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No-nonsense nose

Charlie is undeniably adorable.

He has shiny black fur, entreating dark eyes and an irresistible way of looking pathetic when he wants his head scratched. He barks, whines, drools, begs for dog biscuits and, for all appearances, behaves just like any other almost-six-year-old labrador retriever with a penchant for chew toys and gooey human snacks.

He is also the Port Orchard Police Department’s most sophisticated weapon in the war on drugs in Kitsap County.

Charlie and his handler, Officer Beth Deatherage, make up Port Orchard’s first full-time K-9 drug detection unit. Any time any agency in the county needs an area searched for hidden narcotics, Deatherage and Charlie can be called up. Cars, houses, fields, trailers — Charlie can handle them all.

“Charlie, for some reason, has a natural talent for finding dope,” Deatherage said. “He’s pulled me through some accreditations before.”

Charlie has found drugs hidden in electrical outlets, in paper towel dispensers and in overhead cabinets far beyond his normal reach. Deatherage said Charlie often improvises in these situations — to get at the overhead cabinet, she said, he used a sofa at the other end of the room to get up onto the counter and thereby gain access to the narcotics he was tracking.

Deatherage said she can’t even begin to estimate the amount of drugs Charlie has tracked down in the three-and-a-half years they’ve worked together. Most of the finds have been small — a dime bag here, a few ounces there. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally have big busts.

“We’ve dealt with big-time dealers, too,” she said.

Top of his class

Charlie is trained for four narcotics odors: marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. He received his training at an Everett-area school run by a Everett detective. Det. Fred Helfers, who current specializes in cracking money laundering operations with the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force, has been training dogs since 1982.

Helfers hand-selects each dog and starts their training between the ages of one and three. He said he looks for dogs that are very energetic, very enthusiastic and well-socialized. A dog which doesn’t have a lot of energy won’t make a very good working animal, Helfers said, and a poorly socialized dog won’t be able to handle the often-intimidating life of police work.

“(It can’t) mind going into dark corners in deep, dark houses,” he said.

Dogs start out with marijuana because it has the strongest odor. They learn to retrieve a towel saturated with the narcotic odor, then learn to find it when hidden in and under things. Dogs are rewarded for finding the towel, and also for giving a specific “alert” — usually scratching at the source of the odor.

“We don’t use any force methods — it’s all positive reinforcement,” Helfers said.

Because many of Helfers’ dogs come from bird-hunting trainers, it’s often second nature for them to hone in on a scent and track it to its origin. They key, Helfers said, is for the dogs to stay focused on the narcotic odor despite distractions.

Charlie, Helfers said, had no prior search training, but still consistently performed at the top of his “class.”

“If my memory serves me correct, Charlie was way up there all the time,” Helfers reminisced. “His is all instinctual drive, and those dogs sometimes make the best drug dogs. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t.”

During the 12- to 16-week training period, Helfers and his training assistant run the dogs through search after search through fields, houses, cars — every possible environment. They are taught searching patterns and get accustomed to finding the drug odors, even when extremely faint or accompanied by other, stronger scents. By the end of training, Helfers’ dogs are able to pick up narcotics smells anywhere under any conditions — the cliched Hollywood trick of packing drugs in coffee grounds would not give the dogs even a moment’s pause, Helfers said.

“Dogs smell odor molecules and that’s what triggers the scent memory,” he said. “Does masking drug odors work? No. If an odor molecule gets out, they’ll find it.”

Deatherage said Charlie has gotten his own chances to prove all those smell-masking attempts futile. During one advanced training session in which working drug dogs were given a chance to practice on real-world busts, Charlie and some other similarly trained dogs were introduced to a crate in which cocaine packages were surrounded by gallons of fish oil. Deatherage said the load had been seized from smugglers in Canada and the smell was overwhelming — at least for humans.

“(Charlie) hit right on it,” she said. “He didn’t shy away from the stinky fish smell.”

To underscore his point about the power of a dog’s nose, Helfers pointed out his other training operations. Apart from narcotics detection, he trains dogs to find accelerants for arson investigators and natural gas leaks for safety inspectors. He even trained dogs to sniff out gypsy moth egg cases and Japanese beetle larvae as a means of combating insect infestation on the east coast.

“They can detect them very easily,” Helfers said. “They’re very smart dogs.”

The retriever appeal

Helfers only trains retrievers — labs and goldens. German shepherds, the most easily recognizable type of police dog, are usually trained as “man” dogs — dogs that track and bring down suspects. Buddy, the Bremerton police dog shot and killed in 2001, was a man dog.

Most departments have dogs which specialize — Bremerton currently has three dogs: Rosco, the narcotics dog; and K.G. and Tabor, the man dogs. However, dogs trained in both types of police work do exist.

Deatherage said she has seen dual-trained dogs work, but has really only been impressed by the detection skills of a few. The police dog for Little Boston, for instance, is a dual-trained shepherd that Deatherage said is an outstanding tracker, as well as being sufficiently intimidating.

“This was a big German shepherd,” she said. “I wouldn’t want him coming after me if I was running through the woods.”

The intimidation factor is one of the reasons Helfers never trains shepherds. Apart from the fact retrievers were bred for detection work, Helfers said, it doesn’t hurt that retrievers have a much better public image than shepherds and other types of police dogs. Few people, he continued, are normally intimidated by the sight of a tail-wagging black lab.

“The labrador retrievers are better public relations tool,” he said. The public accepts them better. This is a friendly dog.”

Deatherage would tend to agree. She said Charlie is so appealing to passers-by, she has difficulty keeping people from trying to play with him or feed him while he’s in the back of her cruiser. While it’s likely Charlie enjoys the attention more than anything else, she said it’s never a good idea to offer your hand to a strange dog.

In addition, she has a strict policy about people trying to feed Charlie, who isn’t real selective about what he eats.

“I’ve come running out of restaurants before,” Deatherage said, who also said she can be harsh with adults who think it’s a good idea to play with Charlie when she’s not around.

Deatherage said she’s constantly aware of how vulnerable Charlie is. She said it’s her job to make sure he’s not molested by people or other dogs and to make sure his work environment is as safe as she can make it. Because of that, Deatherage said she will never let Charlie anywhere near meth lab sites — the sites are often covered with unknown chemicals that could kill Charlie if he inhaled or swallowed them.

“We’ve gotten into rat poison before, Deatherage said. “Luckily, I caught it right away.”

The agencies that ask for her help usually know which places are safe for dogs and which aren’t, Deatherage said. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t turned down search requests over safety concerns.

Deatherage said she and Charlie were once asked to search a truck which had a suspected meth lab sitting on the truck bed. Deatherage took one look at the site and wouldn’t let Charlie near any part of it.

“I didn’t even put the dog in the cab portion of the truck, because I don’t know what’s been in there; I don’t know what might have been spilled,” she said.

Charlie is more than just a work dog — he is a permanent fixture in Deatherage’s life. Like most police dogs, he goes home with her at the end of the day and does regular dog things — peeling the coating off tennis balls, destroying chew toys, distracting Deatherage while she’s trying to watch TV.

She keeps him away from her two rottweilers, though. Deatherage said police dogs tend to have alpha personalities, and she doesn’t want any problems with territory disputes. However, the aggression that would cause problems at home, Deatherage said, is what makes Charlie a top-notch drug dog.

“I actually like his attitude, because he’s a lot like me,” she said. “There’s a lot of me in him, which is why I think we get along so well.”

“Passive, little dogs that don’t want to go out and do anything are not for me,” Deatherage continued.

Charlie will probably have another four or so years as a working dog before he retires. Like all animals, a dog’s sense of smell deteriorates as it gets older and it becomes less and less active.

When that happens, Deatherage said she is hopeful the department will buy her another drug-sniffing dog. Charlie cost around $5,000 in 1999, and Helfers said a similar dog would cost upwards of $6,500, not counting what the department pays for Charlie’s food and medical care. Therefore, it might become a case of what the police department can afford to do, not what it necessarily wants to do.

“That one’s up to the boss,” Deatherage said.

If Deatherage does get another dog, she said she’ll probably want another lab. Despite Charlie’s quirks — his penchant for barking incessantly is a standing joke at the department — Deatherage said she has come to rely on his talents and appreciate his eccentricities. Of course, finding another dog like Charlie could prove something of a challenge, she admits.

“I don’t think there’s another dog around that’s like Charlie, that has his personality,” Deatherage said.

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