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Best Weapon in Drug War May Be Man’s Best Friend

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Los Angeles police officer Don Leahan first spotted him, Frog was just another face behind bars, a mongrel with an attitude and a reputation for chewing couches. Leahan at once saw Frog’s potential.

“I saw that playfulness in him,” Leahan said, “and I thought to myself, ‘Now he will make a good dope dog.”’

Frog would become legendary as one of the nation’s first and most effective narcotics-sniffing dogs. In eight years until his death in June, 1986, he ferreted out more than $155 million worth of heroin, cocaine and marijuana hidden in radios, false suitcase bottoms, cargo containers, cars and planes. He was challenged in court, cursed and threatened.

And through it all, Leahan said, “all you had to do was pat him on the head and give him a toy. He was ready to go again.”

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In the nation’s multibillion-dollar war on drugs, it seems that nothing can beat the nose of a good dog. In the last decade, employment of the dogs has escalated from a novelty to a necessity for most law enforcement agencies. Police swear by them, smugglers fear them and judges tend to view them as one of the few parties in court whose objectivity is beyond reproach.

Narcotics-sniffing dogs represent a bargain in a drug war being waged with $18-million radar blimps and command centers jammed with sophisticated electronic gear. They also tend to be less susceptible to bribes and similar scandals.

“You have helicopters for surveillance and radios and patrol cars and investigators. But there is nothing you can rely on that will not break down or give you false leads . . . as a well-trained dog and handler,” said Capt. Tim Simon, head of a multiagency regional drug task force in Orange County.

Law enforcement officials say the dogs have become so effective that smugglers have put bounties on their heads to permanently sideline them. And although no attempted “hits” have been reported against dogs in the United States, officials say the idea is not so far-fetched.

In 1985, 23 drug-sniffing dogs--bought and trained with U.S. Narcotics Assistance Unit funds and sent to work the Bogota, Colombia, airport--were killed by poison in their cages by suspected traffickers.

Along the heavy drug-trafficking corridor of south Texas, narcotics smugglers are said by the U.S. Border Patrol to have offered $30,000 to anyone who kills Barco or Rocky, two of the agency’s most effective dogs. Barco, an Airedale-Belgian malinois mix, has recorded more than $180 million in drug seizures at the small checkpoint of Falfurrias, Tex., just up the road from the Mexican border.

Last September, it was the dark, moist snout of the Monrovia police department’s Dandy, a German shepherd, that helped police find and seize 20 tons of cocaine in Sylmar valued at more than $6 billion--the largest narcotics haul ever in the United States. His reaction to the warehouse persuaded a judge to issue a warrant for the place to be raided.

Winston, a yellow Labrador working for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, was instrumental in the seizure of more than $5.2 million--the second-largest cash seizure ever--in suspected drug profits. Dogs have been known to “alert"--pointing their noses or scratching at places where drugs are hidden--to as little as one marijuana seed or somebody’s drug-tainted breath.

Although dogs have been used in police work for years, primarily for patrol duty, their use as narco-noses didn’t gain widespread acceptance until about 10 years ago. Drugs were being illegally smuggled into the United States in record amounts, and police needed another tool to help them combat traffickers. U.S. Customs, which pioneered the use of narcotics dogs in 1974, was looked to as a model.

Since then, hundreds of dogs have been trained and deployed throughout the United States, and increasing numbers of other countries--Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Mexico among them--have also adopted dog programs.

The dogs are trained to search for odors associated with various narcotics and then rewarded, often with nothing more than a tug on a towel or playing fetch with a rubber ball, when they “alert” to the presence of the drug. Police officials say concealed drugs that would take a team of officers hours, if not days, to locate, can be tracked down by a dog in only minutes.

Leahan recalled that Frog, a pit-bull mix, once signaled a “hit” on a large radio carried by a passenger at Los Angeles International Airport, but despite a long search, police could find nothing.

“We looked everywhere,” Leahan said, “and we kept coming up empty-handed. We turned on the radio and it played, so we assumed the batteries were OK. But Frog kept alerting to the radio. When we were about to give up, we found the radio was rigged to some kind of hearing-aid battery and the batteries we were looking at were filled with cocaine.”

Barco, the legendary Border Patrol canine, has uncovered shipments of marijuana and cocaine hidden in frozen fish, okra, garlic and onions, and once found several hundred pounds of cocaine sealed in airtight containers and floating in a truck’s gas tank.

Winston used his nose to lead Orange County officers to $2.8 million in drug-tainted cash and almost 4,000 pounds of cocaine, hidden in cedar chests and covered with mothballs. The Mississippi Highway Patrol’s chocolate Labrador, Coco, is touted for his ability to sniff the scent of drugs in a car parked with 5,000 others in an airport parking lot.

Judges have shown respect for the canines’ capabilities. Often they will issue a search warrant when the scent of a narcotic is apparent to a dog but not investigators. Courts have consistently upheld the use of narcotics dogs in drug arrests, and in some cases have held them to be beyond reproach.

When defense attorneys questioned the judgment of a narcotics dog in an Orange County case two years ago, Harbor Municipal Judge Selim H. Franklin remarked that the dog “has more credibility with me than most of the witnesses who have appeared before me.” Not surprisingly, the dog, Winston, has more than $70 million in drug seizures to his credit.

A dog’s keen ability to detect and distinguish among various scents is legendary, but experts disagree on exactly how much better a dog can smell than a human. One thing seems certain, however: there is nothing, be it talcum powder, coffee, onions, diesel fuel or Ben-Gay, that can stifle the smell of narcotics for a trained dog.

“When we walk into a room and smell chili,” said Mark Walters, an Azusa police officer whose German shepherd, Kai, has netted more than $2 million worth of drugs in a year, “the dog is smelling the 25 or 30 ingredients that went into making that chili. It is an incredible ability.”

Experts say the traffickers have come up with nothing that can mask the smell of narcotics from dogs. In New York, Customs has reported two cases where canines in the “small dog” program--these dogs sniff arriving international flight passengers--correctly alerted to people who had swallowed cocaine stuffed in condoms.

“Some people have used figures that the dog’s sense of smell is a million times better than a human’s,” said Charles L. Truax, Los Angeles District K-9 supervisor for the Customs Service. “I don’t know what it is but we have never been able to develop any kind of electronic or man-made device that can equal a dog.”

Truax said that in fiscal year 1989 alone, Customs’ 80 dogs across the country were responsible for uncovering almost $800 million in illegal narcotics--representing roughly 10% of the total seizures. In Miami alone, Customs dogs helped uncover $249 million in drugs last year.

Police officials say the costs associated with dog programs are minimal given the payoff.

Buying and training a dog in narcotics detection costs between $3,000 to $10,000, but after the initial expenditures there is little more than food and veterinary care.

The cost compares favorably to that of the high-tech gadgetry employed in the drug war. For example, the much-heralded Aerostat blimps that tether at 10,000 feet and scan the U.S.-Mexican border with radar, looking for drug-smuggling aircraft, cost as much as $18 million each and $400 to $700 an hour to keep in the air.

For fiscal 1989, Customs officials said, the five blimps covering the border from California to Brownsville, Tex., helped lead to the seizures of $774,000 in cash, 106,000 pounds of marijuana and 65,900 pounds of cocaine.

“A couple of good dogs deployed in the right area can do that themselves at a fraction of the costs,” said Simon, director of the Orange County Regional Narcotics Suppression Program. “You can have your fancy electronics; I’ll take Winston.”

But as the popularity of canines has increased--today hundreds of law enforcement agencies have them across the nation--so has the sophistication level of their training and breeding. Like Customs officials, the LAPD’s Leahan started off scouting for his dogs at animal shelters, looking for “just the right combination of playfulness and aggressiveness. Not aggressive as in mean, but as in the dog will do anything to find the dope.”

Other police departments have relied on a small cottage industry of professional dog-training centers that import their dogs from Europe, complete with pedigree papers and trained to heed commands in three languages.

The difference in approach has led to a lively, if good-natured, debate over dogs and their inherent abilities to be trained, about poodles versus shepherds and the need for private handlers to import and train the animals.

“Well, I think that blueblood stuff is just bull,” Leahan said. “If you walked in with a skinny black-and-white dog, nobody would give you $10,000 for it, but he might make a hell of a dope dog.

“Frog was like that. He didn’t have a particularly good nose but he had a great attitude. I’d rather have a loyal employee with an IQ of 65 than a genius who didn’t give a damn. Frog never could understand why three kilos of cocaine couldn’t squeeze through a wall socket. He was kind of a bonehead, but very effective.”

Leahan said any dog with good retrieval instincts and a good nose--"anything but those dogs with the smashed-up noses"--are candidates for narcotics dogs, though most police agencies concede there is a prejudice against smaller dogs that don’t fit the public’s perception of a police dog.

“You’re not going to take a cocker spaniel and march him around with a macho cop. It just wouldn’t look right,” said Don Lambert, an Orange County Sheriff’s investigator and Winston’s handler.

Customs does use beagles in its agriculture inspection program, and smaller dogs are utilized to search for drugs in confined places like airplanes and boats. But the dogs of choice, both for narcotics work and the more common patrol K-9, are the Belgian malinois, the Labrador retriever and the German shepherd.

Outside of breeding, the competition among police agencies to boast of having “top dog” is equally intense.

Juan Garcia, assistant chief of the McAllen, Tex., Border Patrol sector, considers Barco the most famous of America’s drug-sniffing canines.

“He’s been on the cover of Dog World, and you know he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records, the 1990 edition now available (in bookstores). That would be on page 46,” Garcia said with unabashed pride. Other Border Patrol agents, Garcia said, refer to Barco as “the John Wayne of drug dogs.”

Leahan said “the most famous dog I knew was Frog,” and while Frog had no pedigree and was at the pound when discovered, he could go nose-to-nose with any Border Patrol canine.

And from Orange County, Simon countered that if Barco is John Wayne, Winston is “the John Houseman of dogs. He established a reputation the old-fashioned way--he earned it.”


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