Trained in Stealth

Throughout history, smugglers have used dogs to transport illegal goods, from lace to narcotics, across borders.


Dogs regularly make headlines detecting concealed contraband for law-enforcement agencies. It might be surprising to learn that they have a much longer history on the other side of the law.

Dogs have successfully smuggled an incredible array of goods past border guards and customs officials for hundreds of years. Sophisticated techniques that were perfected to train smuggling dogs were eventually used by military and law-enforcement agencies for detection of narcotics, bombs and other items.

Crime on the silver screen
In 1906, the long, colorful history of smuggling dogs inspired a movie entitled Chiens Contrebandiers, or Dogs Used as Smugglers when it was released in America. A feature film on canine smugglers certainly suggests they were prevalent at one time. This piece of cinema history also qualifies as one of the earliest action films.

The story features chase scenes, shootouts, and cutaway shots as a band of gypsies and their team of Greyhounds attempt to smuggle goods across the French-Spanish border. They trek through the French Pyrenees pursued by local officers, finally meeting their demise in a shootout with Spanish customs officials. Only one smuggler survives, along with all the Greyhounds. The final scene shows the Greyhounds at home with an old gypsy woman, implying that they are much better at this game, and will soon be at it again.

For centuries, smuggling has been the routine response to embargoes and import duties, obstacles that inspired countless creative solutions. Dogs were used to smuggle contraband since the 13th century, but they are most closely linked to lace smuggling. This practice became so widespread that it’s even mentioned in the official histories of several breeds.

All wound up
During the Renaissance, fine needlepoint lace qualified as one of the most expensive luxury items. Flemish lace makers cornered the market thanks to generations of skilled craftsmen and access to high-quality flax (linen was used to make the best lace).

Lace smuggling began in earnest in the late 1700s when England imposed prohibitive import fees on Flemish lace. The fees were meant to encourage domestic lace manufacturing. Unfortunately, most consumer countries in Europe lacked both flax and expert lace makers.
The ensuing drama was so remarkable, even Charles Dickens could not resist telling the story in his literary magazine, All the Year Round. “Lace must be had; but how? The mercantile mind was equal to the emergency. English gold purchased the choicest laces in the Brussels smuggled by means of dogs trained for the purpose” (June 10, 1876).

Dickens described an early method, which consisted of winding 20 to 25 pounds of lace around a large, skinny dog that had been shaved to accommodate the bulk. The dog was then covered with a homemade dog-fur coat to hide the lace, and sent to wander across the border as a stray.

Want to read the full story? Pick up the December 2010 issue of DOG WORLD today, or  subscribe  to receive the best dog articles, dog news, and dog information every month!


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