Dogs That Bring Home a Paycheck
Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, as the country remained on edge, one of the newest members of the LAPD bomb squad single-handedly saved the city from a possible catastrophe. A suspected bomb maker was smuggling explosive materials in his truck, and JJ—a young Labrador retriever—caught him red-handed.
When JJ was brought from a shelter to the home of certified detection-dog trainer Mike Herstik several months earlier, she didn’t look the part of a future bomb-sniffing professional. Life on the street had left JJ sickly and severely emaciated—hardly the strong and sturdy German shepherd that is often associated with police work. But when Herstik put JJ to the test by tossing her a tennis ball, he was shocked to see the seemingly weak dog suddenly jump to life. “Her eyes lit up,” says Herstik. “She pounced after the ball and brought it back to me, wagging her tail.”
Almost 20 years of experience training dogs told Herstik that JJ’s keen retrieval instinct made her a natural for detection work. Over the next few months, Herstik nursed JJ back to health while training her for the dangerous and complicated job of recognizing the smell of explosives. JJ was only on the bomb squad a month before she made her trainer proud with her big find. Since then, she’s been responsible for numerous successful searches and has been promoted to an FBI task force. “JJ went from being a dog that nobody wanted,” says Herstik, “to being a hero.”
Many dogs like JJ are taking a bite out of crime through their brave work on police forces and bomb squads. But even more motivated mutts are leaving behind their grim shelter pasts to build careers in lesser-known areas of detection work—sniffing out everything from pirated DVDs and menacing prisoners to pesky insects and household mold.
SCENT OF SUCCESS
Dogs are infamous for sticking their noses where they don’t belong. But what most people don’t realize is that a dog’s sense of smell is one of her most powerful weapons. “Olfaction is a very significant part of the dog’s communication system,” explains Pamela Reid, PhD, CAAB, of the ASPCA. In fact, the dog’s nose has as many as 300 million smell receptors (while humans have only about 5 million). So when a dog sniffs a tree or fire hydrant, he is being more nosy than naughty. From the smell of another dog’s urine, she’s able to determine the animal’s sex, diet, and reproductive status, among other identifying factors.
This extraordinary ability, combined with the dog’s insatiable need to please her owners, has made it possible for canine do-gooders to be put to work using those skills. “You can teach dogs to find pretty much anything, as long as it has a distinctive odor,” explains Beth Nelson, co-owner of Canine Scent Investigations in Crofton, Maryland.
When representatives of the Motion Picture Association of America learned of the incredible power of dogs’ noses, they were instantly intrigued. Facing a multimillion-dollar profit loss because of an international problem with piracy, the organization decided to call in the dogs.
Enter Lucky and Flo. Nicknamed “Operation Double Trouble,” these two black Labs are trained to detect a polycarbonate compound that’s distinctive to DVDs, CDs, and computer software. Although the duo can’t differentiate between legitimate and illegal products, they can track down disks hidden in packages from across a warehouse in as little as 10 minutes. During a trip to Malaysia, Lucky and Flo located piracy operations that were hidden behind storefronts, an investigation that led to 26 arrests and almost 2 million dollars’ worth of illegal products seized. Since the big bust, Malaysia has added a canine anti-piracy sector of its own.
Lucky and Flo were trained by Neil Powell, an Irish dog trainer who also teaches dogs to locate corpses under water. He rescued the two dogs from a kennel, where an unscrupulous breeder used Flo as a “puppy-making machine” and unsuccessfully put Lucky through repeated obedience courses. “Lucky had an aggression problem that I think was born of frustration,” says Powell. “Giving her loads and loads of work burned off that energy and made her aggression disappear. She probably would have been put to sleep if she hadn’t come to do this work.”
SMELLS LIKE TROUBLE
Like Lucky, many successful detection dogs have a history of seeming bad to the bone. In fact, it’s the trouble-making personality that trainers look for when on the hunt for the next narc. “Most of the dogs that we select are extremely high energy and obsessive,” says Herstik. “They usually don’t make good pets.”
But the strict training regimen, which typically takes up to 1,000 hours over three to four months, serves as a productive outlet for the dogs. “They’re really smart dogs that just need a way to channel their energy and focus their ability,” says Nelson.
“We admire the qualities in a dog that make other people crazy and direct that energy for the good of society,” adds Herstik.
When Bill Whitstine, owner of Florida Canine Academy, met Pharaoh at the Humane Society of Pinellas in Clearwater, Florida, the large chow mix had already been returned twice. But he impressed the dog trainer with his kind personality and ability to perform a few simple commands on cue. After bonding with Pharaoh over a short game of fetch, Whitstine knew the dog would be the perfect candidate for a new canine position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—detecting the eggs of indigo snakes, an endangered species. “Since his name was Pharaoh, I figured he’d be the king of snakes,” Whitstine jokes.
The big-hearted dog that nobody wanted is now a federal employee, traveling through the Southern states to help save an endangered reptile. “Pharaoh was endangered himself, on doggy death row when I adopted him,” says Whitstine, “but now he helps save an entire species from extinction.”
SNIFFING OUT PESTS
It may seem as though detection dogs lead a life of all work and no play. But by employing positive-reinforcement training techniques, trainers are making the job a doggone delight. “You cannot force a dog to find and indicate an item,” says Herstik. “You can only motivate her to do so. It has got to be pure fun for the dog.” To train detection dogs, handlers present them with the smell and teach them to associate it with either food or play. After several tries, the dogs learn that the smell means a reward worth working for.
Whitstine trained Nelson’s dog Blanca after he rescued her from the Humane Society of Pinellas, where she had been returned several times because of behavior problems. Whitstine was able to direct Blanca’s eagerness to please and excessive energy into locating two problematic organisms creeping their way into American homes: mold and bedbugs.
Whitstine trained the former shelter dog to locate about 18 types of mold, and for several years, she worked to keep homeowners and their children from becoming ill from the harmful spores. And because a dog is able to purge her nose from scents without breathing them in, completing this task was harmless to Blanca.
Blanca recently made a career move. She is now making a living by finding live bedbugs in mattresses, a growing problem that has recently led to a national meeting to stop infestations of the bloodsucking pests. Since being put to work, Blanca has left behind her bad habits, becoming the perfect pet any owner would wish for. “Without having a way to channel her energy, she’d probably still be at the shelter,” says Nelson. Now Blanca, and all her clients, can sleep tight.
Although their lines of work are very different, JJ, Lucky, Flo, Pharaoh, and Blanca share a common trait—a love for their careers and their new owners. “The dogs have a great life doing this,” says Herstik. “They go into these jobs and become part of a team. They learn the game and get to hang out with their buddy all day long. There is nobody closer to their dog than canine handlers—They bet their lives on their dogs.”
Fido “Nose” Best
Criminals often think they can outsmart canine crime fighters by hiding illegal materials in other pungent products, like tobacco or coffee. But Mike Herstik explains that their crooked strategy is no match for a skilled detection dog. “When a highly trained dog sniffs that pound of coffee, he gets the full odor picture: the particular type of coffee, each component that’s in the coffee, the container—and the gram of cocaine hidden inside.”
When Lucky and Flo were sent on their first mission to the Stansted Airport in London, they pointed out a box that was passing by on a conveyor belt. When skeptical customs officials opened the package, they found it full of dog food. As embarrassment settled over trainer Neil Powell, officials sifted through the box, where they found a promotional (and legitimate) DVD hidden among the kibble.
Here are some other fields in which dogs are qualified to work:
- Cancer—The future of cancer screening may involve four-legged experts. Studies indicate that dogs can detect certain types of cancers, including breast and ovarian, by sniffing the breath of patients.
- Cell phones—Harlen “Lamb” Lambert, of All States K-9 Detection, trains dogs to find cell phones in correctional facilities across the country. “Inmates use cell phones to conduct criminal activity by drug trafficking, threatening individuals’ lives, putting hits on citizens, and intimidating witnesses,” he says.
- Currency—The government hires dogs to patrol the borders, catching criminals who try to smuggle cash out of the United States.