Drug-Sniffing Contest a Stage For Today's Higher-Profile Police Dogs
By Jim Herron Zamora, San Francisco Chronicle
Several police officers found drugs stashed in the Oakland Raiders locker room Friday, including heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. They found even more narcotics in cars parked outside.
But there will be no arrests. No investigations. And no scandals to further depress the Raider Nation about the team's 2-6 record.
The 11 "officers" were a mix of German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, golden retrievers and black Labradors, accompanied by an equal number of human handlers. The "search" was the drug-sniffing contest at the year-end competition of the Western States Police Canine Association at the Oakland Coliseum.
The event is a miniature Olympics for dogs trained to sniff out drugs or explosives, or to chase suspects. Today, there will be a 2 p.m. demonstration, open to the public, on how the canines take down resisting suspects.
During the Friday morning competition, one after another of the narc dogs searched three cars parked near the A's dugout and then moved into the football team's locker room, where drugs were stashed in an exercise bicycle, a duffel bag, a small toiletries bag and a suitcase.
The canines, who had five minutes to find all the dope, were scored on whether they alerted their handlers about the narcotics.
"We made it tough for them," said Sgt. Darryl Tsujimoto, commander of the San Francisco Police Department's canine unit. "They're all good dogs, but you have to have some way of differentiating them in a five-minute window. The trials are a great exercise, but it's not the same as the streets."
Canine cops, a unique sub-group in law enforcement, have been around for more than 100 years. They've become much more visible since the Sept. 11 attacks, as people have become acutely aware of bomb-sniffing dogs that patrol airports.
Many canines, usually German shepherds or Malinois, work with street cops and narcotics teams. In the past decade, two police dogs -- in San Francisco and Vallejo -- were killed in the line of duty, but each may have saved its handler. Other canines are trained to find bodies; some cities, including Oakland, have bloodhounds that can track scents for miles.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, many dog units have expanded as a result of federal funding. San Francisco now has 26 dogs, including 12 that patrol the streets and 14 working the airport. Oakland has 20 canines divided between street patrol, narcotics and airport duty.
Many people envision police dogs as tough-looking German shepherds or rottweilers. But when it comes to finding drugs or bombs, many handlers prefer golden retrievers and Labs.
"We'll use any dog with two or more legs that can do the job," Tsujimoto said. "It's not breed-specific. It gets kind of cliquish about what kind of dog is best."
Many of the protection dogs have names like Blade, Spike, Razor or Samson. Drug-sniffing specialists have monikers like Stash, Kilo and Hubba, and explosive experts get names like Rocket and Boomer.
Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy John Watson named his dog Koogan after the Clint Eastwood movie "Coogan's Bluff."
"You can't have a dog named Sally that eats people," said Dave Brown of the Manteca Police Department.
But then there's Jenny -- a tail-wagging, 7-year-old black Lab who works with Officer Tim Philipps of the East Bay Regional Parks Police.
Jenny is not much for intimidation, but she gets results. Two weeks ago, she found a half-pound of methamphetamine in Brentwood. And last year, while on training with the U.S. Border Patrol, she found 600 pounds of marijuana under the floorboard of a big rig.
She's a good public-relations tool for the park district. "Kids love her, '' Philipps said. "She makes me real popular."
The handlers are also a breed unto themselves. Most of them grew up with dogs, and many raised puppies as a hobby.
Most take their dogs home with them after work. When it's time for the dog to "retire" after seven to nine years in the field, the handler usually keeps the dog as a pet.
"I consider myself lucky -- I've been around dogs my entire career," said Deputy Kevin Kirkland, a trainer for the Solano County Sheriff's Office, who previously worked 23 years as a dog trainer for the Air Force. "They're the perfect partners. They never complain, they never slack off, and they're always in a good mood."
Chris Perry, a long-haired narcotics investigator with the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency, is a newcomer. A few months ago, he inherited Guido, a 6-year-old golden retriever, when the previous handler was promoted.
"I'm the rookie, Guido is the veteran," Perry said. "He carries me."
Guido, who greets strangers with his huge, wet tongue rather than his ample teeth, was the only dog to find all four drug stashes in the cars and three of the four locker-room stashes.
"This Guido is not a tough guy," Perry laughed. "But he can seriously score some drugs for you."