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Dogs for the Prosecution

August 13, 2021

People are always asking me, “Bob, is a dog’s evidence admissible in court?” To which I reply: “Only a bloodhound’s, and only under certain conditions, but not in Nebraska.”

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

If you’re like me, which god forbid, you’ve often asked yourself: “Bob, is a dog’s evidence admissible in court?”

I reply, as who would not: “Depends on what state you’re in. Stay out of Nebraska, unless you’re a criminal defendant, in which case, sure, beat feet to the Cornhusker State. A bloodhound can’t testify against you there.”

The bloodhound is the only dog whose evidence is admissible in U.S. courts. So far as I know. But only under certain conditions.

I hardly need tell you that the controlling cases regarding admissibilty of a bloodhound’s evidence in court rest upon Hodge v. Alabama (98 Ala. 10, Alabama Supreme Court (1893)); and Buck v. Oklahoma, (OK CR 65, 138 P.2d 115, Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (1943)).

These rulings, and 61 others our crack team of researchers at Courthouse News have found in 44 states, affirm that “Evidence of the trailing of human beings by bloodhounds is admissible as a circumstance to corroborate other evidence offered by the state.” (Buck, citing Hodge.)

Hodge was charged, and convicted, of murder.

“In that case the death penalty was upheld, and the evidence of tracking by the dog to defendant's home was sustained as competent evidence,” according to the unanimous three-judge panel, upholding the death penalty in Buck

“Since this case in 1893, many courts have passed upon the question, and by the great weight of authority it has been held that the evidence is admissible under certain rules and conditions, as will be hereinafter stated.”

These conditions are (all from Buck, often citing Hodge):

• “The bloodhound in question must be shown to have been trained to follow human beings by their tracks and to have been tested as to its accuracy in trailing upon one or more occasions.”

• The evidence of the bloodhound’s nose “may be received merely as a circumstance or corroborating evidence against a person toward whom other circumstances point as being guilty of the commission of the crime charged.”

• The bloodhound must be of pure breed. (The CCLU is litigating this.)

• “(P)referably out of the presence of the jury,” the judge shall hear evidence “as to the blood, training and experience of the dog, and determine as a matter of law whether it is such as to permit its introduction before the jury.” (Hereinafter: “The Infamous Dog Secrecy Exclusion.”)

And finally:

• “It should be shown that the dog so trained and tested was laid on the trail, whether visible or not, concerning which testimony has been admitted, at a point where the circumstances tend clearly to show that the guilty party has been or upon a track which such circumstances indicate has been made by him.”

I find no problem with the reasoning of the courts. And I thank the courts for bringing it to our attention.

In State v. Hall (3 Ohio N.P. (1895)), the court ruled, wisely, against an appeal of the reliability of a bloodhound’s evidence, in a case of burglary and larceny.

Citing the Encyclopædia Britannica (9th Ed., 1895), the appellate court found in Hall that “The bloodhound is remarkable for its acuteness of scent, its discrimination in keeping to the particular scent on which it is first laid, and the intelligence and pertinacity with which it pursues its object to a successful issue. These qualities have been taken advantage of not only in the chase, but also in the pursuit of felons and fugitives of every kind. According to Strabo, [Greek geographer, 63 B.C.-23 A.D.] these dogs were used in an attack upon the Gauls. In the clan feuds of the Scottish Highlands, and in the frequent wars between England and Scotland, they were regularly employed in tracking fugitive warriors, and were thus employed, according to early chroniclers, in pursuit of [Sir William] Wallace [1270-1305]* and Bruce [Robert the Bruce, 1274-1329]. The former is said to have put a hound off the scent by killing a suspected follower, ‘on whose corpse the hound stood.'’’**

Laugh if you will, but both men — Buck the arsonist, who burned down his neighbor’s barn, and Hodge, the murderer — lost their appeals, against the truth, honesty and fidelity of bloodhounds.

Why, then, have we kept them in prisons since the 1800s? In case after case, the sheriff sends to the local prison for a bloodhound, but … oh, wait a minute … I get it.


* Wallace, a hero of Scottish independence, defeated an invading English army, bloodhounds and all, at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, in September 1297.

** Unlikely, probably garbled in the telling, and apocryphal. Had Robert the Bruce done this, he [not the bloodhound] would have stood upon the body of a dead comrade, hoping to throw the bloodhound off the scent. But surely, the bloodhound(s) would have continued to traipse over the corpse. And where would Robert the Bruce be then? Still alive, with a bloodhound on his trail.

Harvey the bloodhound keeps an eye on Cherry Creek, Colorado. (Photo by Brooks Holliday for Courthouse News)

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