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Saved From Pound, He Pounds Police Beat

Times Staff Writer

Just a few months back, he was on doggie death row, a scruffy mutt so hyper that animal control officers called him Spaz--for spastic--and couldn’t give him away.

Today, he’s the desert’s most famous pooch, a celebrity canine winning accolades that would make Spuds McKenzie howl with envy.

Meet Popeye, the Palm Springs Drug Dog.

Adopted by this resort city’s Police Department, Popeye has evolved almost overnight from a sick stray into Palm Springs’ first drug-sniffing hound.

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“It’s amazing,” said Officer Pat Beltz, Popeye’s handler and trainer for the department’s K-9 unit. “He was doomed. . . . He was days away from death. And now he’s working for the City of Palm Springs.”

By all accounts, young Popeye, a black and white beagle-spaniel mix, is already earning his Alpo. Trained to aid police in their search for narcotics secreted in homes, luggage, mail or any other place, Popeye has detected cocaine in a package, marijuana under a mattress and drug-tainted money in a locked steel box.

U.S. Customs agents frequently seek his help in airport searches, and his trained nose has been in demand by the California Highway Patrol as well. Palm Springs High School officials have also enlisted Popeye’s help, deploying his talents on student lockers.

His colleagues on the five-dog K-9 unit may be huskier, handsomer and boast more impressive bloodlines, but Popeye already has become an instant hit with the public. At demonstrations, where kids and other dog lovers traditionally cheer the big, burly specimens used to bite and tackle suspects, Popeye now captures the spotlight.

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“He steals the show,” said Beltz, who boards Popeye in a custom-built, city-financed $1,000 doghouse in his back yard. “He’s little and so funny looking that he just stands out in the crowd.”

He’s been booked on radio talk shows--he barks on command--and, who knows, Oprah and Donahue could be next.

Palm Springs may be teeming with celebrities, but this one had a decidedly rapid rise to glory. Found wandering the streets in February, the dog was friendly but “basically too hyper for anyone to adopt,” recalled Palm Springs Animal Control Officer Ted Nickerson.

“We nicknamed him Spaz because all he’d do in the kennel was bounce, up and down, up and down,” Nickerson said. “His behavior scared everybody away.”

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As conditions at the pound grew crowded, Nickerson realized Spaz would have to go. Then Beltz spotted him.

“We’d been looking since last year for a dog we could train to sniff for drugs, and the animal control people had called me that day about two dogs they thought might be suitable,” Beltz said.

Passed With Flying Colors

Neither passed muster, but as Beltz was leaving, he saw Spaz “jumping up and down, real high.” Figuring this dog might have the energy demanded by the work, Beltz ran him through a series of tests that involve fetching wood, metal, plastic and rubber toys under varying circumstances.

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“He passed with flying colors. I took him home,” Beltz said.

He also renamed him Popeye, after Popeye Doyle, the tough, drug-busting cop character played by Gene Hackman in the film, “The French Connection.”

Training began in earnest, and soon he had his debut, alerting officers to a steel box of drug-contaminated money found at a parole violator’s home.

At just 28 pounds, Popeye is much smaller than his brothers on the K-9 corps, some of whom are three times his bulk. He lacks the fine breeding of his imported peers--German shepherds Basko and Kiwi and Belgian malinois Dago and Dingo--and he came much cheaper: free, versus the roughly $3,000 apiece paid for the other dogs.

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But by all appearances, Popeye couldn’t care less. At Beltz’s home, Popeye did a dozen or so laps of the yard under a blazing desert sun, and then paused to perform a mock search of a truck with marijuana hidden in the front bumper.

“Wo est gifte? " said Beltz, as the dog began his frantic hunt. The command--"Where is the poison"--was in German, the language used to address all city police dogs.

Twenty-eight seconds later, Popeye had found it. Visibly pleased with himself, the little mongrel gave a bark and went bounding off across the grass, twirling and jumping, happy to be alive.


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