A police officer isn’t likely to see a baggy of marijuana hidden in someone’s car, but their K-9 partners will often know where it is.
The German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador retrievers taking part in the national dog trials this week in Raleigh easily detected a few ounces of raw, green marijuana hidden in a car engine compartment without someone lifting the hood.
“We don’t have anything to measure what a dog can smell naturally. And to watch a dog work and snap its head back is amazing,” said Jim Nichols, a sheriff’s captain in Charlotte County, Fla., and one of the judges who participated in the U.S. Police Canine Association’s National Dog Detector Trials. “We have had marijuana in a trunk that was taken out, and it’s a week later and the dog still smells it.”
These national trials, hosted by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, tested the abilities of several canine breeds to sniff and detect narcotics, explosives and cadavers. The SBI’s K-9 Unit coordinator, Ken Mathias, who spearheaded the event, said detector dogs competed at regional events to earn a spot in the more difficult national competition.
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“Proper training means that handlers have full control of their dogs, and a properly trained dog will listen to any command the handler gives,” Mathias said. “Dogs at this level should perform flawlessly.”
More than 70 canine teams from throughout North Carolina, the United States and Canada are competing in the four-day event, which conclude Wednesday with an awards banquet at the Holiday Inn on Glenwood Avenue.
The vehicle search competition took place Tuesday on a back lot of the State Surplus Center off Chapel Hill Road, where five all-white, slightly banged-up Ford sedans were parked side by side. Drugs had been hidden in two of the cars: four ounces of marijuana in the engine compartment on the passenger side of Car 1 and an ounce of heroin in the trunk of Car 4. The dogs’ task: find the drugs as quickly as possible.
Five judges sat in green tarpaulin chairs under a blue canopy, pens and pencils poised above scoring sheets on clipboards. One judge, James Curiel, a K-9 officer with the police department in St. Paul, Minn, said he had to judge 70 dogs over a five-year period to qualify as a judge on the national level.
“It takes that long to get that experience,” he said. “Regional trials are tough. But here, it’s the best of the best.”
By late morning teams from Raleigh, Wilson, Selma and the SBI had competed. Sometimes the dogs would go straight to Car 1 and promptly sit near the front wheel, indicating that’s where the contraband was hidden. Finding the heroin was a bit trickier, and the dog’s handlers would sometimes circle back to Car 4, even after their animals had indicated drugs were hidden there.
Curiel scratched low marks on one score sheet next to the wording, “Handler lacks confidence in his dog.” The handlers are being tested, too, he said.
“More times than not, it’s not about the dog’s ability, because a dog is doing what it’s trained to do,” he said. “It takes a while to become a good team.”
Wilson Officer M. McLaughlin and his German shepherd Boss made their way past the judges to the five sedans, and Boss promptly went to Car 1 and sat down. McLaughlin awarded his effort by giving him a chewy toy to play with. Then after making several cursory stops and sniffs around the other vehicles, Boss sat down near the rear end of Car 4.
It took the team three minutes to find the drugs.
One of the judges called out to McLaughlin, “call your hides, sir,” meaning the judges wanted the officer to tell them where the drugs were found. McLaughlin looked at the cars and realized he wasn’t quite sure where Boss had found the heroin. He pointed in the general vicinity of Cars 4 and 5.
“Be more specific sir,” one of the judges replied.
McLaughlin mopped the sweat from his forehead.
“I’m gonna start putting something down in front of the car so that I could remember which one,” he said to the judges. “What kills me is they’re all white.”