact details depending on the detection discipline); this  provides assurance that each team meets the required standard for operational deployment.

Many private sector security providers also offer the services of detection dog teams. The National Canine Training and Accreditation Scheme for the Private Security Industry (NCTAS-P) was launched in March 2021. It is intended to provide those procuring and using explosives detection dog (EDD) services with confidence in the quality of those services through annual accreditation of each EDD team (a specific and verifiable dog and handler pairing). NCTAS-P is a collaborative initiative between the Home Office, Counter Terrorism Policing and NPSA, and is aligned closely with the corresponding scheme for assuring police and government EDD teams (for example, mandating regular continuation training and annual assessments for teams). Further details are available on as well as a list of private sector EDD teams that have passed NCTAS-P.

Whilst engagement with the scheme is voluntary (both for suppliers of explosives detection dog services and for those utilising such services) NPSA strongly recommends that organisations using private sector EDD teams as part of the mix of protective security measures at their site only use EDD teams holding a current NCTAS-P accreditation:

  • Where an organisation is procuring new (or re-tendering for existing) EDD services, it should explicitly require the supply of EDD teams holding a current NCTAS-P accreditation.
  • Where an existing contract for provision of EDD services is in place, the organisation should work with their supplier to ensure that all EDD teams deployed at their site(s) hold NCTAS-P accreditation by the end of an agreed transition period (which should be no longer than 6 - 12 months).

As for any other individual security measure, canine explosives detection is not a panacea. All potential users of EDD services are therefore strongly advised to understand their operational requirement for such capability, the issues and risks associated with deploying it, and in particular the risks arising from the use of teams (i.e. dog and handler pairings) without a valid NCTAS-P accreditation. Users are also strongly advised to beware of the potential for misleading marketing claims relating to NCTAS-P, and in particular check that any EDD teams engaged do hold a current NCTAS-P Accreditation. Key points to consider when specifying, procuring and implementing detection dog services are outlined in the guidance note below.

Note that NCTAS-P accreditation only applies to Explosives Detection Dog capability for search of building, areas, routes, vehicles and deliveries; it does not currently cover use of EDD teams for searching and screening people. Specialist use of EDD teams for aviation security falls outside the scope of NCTAS-P and is regulated separately; other detection dog disciplines (e.g. detection of firearms, narcotics, currency also currently fall outside of NCTAS-P.

Detection Dog Guidance Notes

NPSA is working with partners including the Home Office, Department for Transport and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to develop a suite of evidence-based guidance notes (see related page below) detailing good practices underpinning delivery of effective detection dog capability. These are primarily intended for detection dog handlers and trainers, but should also prove useful to security managers looking to commission effective detection dog capability.

Did you find this page useful? Yes No