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Docile Dogs Fight a Low-Key War on Drugs

March 07, 1988|GREG BRAXTON | Times Staff Writer

Funny, they don't look like detectives.

The agents who make up the Ameri-Canine detection agency don't use weapons or smoke pipes like some of the more famous sleuths. This is a canine corps whose strength is in its sense of smell.

The eight golden and Labrador retrievers of Ameri-Canine seem just like the typical San Fernando Valley pooches that chase after balls and frolic in the grass.

But these dogs are sniffing sleuths, experts adept in tracking down illegal drugs in offices, in work yards and around desks. They are the friendlier-looking counterparts of German shepherds and other more intimidating dogs that solve similar cases for law enforcement agencies.

"They're highly socialized, and people are not intimidated by them," said one of two humans behind the operation, Patricia Miller, the dogs' principal trainer. "You can take these dogs anywhere. Kids could be around them and pet them."

Federally Licensed

The dogs receive the same training as police dogs and are licensed by federal anti-drug agencies, said Miller and her partner, Garnet Craven.

Most of the training is done in the back yard of a large home in the West Valley, where the dogs learn to sniff out marijuana, cocaine, hashish, heroin and PCP.

The trained dogs sniff around floors and walls to get a sense of an environment. When they smell narcotics, they begin to scratch at it and are rewarded with a big red ball.

Miller said her operation chose to use the more docile dogs because they are not threatening to children or employees, which makes it easier for them to conduct the sensitive inspections. Although a few other enterprises nationwide use less-traditional dogs in drug searches, Ameri-Canine is the only one of its kind in Southern California, says Miller.

The big-nosed hunters are recruited mainly by private firms whose bosses want an alternative to urine analysis and other drug testing to keep drugs out of the workplace. The searches are used mainly as a deterrent, said Miller.

Surprise Sweep

The canine sleuths were on the job Friday in a surprise sweep through the Graphic Research division of Methode, an electronics company in Chatsworth.

Miller and a golden retriever named Harvest moved quickly through the individual offices as accountants, inspectors and receptionists looked on. Miller greeted everyone with a smile, while leading Harvest on his leash. She instructed the dog to sniff around the floors and cabinets.

While Harvest sniffed, employees seemed at ease, smiling at the dog. Several of them petted it.

Harvest did become excited when sniffing around one employee's purse on the floor in the accounting office, but what he was smelling turned out to be prescription medication.

"Whenever we go out on a run, we have to take a lot of love breaks," remarked Miller, referring to employees paying attention to the dogs.

Searches a Deterrent

Joyce Rich, personnel manager, said her firm uses the searches, which have occurred periodically for about eight months, as a deterrent.

"A lot of our competitors were doing drug testing, and we knew we had to have our program," Rich said. "This sounded like the best method to me because the others were being challenged in the courts. I've gotten a mostly positive response to this from our 300 employees. They really like the happy-go-lucky dogs."

No illegal drugs were found on the premises during Friday's search. If any had been found, Rich said, the employee in question could be asked to enroll in a counseling program or get other help.

Hewlett-Packard has, on occasion, hired the agency to conduct searches in some of their California sales offices. But George Glenday, general manager of the Western sales region, said he never authorizes a search until he hears a couple of complaints from employees concerned about colleagues using drugs.

"It was important for us to find passive dogs," he said. "We didn't want threatening dogs around."

It may take a few hours to search a company. Miller said the fee for the searches can range from $75 to $150 an hour.

Another of Ameri-Canine's clients is the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

Jim Burgess, chief of the RTD's transit police, said the inspections are conducted in all of the company's divisions, and can take place once or twice a month.

Miller and Craven said they started the operation primarily because of their interest in battling the drug problem in schools.

Craven, the mother of a teen-age daughter, said she was concerned that drugs seem to be readily available at school.

Miller, who is a Los Angeles police officer, said she was interested in doing something outside her official capacity to fight drugs.

"When I get home, I hang up my gun and pick up my leash," she said. "I just felt I had to do something more."

She said the LAPD, although aware of her outside business, is not associated with her agency.

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