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September 2, 2014

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To be a drug dog, you need ‘prey drive’ - and a little German

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This dog is not your drug dealer’s best friend.

These are not dogs you teach to roll over, or cuddle. These dogs — this particular group of eight — only respond to commands in German. These dogs have 400 hours of training, each. They're German shepherds, or Belgian malinois. They're land sharks. And when they smell meth, or heroin, or marijuana — when they "hit" on some microparticle of some illicit drug stashed in a car on some Nevada highway — it's blood in the water.

The Nevada Department of Public Safety started with six dogs in late 2008. In their first 16 months, those dogs sniffed out more than 2,000 pounds of various narcotics and $4 million in U.S. currency — the sales and spoils of drug runners who use Nevada as a Western distribution hub, said J.V. Gagnon, a DPS chief.

Roughly 30 pounds of that seizure was meth, with a wholesale value of over half a million dollars, Gagnon says. The money seized is used to fund the K-9 program — to outfit highway patrol cars for animals, to buy kennels and equipment, to pay an experienced trainer, to travel in search of the right dogs. Dogs with the right "prey drive."

And the right dog isn't cheap. They're purchased with donations from a nonprofit, Nevada State Friends for K-9. After hours of training, Gagnon estimates each dog is worth around $40,000.

Which sounds like a lot, until you consider that one dog found drugs and cash worth almost $100,000 on his first week on the job. Another dog, meanwhile, found drugs and cash worth $1.6 million in one night — enough to float the entire K-9 program.

"They work to hunt, and they love to hunt dope," Gagnon says. "It doesn't matter what people do to the drugs, the dogs will smell it. The scent always leaks out."

The dogs smell places where drugs have been even after they're gone, Gagnon says. It's reported that canines can detect scent molecules in parts-per-billion. Dogs are now used to smell out contraband cell phones in prison, and bedbugs in hotels. Studies show that dogs can detect certain cancers. And still other dogs have been trained to sniff out DVDs — an effort to stop movie piracy.

In Nevada, each K-9 officer takes his dog home. They spend their weekends together. They train, groom and feed the dogs constantly, Gagnon says. And no expenses are spared. (The dogs are trained with German commands in part because it's industry practice, dating back to a time when most law-enforcement dogs were imported from Germany.)

The dogs, meanwhile, just want to sniff and hunt. Even fetch is high-stakes. When Gagnon throws a tennis ball for one dog, it locks on the toy like missile defense, then bolts in full gallop, back in seconds and waiting for the next throw. Now the dog is activated, so Gagnon issues a training challenge: He sits the tennis ball at the dog's paws, and makes him wait, staring at the ball, but not touching. Every molecule of the dog's body, now, is fixed on the ball. So Gagnon waits. Waits. Waits. Then bam! A command in German and the dog is off, back again, and ready for the next throw.

— Originally published in Las Vegas Weekly

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