BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Sniffing for bombs and drugs may seem like all work and no play, but for police dogs, it’s all about the toys.
With encouragement from their handlers, the dogs sniff their toys, which are made to smell like drugs or explosive materials. When they discover their target, they are rewarded — with their toy.
Dogs from all over Northeast Ohio, including three from Brunswick Hills Township, demonstrated this technique during a weekly training session Tuesday.
Brunswick Hills police officer and K-9 handler Heather Stask meets with the group, called Buckeye Area Regional K-9 (BARK), once or twice every week to take the dogs through various drug-sniffing and tracking exercises.
“You’ve got to put the time in to have great dogs,” Stask said.
Before bringing the dogs into the training area, which Tuesday was an unused FedEx warehouse, Stask distributed containers of marijuana, Ecstasy, cocaine, psychedelic mushrooms and methamphetamines in cabinets or cardboard boxes throughout the building.
Another scent soon may be added to the training list.
The Drug Enforcement Agency’s temporary yearlong ban on five chemicals used in synthetic marijuana drugs K2 or “Spice,” effective March 1, means police officers aren’t the only ones who have to learn the ins and outs of the drugs.
If K2, for example, is not mixed with marijuana or another known substance, police dogs will not recognize it as a drug, Stask said.
But training the dogs to recognize the new scent is on hold, she said, until the DEA decides whether to enact a permanent ban on the drugs.
BARK founder and trainer Tom Schmidt, who has donated all the dogs and the training to Brunswick Hills and other police departments, said they want to be sure the DEA declares the drugs illegal before training the dogs to recognize the scent.
“We don’t want the dog to alert on something legal,” Schmidt said, adding a dog’s false identification could lead an officer to do a search under false pretenses.
Once the drugs are permanently banned, however, Schmidt said it would be fairly easy to train the dogs to detect them.
“Dogs are trained to hit on the odor of narcotics, not necessarily the drugs themselves,” Schmidt said.
Each handler would lace a clean towel with the new scent and reward the dog each time it tracked the scent back to the actual drug.
Sgt. Jim Cartwright of the Medina County Sheriff’s Office said he would use the same process with the sheriff’s dog.
“You build up the association for the dog to find the article and eventually remove the toy and just have the product,” Cartwright said. He added the sheriff’s office will wait to train its dog until the K2 chemicals are included in state minimum criteria for K-9 certification. State minimums include heroin, meth, cocaine and marijuana, he said.
Even without the additional drugs added to the training, there’s still plenty of work to be done on a weekly and even daily basis, Stask said.
Puppies in the program start their training as early as six weeks old and are in training every day for the first year. “You literally can hold them in your hands when you get them,” Stask said.
The dogs all live with their handlers, she said, in an effort to control the dogs’ environment as much as possible and to build the relationship between the handler and canine partner.
Some of the dogs are specialized in some areas. For example, one of the Brunswick Hills dogs, Boomer, is trained specifically for sniffing out bombs. The bomb-sniffing dogs are trained to find their target and sit next to it, whereas the drug-sniffing dogs are more aggressive about their search, scratching away at the area where they detect a scent.
But when it comes to going after a suspect, the 10 dogs in the training proved no one who runs is spared.
During every training session, at least one person has to wear a heavily padded, bite-resistant suit and get chased by a roughly 100-pound dog that will do anything necessary to neutralize a threat. Stask called it a right of passage for those in the BARK crew.
The effects are not lost on real suspects, she said. The dogs “definitely are attention-getters,” Stask said. “They have an incredible calming effect on people who would otherwise want to fight.”
Contact Jennifer Pignolet at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.