Detector Dog Program - working with dogs to help protect Australia

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The Australian Border Force ​Detector Dog Program plays a significant role in helping to protect Australia's borders from the importation of prohibited and restricted goods. Detector dogs are deployed for their unobtrusive and non-discriminatory broad screening detection capability. Their strength is their ability to screen large volumes of people and goods quickly and efficiently. They provide an excellent complimentary detection capability alongside technologies such as x-ray and trace particle detection.  

Detector dog teams are trained to search in a range of challenging border environments. They are routinely tasked to search luggage, parcels, mail, air and sea cargo, cargo containers, vessels, vehicles, aircraft, structures and people.

Australian Border Force detector dogs also provide operational support to the Australian Federal Police, state and territory police and other government law enforcement agencies.



The Detector Dog Program is a national program, headquartered at the National Detector Dog Program Facility in Bulla, Victoria. It comprises two sub-sections:​

Detector Dog Program Operations

Detector Dog Program Operations is responsible for the seven regional operational units in Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

Detector Dog Program Breeding and Training

It is responsible for the breeding and development of high-quality candidate detector dogs, the training of handlers and dogs and the ongoing proficiency maintenance of all operational detector dog teams.​


Detector dogs were first used in Sydney between 1968 and 1974. Two black Labradors were trained—and although they had only moderate success—it became clear that the use of detector dogs would endure. Upon their retirement two German Shepherds were then obtained as puppies from the Australian Army and trained with Army assistance.

In 1976 the Bureau of Customs commissioned a review of its use of detector dogs, including consideration of the value and feasibility of developing and expanding this program. The plan was to train six dogs and six handlers per year for the three years of the program, commencing with three week old German Shepherd puppies that would be trained to detect heroin, opium, hashish and cannabis.

In 1978 – the final year of the development program – an evaluation was conducted on the achievements of the detector dogs. As a result of a substantial number of drug seizures being attributed to the detector dogs a decision was made to continue and expand the program.

A review was conducted and it was found that, although there had been a substantial number of drug seizures, there was still room for improvement. In particular, the exclusive use of pedigreed German Shepherd puppies was proving expensive and slow to produce results.

Other options were explored, and as a result of research that was conducted both domestically and internationally, the training methodology employed by United States Customs was identified as the best fit for Australia. Training was based on an active response followed by a game reward. Dogs were encouraged to bite and scratch at the source of the odour, immediately followed by a vigorous game of tug-of-war with a rolled up piece of towelling.

Unlike many other law enforcement agencies with a detector dog capability, kennelling was (and still is) centralised in purpose-built kennels. The shift from home kennelling to centralised kennelling brought with it a number of advantages that outweighed the cost incurred building dedicated kennel facilities. 

Underpinning the new training methodology was the shift from using pedigreed dogs to selecting dogs of all breeds from dog pounds, animal shelters and private homes. These dogs were generally cast-offs or unwanted pets. Provided they were bold, possessed a strong retrieve and play drive, and were physically fit, they were deemed suitable for life as a detector dog.

A training unit was formed in 1979, comprising an administrator, five instructors, a training aid control officer, two office support staff, kennel controller, kennel hands and a dog recruitment officer. The first training centre was far from sophisticated, being a disused wool shed in Barton, Canberra. Things improved dramatically in 1984 with the completion of a purpose built training centre in Fyshwick, Canberra. The Detector Dog Training Centre in Fyshwick was the centre for all training activities from 1984 until 2009.

Training remained largely unchanged over the ensuing years – until the early nineties when it was determined that a people search capability was required. Until that time detector dogs were limited to searching articles, vessels, aircraft, vehicles and buildings due to the use of an active response. In 1992 a Passive Alert Dog (sit response) capability was introduced specifically to search people at airports and seaports. In order to ensure acceptance from the public, only dogs of a non-threatening appearance were used for passive work. The Labrador Retriever was identified as a breed that had the drive and temperament suitable for detection work while also being acceptable to the public.

As the Detector ​Dog Program expanded and evolved, dog recruitment practices struggled to keep pace with demand. Due to a lack of quality dogs available for training in the early 90s, a three-year pilot breeding program commenced in Melbourne in 1993. The Labrador Retriever was selected as the breed of choice, largely because it embodied all the desirable characteristics required of a detector dog.

An intensive three-year study, conducted in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and the Royal Guide Dogs Association of Australia led to the identification of the genetic requirements for breeding and the best environmental influences for the development of detector dogs.

Between 1993 and 2006, the Detector Dog Program bred 1​000 puppies. Over the following five years another 1000 puppies were bred. Our 2000th puppy was born in April 2011 and is currently an operational detector dog with the New Zealand Customs Service. The breeding program is now the only source of detector dogs for the Australian Border Force​.

In the early 2000s training methodologies changed in response to an increasingly complex operational environment. Each dog was given a dual response – active response when searching articles and areas and a passive response when searching people. While this provided greater flexibility in the way dogs could be deployed, it presented significantly greater challenges in terms of training and ongoing maintenance of detector dogs.

In response to a world-wide increase in terrorist activities, the Detector Dog Program introduced a Firearms and Explosives Detector Dog capability in June 2003. These dogs were trained with a passive response and were trained to detect a variety of explosive compounds and assorted firearms across all deployment areas.

In 2006 the Detector dog program introduced a passive only response for all new detector dogs undertaking training, irrespective of the type of detection capability being delivered. The introduction of a single response methodology for all detector dogs led to more consistent and manageable training outcomes. It also provided a smoother transition to the people search component of training.

Since that time the Detector Dog Program has made two further significant additions to the capability mix. Currency detection was added in 2013 with the introduction of dogs trained to detect Australian currency. Two dogs were initially trained and within a short period of time they achieved a number of significant detections.  As a result of this success additional dogs have been trained to detect currency. More recently the first tobacco detection capability was introduced. This came about in response to the rapidly growing threat posed by tobacco smuggling.  A number of significant detections have been achieved since the introduction of the tobacco capability.

The Firearms and Explosives Detector Dog capability was phased out in 2015 with the introduction of a dedicated Explosive Detector Dog capability. The requirement to maintain a firearms capability was met with the introduction of a firearms and currency capability.

National Detector Dog Program Facility

On 5 December 2011, the Detector Dog Program took up residence at the newly built, state of the art National Detector Dog Program Facility located in Bulla, Victoria. The facility is the headquarters for the Detector Dog Program, providing the necessary infrastructure to conduct all activities related to national administration of the program , breeding, juvenile dog development, training and the management of the quality assurance process. The facility is set on an 8 hectare site in a semi-rural environment, providing the capacity to undertake multiple training courses concurrently, house up to 200 dogs at a time and whelp multiple litters simultaneously. The facility ensures that the Detector Dog Program will be able to continue to service the needs of the Australian Border Force, as well as domestic and international agencies, well into the future.