Editor’s note: This article is part of a continuing series of articles examining illegal drugs in Fayette County.
Canines have stood beside police forces for decades, lending their protective instincts and keen noses.
And now man’s best friend has joined the front to combat one of man’s worst enemies — illegal drugs.
In Masontown’s battle against narcotics, 7-year-old K-9 officer Brony is in the station every day, ready to protect his handler, Officer Mike Yeager, and eager for a chance to sniff out some strand of drugs.
When Brony detects a narcotic, he scratches at the surface where it’s found.
But as Yeager points out, that becomes increasingly difficult when the scent of narcotics is on just about everything. The residual odors and transference are picked up by the K-9s, even if there aren’t any drugs in the vicinity.
“You can’t correct a dog for doing what he’s been trained to do,” said Yeager.
Similar to a household pet hearing the crinkle that a bag of jerky makes and associating it with a treat, a police dog operates knowing that “everything he does is a game,” Yeager said.
“He associates this [burlap chew toy] with narcotics. He knows what he smells; he’s trained that if he smells it, he finds the toy. In his mind, if he smells the drug, the toy will appear,” said Yeager.
Oftentimes, police dogs don’t even have to sniff out the illegal substances. Their presence alone can hinder wrongdoers.
“A lot of times, he’s a deterrent,” said Yeager. “With just him showing up on scene, they’ll just tell me where the narcotics are.”
Perryopolis police officer and K-9 handler Jason Hayes agreed that their K-9, Mako, often defuses hostile situations.
“Criminals know they don’t stand a chance against a K-9 nose,” said Hayes. Unlike some K-9 officers though, Mako is passive, meaning that when he finds his target, whether it be drugs or a fleeing suspect, he sits and looks up at Hayes.
For Hayes and Perryopolis police Chief Rodger Beadling, Mako serves as a dual purpose animal, working both patrol and narcotics.
According to Hayes, Mako’s primary role is to turn “reasonable suspicion into probable cause.” It is Mako’s job to find what human officers cannot.
“It saves a lot of manpower, too. It might take a force up to eight hours to search a house for drugs,” said Hayes. “But for a K-9, it takes one or two minutes per room.”
K-9s are trained to search with their noses, relying on their olfactory receptors — membranes in the nose that detect scent — to pick up on their target. According to Beadling, a dog’s nose is over a thousand times more sensitive to odors than a human nose.
During a recent Click It or Ticket campaign on Route 51 in Perryopolis, Beadling noted that one of the targeted cars had a strong odor of marijuana. Hayes and Mako were called to the scene where they discovered drugs and drug paraphernalia.
“It greatly helps in getting drugs off the street,” said Beadling.
While Hayes reported that marijuana is just about everywhere, he said he thinks it’s actually heroin that poses the biggest threat in Perryopolis.
“It’s getting really bad here. It’s cheap, it’s bad, they’re mixing it with stuff — and then there are drug-induced crimes,” said Hayes, who also has a background in emergency medical services.
In Greene County, Cumberland Township police chief and K-9 handler, Craig Miller, said that their department deals with different narcotic abuses.
“We still encounter a large amount of marijuana, but prescription drugs are the most prevalent, and there’s a wide variety of those,” said Miller. “It has definitely spiked compared to other years.”
“We’ve seen a change in drug trends altogether,” he continued. “When we got Artis in 2008, heroin was the most prevalent substance.”
Miller said that the increase in opium-based substances and prescription drugs is on the rise because “it’s a lot easier to get.” While some dogs are trained to sniff out prescription drugs, there are some pills that the dogs simply cannot pick up on.
A four-hour-per-week training keeps Artis sharp and keen on narcotics, especially when working with trainers licensed with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to Miller.
The K-9 handlers noted that they’ve searched buildings, cars, motorcycles and houses for narcotics. They also receive calls to come into local school districts to do general sweeps for drugs and occasionally for specific cases.
When emergency calls come in to the station, Yeager discerns which situations to pursue with Brony.
“We don’t go on domestics calls, because it takes me out of the game; I have to control the dog,” said Yeager. Instead, they often pursue robberies, sexual assaults and any cases where there is suspicion of drugs.