BANGOR, Maine — Lex, a 2-year-old German shepherd, roamed around Classroom 102 at the James F. Doughty School on Thursday — panting, sniffing, searching.
“Find the dope, boy. Go find that dope,” said Lex’s handler, Bangor police Officer Rob Angelo.
With his nose to the ground, Lex approached a closet and sniffed along the crack under the door. At the far right corner, Lex stopped, raised his paw and excitedly clawed at the door — his alert that he’d found a stash of drugs in that corner of the closet.
“Atta boy, Lex, good boy!” Angelo said, pulling out a rope for a quick tug of war — Lex’s reward for a successful search. “That’s how to find the dope!”
Lex’s day was far from over. He found stashes of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroine in other classrooms, heating vents, desk drawers and lockers — all planted by a law enforcement training group.
The staged school search was organized and supervised by Law Enforcement Training Specialists International Inc., or L.E.T.S., a group that tests, certifies and coaches search dogs and their handlers.
L.E.T.S. is hosting a weeklong seminar with officers and their K-9s from Bangor, Windham, the Maine State Police and the Penobcot County Sheriff’s Department.
Merrill’s Detector Dog Services of Readfield is sponsoring the seminar, which involves classroom lessons from L.E.T.S. instructors and trips to schools and junkyards to give the dogs a chance to practice sniffing out drugs and explosives.
“A good training session involves a team being challenged and getting forced outside its comfort zone,” said Mike Kaspereen of Merrill’s Detector Dog Services.
For the dogs, the real challenge comes not from smelling the drugs but from having to ignore everything else.
“Schools are one of the most difficult environments to work in,” said L.E.T.S. instructor Vince Hester. “How many smells do kids have, and how many kids are crammed into this one place?”
Schools are a prime place to find “distractors,” which can mask the odor of drugs or explosives or just distract the dog, Hester said.
Along with the drugs, L.E.T.S. personnel also hid peanut butter and dog treats to see if the canines would be thrown off track by the prospect of a tasty treat.
Instructors also stashed strong perfume, dryer sheets and coffee grounds close to the drugs to mask the odor — a tactic often used by smugglers and traffickers, according to the instructors.
Tennis balls and toys — which are often used as rewards — were left on the floor of some classrooms in an attempt to distract the dogs.
Some of the dogs, such as Lex, were experienced detectors, while others were what handlers and instructors call “green,” or still in need of training.
Gibbs, a green black Lab who was only in his second week of training, entered Room 102 and headed straight for the brand new yellow tennis ball in the middle of the floor. The young dog assumed it was playtime and chased the ball after his handler tossed it out of the way.
“This can be a humbling experience for some dogs and handlers,” said Tanya Sanborn, a L.E.T.S. instructor from Brandon, Fla.
In another room, Lex made several laps, sniffing drawers, desks and file cabinets for drugs. He came up empty, which was a good thing.
The room was clean; the instructors hadn’t stashed any contraband there.
“Good dog, good dog!” Angelo said, taking out the rope to have another celebratory tug-of-war match with Lex.
The worst scenario for a drug-detecting dog and its handler is when it alerts to drugs that aren’t there. A false alert can ruin a prosecutor’s case and give courts a reason to doubt the reliability of any dog in a drug search, according to handlers and instructors.
“I’d much rather miss the drugs than have [Lex] point out drugs that aren’t there,” Angelo said.
Lex went on to find drugs in a paper-towel dispenser in the boys’ bathroom, marijuana in lockers 36 and 56, crack cocaine in Room 103 and more — all the while ignoring the smells of delicious treats and the overpowering odor of paint and perfume.
Lex’s performance at the school was perfect, instructors said. He found all the drugs and didn’t give any false alerts.
There’s no hiding the scent of drugs from a well-trained dog, Sanborn said.
“It’s like painting a wall crimson and then trying to cover it with another color,” she said. The dog can disregard the other smells, recognizing and reacting only to the scents that it has been trained to respond to.
“We can’t imagine the world they live in,” Sanborn said, “but I’m sure it’s astounding.”