The moment Buddy leaped out of a police car in the Juneau Police Department station’s parking lot on Tuesday, his nose began to twitch.
The 18-month-old German Shepherd, wearing a harness with the word “Police” on it, sniffed the air outside the car. He sniffed the police chief and a police lieutenant who were standing in uniform nearby.
“He’s a friendly dog,” JPD Officer Mike Wise said.
He sniffed up my dress.
“Maybe a little too friendly,” the observing officer noted.
Meet Buddy, JPD’s newest canine officer. He’s furry and cute but as a drug detection dog, his biggest asset is his nose.
“Anywhere we go, if I’m walking around, he’s constantly smelling,” Buddy’s handler Officer Wise said. “Even when I’m just like, ‘Relax’, he’s like ‘No, I’m working, I’m working.’”
Buddy and Wise, an eight-year JPD veteran and first-time canine handler, returned to Juneau late last month from New Market, Alabama, where they underwent six weeks of training at the Kasseburg Canine Training Center. The Empire stopped by the JPD station Tuesday so Buddy could show off some of the tricks he learned.
Inside a training classroom, Police Chief Bryce Johnson and Lt. Scott Erickson watched as Wise guided Buddy around the room with his hand.
“I lead him around, and if I go low, he’ll (go low) and just follow (my hand) all the way up,” Wise explained. “We hit all the areas that could hide drugs.”
Buddy sat down in front of a copying machine and stayed there — that’s how he alerts his handler to drugs. Inside the fax machine was a bag that contained three grams of cocaine.
Lt. Scott Erickson threw Buddy his favorite toy from out of sight to reward him, at Wise’s request. Wise then praised the pup and played tug of war with him, and let him win.
“It’s important he gets his reward because that’s what he gets paid to do, this is his paycheck,” Wise said of the toy.
Wise said he could fill the room with candy wrappers and food, and Buddy would ignore it if he was on the job.
“He only cares about this,” Wise said, pointing to the dog toy. “He wants this, and he knows this comes when he finds that. So he’ll go looking for just the drugs so he can get ‘paid.’”
Alerting to drugs
Buddy can alert to three illegal drugs: cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin (and derivatives of those).
An interesting tidbit: it doesn’t matter if cocaine is cut with another substance.
“If you bake cookies at home, and you walk in, you smell those cookies,” Wise said, “but the dog, he smells everything: the sugars, the chocolate, each individual ingredient. That’s what he smells.”
“People used to put coffee grounds all over the stuff, trying to mask the smell,” Chief Johnson added. “The dogs would go (sniff) there’s coffee, (sniff) and there’s cocaine.”
Noticeably missing from the list of drugs Buddy can sniff out? Marijuana. That’s one of the reasons Buddy was hired in the first place.
The new state marijuana regulations make it legal for Alaskans to possess small amounts of pot (one ounce or less), and it’s illegal for law enforcement to use its presence as a basis for a search and seizure.
Wise said Buddy knows what marijuana smells like — he just doesn’t alert other officers to it. He treats the odor the same as he would anything else aside from narcotics.
“He understands what the odor is, and he knows that it’s just like a candy bar, or something,” Wise said. “He knows this is not what I’m supposed to be looking for, and he just moves on.”
Alaska State Troopers had to retire their 10 drug-sniffing dogs Feb. 24, the day the new laws went into effect. Dogs don’t know the difference between one ounce of marijuana or 10 ounces, and they can’t “un-learn” how to alert to marijuana or any other drug. Troopers are in the process of replacing the dogs, which work across the state.
Justice, a drug-sniffing dog for the panhandle’s narcotics task force SEACAD (Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs) retired a little bit ago, which meant no drug-sniffing dogs were working in Juneau.
Past and future
The last time JPD owned its own drug-sniffing dog was 1990. It didn’t end well.
According to police records, JPD received a 2-year-old German Shepherd named Asko in 1984, and his handler was Officer David Bartlett, now retired. One day, Bartlett was chasing a traffic violator who abandoned his motor scooter and ran by some children playing at a playground next to the Douglas First Methodist Church. Asko lunged at a 9-year-old boy and bit him. The dog was retired a few days later.
Wise noted that Buddy, who weighs 63 1/2 pounds and is about knee-high, is not trained to be a “detention dog,” an animal trained to bite or attack on command. Some of the trained police canines are both drug dogs and detention dogs, but Buddy is solely a drug detection dog.
Chief Johnson said JPD could not be more excited to have a canine around the office. JPD purchased Buddy with a grant from the Drug Enforcement Agency and worked with the city to find a good dog.
The chief said Buddy will mainly be used in search warrant situations. If police have reasonable suspicion that a person possesses narcotics, Buddy could be called in. If he does alert, police have probable cause to make an arrest, the chief said.
So far, Buddy has already assisted in several search warrants, Johnson said. In one of the cases, he helped find 28 grams of methamphetamine in a vehicle.
Drug seizures aren’t uncommon but they’re not an everyday occurrence in Juneau. Wise said he and Buddy spent their off time training and bonding. They’re a team now, he said.
“It’s been a lot of work, and it’s going to continue to be,” Wise said. “But I mean, you have this guy just hanging out with you all the time. Seriously, it’s awesome.”