Contraband tobacco-sniffing dogs a bust for border agency

The $1 million spent by the Canada Border Services Agency on dog teams to sniff out contraband tobacco led to just nine seizures in three years. The seizures were worth about $1,000 in unpaid federal taxes, and the teams - initially touted as a new enforcement tool - weren't cost effective, says a new study.

Internal report for Canada Border Services Agency says dog teams sniffed out illegal smokes just 9 times

The CBSA's first tobacco-detector dog teams: Daniel Valois and Fire, a Springer spaniel, and Arthur Tsu and Magnum, a Labrador retriever. The teams ceased operations in 2013 after they failed to be cost effective. (CBSA)

The Harper government spent $1 million on dog teams specially trained to sniff out contraband tobacco entering Canada, but the pooch patrols were a bust, suggests a newly released report.

The dogs’ noses led to nine small seizures worth just $1,000 in unpaid federal tobacco taxes over the three-year program.

“Based on seizure results alone, the two dog teams were not found to be cost effective,” says a detailed evaluation by Public Safety Canada.

The contraband-tobacco dog teams quietly ceased operations in 2013, but an unvarnished accounting of their effectiveness was only posted on the department’s website.

The dogs were part of a $17-million initiative begun in 2010 to stop the flow of contraband tobacco into Canada, known as MACT (Measures to Address Contraband Tobacco). The three-year project, sunsetted in March 2013, was not renewed.

'Establish attachment'

Vic Toews, then minister of public safety, touted the effectiveness of the dog teams in December 2010, saying in a news release that “these specialized teams give the CBSA more effective tools for disrupting and reducing illegal tobacco activity.”

The Canada Border Services Agency was in charge of the two dog teams, consisting of:

  • Fire, a Springer spaniel, and his handler Daniel Valois.
  • Magnum, a Labrador retriever, and his handler Arthur Tsu.
(The dogs) were reassigned to other functions or retired- CBSA spokeswoman

The evaluation notes that it took a year to hire the handlers and train the dogs, then another year “to establish attachment between the dog and dog handler,” so that no searches took place for two years.

Over an 18-month period, one team made 37,000 searches in a Vancouver central mail facility, while the other made 106,000 searches at the port of Montreal. Only nine seizures resulted, for a total of 47 cartons and about seven kilograms of fine-cut tobacco.

The potential lost taxes? About $1,000 in total, says the evaluation.

Small percentage

“These seizures represent about two per cent to three per cent of the total contraband seizures in the two designated locations,” says the evaluation, which does not indicate why the dogs were so ineffective.

A spokeswoman for CBSA said in an email the two dogs were “subsequently reassigned to other functions or retired.”

Wendy Atkin added in an email that the dogs got better at detection over the course of the initiative, and that the experience gave the agency “valuable insights about the ability of detector dogs to intercept contraband tobacco, and has helped to establish an effective training and evaluation program for this new area.”

Since it first began to use detector dogs in 1978, CBSA has trained canine teams to sniff out drugs, firearms, currency and agricultural products, including meat. Ten-week-long basic training is carried out at CBSA’s facility in Rigaud, Que.

The agency began cutting its sniffer-dog teams in 2012 as part of its contribution to deficit reductions, but still keeps several dozen teams at border points. Each dog-and-handler team currently costs about $100,000 a year to operate.

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