Man's best friend is trained to be a drug dealer's worst enemy

August 02, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

During a random drug check at a high school parking lot recently, a Sykesville police dog alerted officers to a car. One small leaf in the trunk set off the dog's olfactory alarm.

Police identified the leaf as marijuana and arrested a suspect.

Hash, a 6-year-old Labrador, was simply upholding his reputation. During the last quarter of 1993, Hash assisted in nine drug arrests in town and participated in 39 vehicle scans.

If drugs are around, he will sniff them out, said Officer Marvin V. Hewitt, Hash's partner and trainer for the past five years.

"He alerts by pawing," the officer said. "He will even crawl under a car to get to the source. He'll bark if he can't get to it."

Officer Onas W. Jansen III describes Hash as "an absolute asset to our department."

"He has already paid for himself," joked Officer Jansen.

The nominal $1 the town department paid Officer Hewitt for the dog is framed and hanging on the wall of the office.

At that price, Hash was a steal, said Officer Hewitt, who puts his value at about $10,000 and his work equal to that of one human officer.

"He can smell drugs through just about anything, from coffee grinds to diesel fuel," Officer Hewitt said. "He has found drugs from a couple seeds in a car to burnt residue."

Cataracts have made Hash blind in one eye, but nothing disrupts the dog's keen sense of smell. The 79-pound black retriever can even alert to a "dead scent" in an area where drugs had once been.

Officer Hewitt smiled as he recalled a recent multicounty raid, when officers combed a house from attic to basement and found nothing. Hash had more success. He alerted officers to a book cabinet behind the bar and stood firm.

"He pawed at a big dictionary," said Officer Hewitt. "Inside the book, the officers found $5,000, tainted with the scent of drugs.

Officers seized the money, Officer Hewitt said.

"He has helped officers confiscate cars and cash," he said. "He is definitely a benefit to every organization."

Hash draws no salary, but the department does pay his liability insurance. He wears a shiny metal badge on his royal blue collar.

Like his fellow officers, Hash also reports for training. With his trainer, he attends classes at the K-9 training center in western Baltimore County every month.

"I train him myself and I teach others," Officer Hewitt said.

The officer has also testified for Hash.

"Hash is highly regarded in the courts," he said. "No one ever questions the ability of a trained dog. If the original officer does his job in developing probable cause, we will get a conviction."

Hash's skills are in such demand that he and Officer Hewitt often find themselves working with other law enforcement agencies.

"We are a team; we work together," said Officer Hewitt. "Hash works for the state police, Baltimore and Howard county police, and the Drug Enforcement [Administration]. The chief here encourages us to help other agencies," Officer Hewitt said.

In 1989, Officer Hewitt, then a Carroll County sheriff's deputy, met Hash at the K-9 training center in Baltimore County. The pup had been retrieved from the Carroll County Humane Society.

"We have been a team ever since," he said. "Every day I work, he works. He is my partner."

When Officer Hewitt left the Sheriff's Department and joined the Sykesville department in May 1993, Hash -- who officially belonged to Officer Hewitt -- joined with him.

Hash spends most of his shift in the department's K-9 unit, a 1993 Chevrolet Bronco. Occasionally, he goes into the station for a visit.

"If I am by myself, I like to have Hash here with me," said Debbie Onheiser, department secretary. "He lays right by my feet."

But Hash takes little time to rest, his trainer said.

"He wants to work. He watches me all the time. If we don't do something, he barks."

The deep bark sounds "hellacious" but is usually accompanied by a wagging tail, he said.

The dog will growl at strangers, especially anyone who invades what he perceives as his territory, but he is not an attack dog, Officer Hewitt said.

"Hash is gentle, but like any dog, you don't want to thrust your hand into his environment suddenly," he said.

The Sykesville Police Department is so pleased with its K-9 unit that it has used a state grant to purchase Danny, a German shepherd trained in Europe.

Danny is training with Officer John Iannone for the next few weeks.

A major task for the team is to overcome a language barrier. Danny responds to Slavic commands.

"John is learning about Danny's commands and what the dog can do," Officer Hewitt said.

Two K-9's will give the town 24-hour coverage every day, Officer Hewitt said.

"The dogs are good instruments, another tool we can use to fight crime," he said. "We have a growing community here and we want to give it as much coverage as possible."

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