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Vol. LVIII, No. 13
June 30, 2006

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Evidence Is 'Lab' Tested
K-9 Partners Are Here to Help

On the front page...

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.


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.  
"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."

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,
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.  
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.

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 for everything."

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 empty.

"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 these dogs."

So it's about play, praise, love — and respect for your partner.

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