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Bolt, a Labrador rescued from Louisiana hurricane, finds home as drug-sniffing K-9 for Harford sheriff’s office

Bolt has come a long way in the past eight months: from being tied to a tree during a hurricane halfway across the country to sniffing out drugs as a K-9 with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office — the first rescue dog at the agency in at least 30 years.

In February, the pup hit the streets as the newest narcotics-detection dog for the sheriff’s office, contributing to drug busts in the county, his handler senior deputy Andrew Sampson said. Outside of work, Bolt is the same as any family pooch, though one that has been through a lot.

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In August 2020, as Hurricane Laura was bearing down on Louisiana — one of the strongest recorded hurricanes to hit the state — Bolt was found tied to a tree outside. A neighbor saw him and took him to a shelter, where he was found by They Rescue Us Inc., a Maryland nonprofit that pulls dogs out of high-kill shelters.

TRU brought Bolt — then called Bolton — to Maryland and placed him with a foster, the daughter of a sheriff’s deputy, who thought he had the right stuff to become a police dog. So Cpl. Marty Hoppa, the K-9 unit’s supervisor, decided to run Bolt through a test program to see if he had the drive required of police dogs, hiding a toy in various places to see if he could find it.

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Bolt excelled there and in the K-9 training, despite planned distractions from heavy machinery or a friendly trainer meant to throw him off the scent.

“Not all dogs are good [as police dogs] because they do not have that desire,” Hoppa said. “You are looking for how well he works his nose, how much he wants to hunt, how excited he is to find it.”

Hoppa said that the office took a chance on Bolt. Often, its police dogs come from specialized breeders — some overseas — not shelters. Cristie Hopkins, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said the agency has not had a rescue K-9 in at least 30 years. Instead of acquiring a police dog from Slovakia for thousands of dollars, as the office has done in the past, Bolt’s adoption cost less than $400.

Sampson explained that, to police dogs, sniffing for drugs is like a game, and their desire to play does not dissipate when they leave the office. Sampson said he has caught Bolt sniffing cars for drugs when out on walks after work. While Bolt’s exact age is not known — he is not yet 2 years old — Sampson said he still has puppy-like exuberance and energy, evident as he capered around a conference room in the sheriff’s office’s southern precinct last week.

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“I have to kind of redirect him, like ‘hey buddy, we are just having fun,’” Sampson said with a laugh.

Notably, Hoppa said, Bolt is not trained to detect marijuana like the agency’s other dogs because of possible changes to the plant’s legality in Maryland. Dogs can learn new scents later, he said, but training them to forget old ones is a challenge.

Reading the signals a K-9 gives off requires a lot of training, Sampson said. When Bolt catches a whiff of contraband, he stops and focuses intently on the spot, but there are other signs a handler has to interpret during a sweep. The training, Hoppa said, is more for the trainers than the dogs, and Sampson said he did not think it would be as demanding as it was. Still, if he could put in for the job again, knowing what he knows now, he would in a heartbeat.

Bolt started his training in October after the office adopted him. He came into Sampson’s life at a hard time: the week after he had to put down his family dog, who was suffering from cancer. Sampson and his family had to adjust to Bolt, who zipped around their home with his two children, as a new addition.

“My dog before was like our first child,” he said. “And then a week later, I’m like, ‘OK, I have to go get another dog. This doesn’t feel right.’”

But Bolt has settled in since his arrival, remaining glued to Sampson’s side. His name was shortened to Bolt — to avoid any associations with pop singer Michael Bolton — and he slotted in nicely with the family, though they still call him Bolton when he is in trouble. Though his work is serious, Bolt is a happy, lovable Labrador, Sampson said, who contradicts stigmas about mean rescue dogs.

“I think we just did a good job with the bonding process, but I don’t know, there might be something from his history before we got him where there is some trauma [whereas] he really feels at home now,” Sampson said.

The Harford Sheriff’s Office has 10 K-9s, although not all of them are trained to sniff out narcotics like Bolt. Others jobs include patrol, tracking, electronics-sniffing and bomb detection.

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