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His olfactory lobe is bigger than ours, and his turbinates — those
curvy bones inside the nose — are longer. Under the skin
at the nape of his neck, he wears a microchip the size of a grain
of rice. This is one NIH employee who's never called in sick. If
called to a court of law, he can serve as state's witness without
speaking word one.
Meet Flyer, drug dog with the NIH Police.
"They have the right to ask me in court, how did you know that there were drugs present?" says
Flyer's handler, assistant K-9 trainer and shift supervisor Sgt. Rick Hawkins. "I can tell
them, when he got in the 'scent cone,' his breathing became rapid. He sat and he stared at
me. He gave me a look, and I know that look. If he sits, we investigate."
|Nice to nose you: Flyer, NIH’s only
certified drug-sniffer, serves on the K-9 team along with 10
bomb-sniffers. A dog’s nasal cavities contain over 220
million olfactory receptors; the human version has 5 million.
Sitting to alert his handler to the presence of drug contraband
is something Flyer, a black Labrador retriever, learned with Hawkins
during 12 weeks of K-9 training. Upon graduation, Flyer became
NIH's only Maryland state-certified drug-sniffing dog in a team
that includes 10 "bomb dogs." Two days a month of retraining keep
that certification fresh.
Judges have ruled that a canine sniff is not a search under the
Fourth Amendment, and when a certified dog smells drugs or explosives,
then alerts his handler, the dog's response establishes probable
cause. If the case goes to trial, Flyer's duties may include court
time. He stands by (or sits by, in a climate-controlled squad car)
in case he's called to demonstrate how he sniffs out evidence,
properly hidden right in the courtroom.
The canine sense of smell is so superior that dogs can tease out
faint odors, even from a confusing soup of, say, room fresheners,
pork sausage and truck exhaust. Once Flyer's instinct was honed
by training, he could track and find hashish, cocaine, crack cocaine,
Ecstasy, heroin, certain prescription drugs, as well as money tainted
with drug residue.
"A dog we trained with the Harford County sheriff's office found
a gun used in a murder," reports Hawkins, who started work at NIH
the day before 9/11. He trains K-9 units with Lt. Rick Johnston
for the United States Park Police, Amtrak Police, U.S. Marshals,
Ann Arundel County, Hampstead Police in Carroll County and the
Smithsonian Police. It's done as a courtesy, says Hawkins — a
trade-off. "We take the dogs on escalators, elevators, trains and
to warehouses and parking lots, so they learn to walk on different
surfaces. The U.S. Park Police take them up in helicopters so they
learn not to freak out. We get them to jump obstacles, tunnels,
hurdles, see-saws, just so they're not spooked." They also train
at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where robots
simulate human casualties in bomb-blast mockups.
|Olfaction in action: Assistant K-9 trainer
and shift supervisor Sgt. Rick Hawkins poses with his partner.
Donated to NIH by Lab Rescue, Flyer is now licensed to work
anywhere in Maryland.
Flyer sports a state police tag and is licensed to work anywhere
in Maryland. He can also cover the Mall in Washington, D.C. But
why is NIH's only drug dog a Labrador retriever instead of the
classic German shepherd? Dogs here are not used for "bite work," and
since the Lab breed is prized for its high fetch drive, Hawkins
explains, this quality made Flyer a prime K-9 candidate.
Could Hawkins train a drug pug?
"Dogs' noses are so sensitive that if you put enough time into
it, you probably could train any dog, but not all dogs will follow
through," he said. He can't say how old Flyer is — around
7, perhaps — because he was donated through Lab Rescue.
"Training is all play," Hawkins explains. "You work with him to
find a ball, hide it in a wooden box, until he realizes what you
want. Then you put the ball and the drugs or the explosives in
the box together. He finds them. Then you take the ball out. Once
they get the association, it clicks."
The human factor is tougher. "The officer is the hardest part
of the whole thing," he quips, "getting these big manly men to
get their voices way up in the air, to get their inflection up
to praise the dogs. It's all about praise."
And about love? "It's the government's dog," says Hawkins, "but
he's my dog. I lucked out. He's part of my life and I'm responsible
Hawkins tells a story how once, when a suspicious package was
found, something curious happened. When the bomb dog got to it,
he sat. The bomb squad was called in, but the package turned out
"So we took it back to the other bomb dogs, and all the other
dogs sat," he says. "Each one, individually, sat. Something must
have been in that package at some point — I never second-guess
So it's about play, praise, love — and respect for your