Prison picks pups for dollars, scents

State expects to save money by raising own drug sniffers

December 24, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

HAGERSTOWN -- At a month old, the dozen jet-black puppies being raised at a state prison compound aren't quite ready to take a nibble -- much less a bite -- out of crime. But give them time.

Soon enough, the Labrador retriever pups will be chasing balls scented with narcotics. The best eventually will become a valuable tool for corrections officers trying to rid prisons of illegal drugs and violence stemming from the drug trade.

While the Maryland Division of Correction has long trained detection and patrol dogs, the litter born Nov. 21 marks the first try at breeding and raising dogs on site, said Capt. Peter W. Anderson, commander of the canine unit.

The mother, Cayenne, has excellent detection ability and was purchased this year specifically for breeding, Anderson said. He arranged to breed her with, Romeo, a top-tier hunting dog from Virginia.

"They both have excellent bloodlines," he said.

Ordinarily, Anderson said, the agency would buy dogs that are 1 or 2 years old from private breeders and train them.

But sometimes, adult dogs don't do well in the confines of prisons, where sounds echo and slick surfaces make it hard for the animals to walk. And in the post-Sept. 11 world, dogs that are best suited for detection work are expensive and hard to find, he said.

Many prime canine candidates have been snatched up in recent years by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that need them to sniff for explosives or bodies, he said.

To overcome that problem, Anderson came up with the idea of the on-site breeding program as a potential money-saver for state taxpayers.

"Prior to 9/11, we were able to purchase detector dogs for $1,000 to $1,500," he wrote in a memo to his supervisors earlier this year. "Currently, the average cost of detector dogs is between $3,000 and $4,000, occasionally higher. It is primarily a supply-and-demand issue; however, there is no end to this trend in sight."

He estimated that it would cost about $2,800 to breed and raise three dogs -- the minimum the prison system needs each year --compared with $9,000 to buy them from private breeders.

James J. Matarese, who heads the U.S. Police Canine Association's mid-Atlantic region, said suitable dogs are so scarce and expensive that many police agencies in the area are buying them from Europe.

He said he knows of few other agencies that have gone as far as Maryland has to launch their own breeding program.

"The big picture is, if it works, they will be saving a lot of money," Matarese said. "They will also be able to train the dogs earlier."

Anderson said the prospect of earlier training was a big attraction because older dogs that test well in the field don't always handle the environment of a prison very well.

The tiled prison hallways and the metal grate walkways of cellblock tiers make for difficult footing for dogs, and leave some insecure and less effective, Anderson said.

Add the noise of doors slamming shut and men yelling, he said, and it creates a "high-stress environment" that causes some dogs to shut down and fail to perform effectively.

"We look for dogs that are extremely confident and that walk into that place like they own it," Anderson said.

He said there is a better chance of producing such dogs if they are introduced to the prison environment at a younger age, so they don't find it so distracting.

Anderson said he expects six to nine of the 12 puppies born to Cayenne and Romeo will pass muster and be brought into the K-9 unit after several months of training.

For now, they are being weaned from their mother in a fenced portion of a garage that is part of the canine unit headquarters. They sleep in a box, with a heat lamp providing warmth.

Training will begin in a few weeks -- as soon as the pups are ready to chase a ball impregnated with the scent of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine, he said.

"This is the most important age, the early weeks, in a dog's development," Anderson said. "If we can ingrain the odor of narcotics on them now, it's going to be hard-wired into their system."

The dogs will use their acute sense of smell to check visitors, staff and volunteers entering through checkpoints and during cell searches inside the prisons, Anderson said. They will also check incoming packages and mail, as well as vehicles in prison parking lots, he said.

Anderson says ridding Maryland's prisons of drugs is key to stemming inmate violence.

"I believe most of the violence can be related to disputes over drugs or other contraband, or an inmate on some kind of controlled dangerous substance," he said.

He said the dogs have been effective in helping corrections staff crack down on drug use in the prisons.

Statistics show that the percentage of inmates testing positive for drugs in random tests in the Jessup region nearly doubled between 2002 and 2004, a period in which canine staff was cut from 11 to seven positions.

Matarese, of the U.S. Canine Association, said Anderson's training program is regarded as "one of the best ones in the Mid-Atlantic region."

The puppies Anderson's unit is raising have not yet been named.

Anderson said a contest was launched Friday in which children of correctional officers statewide will have a chance to propose names over the next three weeks.

Winners will have their photo taken with the puppy and will be given a $25 gift certificate to a toy store chain that is participating.

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