Drug-sniffing dogs are now for hire

Underneath the mattress isn't going to cut it. Neither will tucking it behind the stack of "Twilight" books. Not even pushing it deep into the toe of a smelly gym shoe.

The dog will find it. And he'll know it's not oregano.


A new service in Maryland is promising parents peace of mind by allowing them to essentially rent a drug-sniffing dog, a highly trained canine that will come to their house and within seconds, detect even the tiniest whiff of narcotics. The program allows ordinary moms and dads access to a search tool typically reserved for law enforcement — and typically aimed at suspected criminals.

Dogs Finding Drugs will, indeed, uncover teens' stashes. Whether those kids talk to their parents again remains to be seen.


Anne Wills, who runs the just-launched, Catonsville-based nonprofit, says parents are clamoring for the service and she expects business to "explode."

"I know that when my kids were growing up, every once in a while I'd have liked to know what they were doing," says Wills, who's having her own Labrador-mix, Heidi, trained to become a drug-detection dog. "The need is there. The desire is there."

Drug-sniffing is a fresh turn for Wills' organization, Dogs Finding Dogs, a nearly 3-year-old group that until now has used the skills of search dogs to find missing pets. Heidi and the other search dogs affiliated with the program have traveled all over the region, helping to reunite nearly 300 wayward dogs and cats with their frantic owners.

Besides targeting parents who suspect their children are dabbling in drugs, Dogs Finding Drugs is offering its services to companies and schools. Its dogs, which are all certified K-9s, can detect marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines, as well as prescription drugs with trace amounts of those narcotics. The dogs can also uncover guns and explosives.

The rate is about $200 an hour — more or less depending on the circumstances and scale of the search.

Michael Gimbel, the former "drug czar" for Baltimore County, is helping Wills promote the service, the first of its kind in the area, but one of a handful of similar programs that have popped up across the country in recent years. He considers it a way for parents to, as he puts it, protect their home.

"Bottom line is, parents need to use every resource available to protect their kids from drugs and their home," he says. "This is just another new and creative way to attack the problem."

The success seems to vary for other companies offering drug-sniffing dog services. In Arizona, Amy Halm started Desert Drug Dog earlier this year. She says business has been "hard going" but "growing." In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, John Roux started Metro Canine Detection Services in 2002. Schools fill out the bulk of his customer base — he's got 25 schools as regular customers and expects that number to double within the year. In New Jersey, a company called Sniff Dogs that got a lot of fanfare when it launched two years ago still has a website, but its phone has been disconnected.


This week, Wills and trainer Janet Dooley took Zuko, a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois, to a home in Churchville to demonstrate the dog's refined skills of detection, testing him with planted drugs. The regal-looking shepherd dog has been training with Dooley since he was 8 weeks old. He was, quite literally, born to find drugs.

Zuko is on the alert as soon as Dooley leads him inside. Ignoring a house cat, he immediately trots up the carpeted stairs and enters a bedroom, ears perked, tail in the air, wet nose twitching. Dooley points him to the bed with its neatly arranged pillows, and then to the nightstand, the dresser and the closet. Zuko passes each by with little interest.

But when the dog approaches an upholstered chaise in the corner, he's immediately more animated — running from one side of the chair to the other and pushing his long nose into the cushions.

Finally he just sits calmly beside the chair. That's the signal. He's found something.

It's a small canister with the tiniest trace of marijuana residue — so little that a person can't smell it even right under his nose.

"Good boy!" Dooley says, throwing Zuko his ball and giving him an appreciative slap on the flank.


Down the hall in a guest bathroom, Zuko uncovers more marijuana even more quickly — standing on his hind legs before the vanity, he stares down a box of tissues. Sure enough, the canister with the light scent of contraband was hiding in the box.

Dogs Finding Drugs won't confiscate anything it finds. Nor will the group notify the police — though Wills says she will recommend folks do that on their own.

The best way for parents to handle a child's potential drug problem begins with a good old-fashioned conversation rather than a drug-sniffing dog, says Elizabeth Robertson, the National Institute on Drug Abuse's chief of prevention research.

"Given everything we know about substance abuse prevention, what you want to do with your kids is build trust and communication," she says. "This seems like a tactic that would disrupt trust."

And she suspects that clever young people who've been burned by the dog — or fear they might be — will devise ways to game the system.

"If you are a kid who was hiding drugs in the house and somebody brought a drug in the house, what would you do? I'd hide it in the yard. Or hide it in someone else's house," she says. "It doesn't seem that practical."


Baltimore parent Genny Dill agrees with Robinson. Upon hearing of the service, she says slowly, and with increasing notes of incredulity, "No. Really? Crazy. Absolutely crazy. That's a whole new level of distrust."

The mother of a 17-year-old girl, Dill says she has no trouble peeking at her daughter's text messages and e-mail. Though she's wondered if her daughter has tried pot, or been offered drugs, Gill is fairly certain that by hiring a drug-sniffing dog, she'd ruin their relationship.

"They're never going to love you again," she says. "Well, maybe they'd love you, but they will seriously not trust you as a parent, and when they're teenagers, that's a terrible time for that to happen."

But Kelli Lewis would want to know if there were drugs in her home — and she'd consider hiring the dogs if she suspected a problem with her son, who's a senior in high school and set on going away to college.

"Drug use is so rampant," says the Baltimore County mother. "I'm not very worried about it with him, but it's definitely on my mind — I know a lot of things can happen in school."

Lewis knows her son would be upset if she had dogs go through his room — but she doesn't much care. She says: "If I felt the need, I would do it."


"We talk about the kids' right to privacy and in my house. They don't have a right to privacy," she says with a little laugh. "If they're doing anything in here they shouldn't, I have a right to know about it."