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Drug-Sniffing's a Game for Dogs : More San Diego Firms May Use the Well-Trained Curs

June 17, 1986|BILL RITTER | San Diego County Business Editor

The drug-sniffing dogs that greeted National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. workers last week are also plying their trade at more than 10 other San Diego companies.

And the number probably will climb, according to Larry Katz, partner in BioSensors, an El Cajon firm that trains the canines to detect substances ranging from hashish to heroin, cocaine to codeine.

"Everybody is worried. . . . People are finally realizing that it's OK to say they have a drug problem," Katz said. "Employers are coming out of the closet."

Indeed, when veteran dog trainer Katz and partner Chuck Staff, a former La Mesa policeman who helped start that city's police dog program, formed their firm two years ago, their would-be clients talked about workplace drug use in hushed tones.

"We had to meet with people in hidden areas and vow secrecy before they'd tell us the name of their company," Katz recalled. "Now, people are . . . saying, 'Yeah, we've got a problem, and we're going to do something about it.' "

BioSensors is the only firm in San Diego that trains dogs specifically for drug detection, and one of the few in the country engaged in the business, Katz said.

He declined to identify his other customers.

One of them is Southwest Marine, where company executives have seen a "definite reduction" in drug usage, according to Vice President Herb Engel.

BioSensors has an inventory of eight dogs, with four more "in training," Katz said.

Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and German shepherds "work out good," but increasingly, said Katz, the firm uses "the San Diego beach mutt." These curs are typically mixes of shepherds, collies and huskies that Katz saves from certain death at the county's animal shelter.

Katz said he looks for "concentration" in his would-be pupils, as well as dogs who are "ball happy," those who will do "anything to chase a ball."

Ball chasing brings out a dog's hunting instincts, said Katz, who puts the animals through the paces of first chasing and then finding a hidden ball.

"Then you eventually replace the ball with narcotics," he said.

BioSensors has a license to obtain certain drugs from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Katz said. The firm also works with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, the Navy and a federal drug task force that operates in the U.S. attorney's office.

"Our sole purpose is to create a drug-free environment," Katz said. "We don't want to control anyone's life style" through such drug detection measures as urinalysis, he said.

The dogs are trained to sniff out marijuana, hashish, cocaine, heroin, speed and a "lot of combinations."

In addition, the canines will also "pick up some codeine-based prescription drugs."

Katz tells clients that his searches must be across the board.

"If we're searching the blue-collar workplace, then we're going to search the while-collar areas," he said. "If we're going in the yard, we're also going to be in Mahogany Row."

When the dogs discover a substance, they walk up to it, sniff it, and then just "sit down in front of it and wait for their reward," Katz said.

The animals' wages barely contribute to inflation--typically a ball to chase or a rag to play tug-of-war.

"They're doing it for praise--it's fun for them, and it's set up as a game," Katz said.

Labor union officials see it differently.

At Nassco, union leaders and management have huddled to discuss what labor describes as an "embarrassing" situation that may raise privacy rights among employees.

"They are abusing people's rights with these searches," said Manuel Ruiz, business agent for the International Assn. of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers, Local 627.

Katz insists that his firm doesn't want to act as police officers. "Dogs sound harsh; people get the impression that we line people up against the wall. But we only search the property that belongs to the company, not the people," he said.

If BioSensors' dogs discover drugs, the contraband is typically turned over to the police. The firm does not have to tell officials "where we got it from," Katz said.

With the issue of drugs on the job escalating, Katz believes his business will increase rapidly.

Exhibit A: Two weeks ago, his firm held a seminar on using drug-sniffing dogs. It drew representatives from about four dozen large companies here.

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