Knox County police canine on front line of drug war

Knox County Sheriff's Deputy John Palmer and his yellow Labrador retriever, Jake, have been working together for more than four years tracking down illegal drugs.
Stephen Betts | BDN
Knox County Sheriff's Deputy John Palmer and his yellow Labrador retriever, Jake, have been working together for more than four years tracking down illegal drugs. Buy Photo
By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff
Posted March 10, 2012, at 1:40 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Jake may be the youngest member of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, but he is one of its most valuable in stemming the flow of illegal drugs into the community.

Jake is a 4½-year-old yellow Labrador retriever whose owner, handler and best friend is Deputy John Palmer.

Palmer got Jake from fellow sheriff employee Lt. Reginald Walker when the dog was 12 weeks old. Palmer immediately took Jake to training.

“If he had washed out, he would have remained my house pet,” Palmer said.

But Jake succeeded and has been certified to sniff out seven different type of narcotics. Palmer said he does not want to identify the specific types of drugs to prevent offenders from knowing.

Jake is the only drug-sniffing dog in Knox County and is one of about 80 canines in Maine that have been trained for a variety of police functions such as drug sniffing, tracking suspects or missing people, locating people who have died or sniffing out explosives.

The state police have 24 teams of officer and dog and 33 teams have been trained by the state police canine training unit that work for county or municipal departments. There are about 20 other organizations that train animals for police work.

Sgt. Blaine Bronson, the director of the Maine State Police Canine Unit, said the police canines in Maine are nearly evenly split between those sniffing out drugs and those that track down people.

The state police training has dogs specialize in one function.

The type of dogs used for police work are generally German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, he said.

The state police course to train dogs is a 12-week course, 40 hours per week. The course is as much for the handler as it is for the dog, Bronson noted. Topics covered during the training include obedience and agility. Each year, the training unit also offers eight-week schools for refresher courses.

Bronson said ideally the best age for a dog to serve as a police K9 is 1½ to 2 years old. The career of a police dog usually can last until they reach 8 years old, he noted. But in addition to age, there are traits needed for a successful police dog.

“They need to be social, alert and not aggressive unless directed to or if they sense a threat,” Bronson said.

Once the careers of the police canines end, that does not end their ties to their officers.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the dogs stay with their handlers. They become very attached,” Bronson said.

Deputy Palmer and Jake are inseparable.

“Every day he comes to work with me, he’s with me 24 hours per day,” Palmer said.

Palmer said some of the key traits a successful police canine must have are to be driven and to have the ability not to be distracted.

“If you throw a ball 1,000 times, he goes after it 1,000 times and wants to go for 1,001,” Palmer noted.

Labrador retrievers have one of the best senses of smell of any dog, he noted. A human has five million scent receptors, he noted. Labradors have 230 million scent receptors, compared to 125 million for a dachshund and 300 million for a bloodhound.

Even after being certified, as Jake is, there is regular training to keep both him and the officer up to date on methods that drug traffickers use to hide their drugs. Jake and Palmer’s certification includes that of the United States Police Canine Association Inc. This group’s certification has been noted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Palmer said, in upholding a drug case.

“A dog does not have to be certified by the national organization but it helps when you go to court,” Palmer said.

Bronson said dogs that are trained by the state police canine unit have two certifications — from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and through the New England State Police Administrators Conference.

Jake’s goes with the officer when he performs unannounced checks for people who are on bail or on probation. He also is used when there are vehicle stops and drugs are suspected of being involved.

Jake is credited by Palmer with uncovering drugs on a dozen different occasions.

Palmer said Jake’s reward when he finds drugs is a piece of PVC pipe that he chews like a bone. Palmer will show the pipe to Jake and then lets him search a building or car.

“With a narcotic dog, you want them laid-back. You want them to have fun. It’s a game to him,” Palmer said.

The deputy credits Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison with backing the canine program. Dennison was a vocal supporter of the department having a canine during meetings with county commissioners.

The Working Dog Foundation trains police canines in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Palmer noted that their research finds that police canines are a sound investment for departments. They can locate evidence more quickly or, in cases of a dog that tracks suspects or explosives, can protect the lives of their human partners.

While most dogs perform one function, Palmer said he also is starting to train Jake for tracking people.

“We’re starting with small steps, 10- or 20-foot tracks. It should take about a year to get spot on,” he said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/10/news/midcoast/knox-county-police-canine-on-front-line-of-drug-war/ printed on September 19, 2014