Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

August 8, 2013
Dog’s nose takes on war against drugs

The newest face at the Tooele City Police Department lights up whenever anyone comes into the room.

Maggie is friendly and eager to shake hands. Just watch out — she licks.

The 20-month-old Labrador is a single-use narcotics detection dog, a new addition to the Tooele County Drug and Gang Taskforce, but handled by a Tooele City officer.

Maggie was purchased in early June after grants were secured for her equipment and training — she was bought using old seizure funds — and will split her time between taskforce operations and riding patrol with her handler, Officer Josh Curtis.

The taskforce chose Maggie from five dogs at Oquirrhberg Kennel in Utah County. She stood out from the other four dogs with her tenacity, discipline and work ethic, said Sgt. Todd Hewitt of Tooele City Police and assistant commander of the taskforce.

“See, that right there,” he said, pointing to Maggie as she strained against her leash to investigate the bed of a truck at the police department. “There are no drugs in there. She just wants to smell everything.”

The field was equal for officers to handle her, too. The Tooele City Police Department offered to lend out one of their officers, and five officers applied for the leash. Yet Josh Curtis was the clear choice, noted Hewitt, because of his service record, work ethic, and propensity for the hefty responsibility of taking on a service dog.

Curtis said he has always liked dogs “with a purpose,” such as hunting dogs, and became interested in handling a police dog after hearing whispers that such an addition might come to the department about a year ago. But as far as expecting the assignment or aspiring to it early on, it has come as a surprise to him, too.

“In my whole police career, nothing has really been what I expected,” he said. “What you see on TV is totally different from what it is. There’s a lot of work to it. It’s frustrating sometimes, and there are a lot of happy moments during the training. It’s brand new, but it’s been very rewarding.”

Curtis and Maggie blew through the 200 hours of training in only a few weeks. He quickly learned how to pick up on the most minute indicators from Maggie and the two of them bonded. Although they are both certified to be in the field, the training and bonding will continue throughout Maggie’s life.

“Any kind of narcotics dog, they have an indication that tells you that they’re smelling the thing that you’re looking for,” said Curtis. “With her, the initial part of this training, I had to be really in tune with even the most minute change in the way she breathes, from the difference of her smelling a dog to her smelling dope. I had to be in tune with her, otherwise I would have just been wandering around with my head cut off. There was a lot of bonding there. That will continue. There will never be an end to that.”

Now, Maggie and Curtis are nearly inseparable. She rides with him when he patrols, goes home with him at the end of the day, is a new member of his family as well as at the department.

Because Maggie is a single-use police dog, meaning that she has been trained to sniff out drugs but not attack suspects, her workable lifespan is much longer than dual-purpose dogs, which are often retired after about eight years. Curtis said Maggie might be able to work right up until the end of her life, if her health holds — he has heard of some drug-sniffing dogs that worked until a week before they died.

Mike Hansen, commander of the taskforce and an agent with Adult Probation and Parole, said beyond her longevity and specialization, the taskforce wanted a dog that would appear approachable, as well as being capable.

“I think Maggie’s a stellar dog. Everything we’ve heard, she’s top in her class and kind of blew everybody out when they saw her work,” he said. “So we’re happy with that, and she’s a pretty dog, too. No one seems to be fearful of her, which I think is a good thing, too, because it  tends to put everyone more at ease. I think we chose right on that one. She is friendly. That’s exactly the impression she gives everybody.”

Maggie will come along with the taskforce on operations, as well as responding to traffic stops where an officer believes there are indicators of the presence of drugs. She will also be available for all departments associated with the taskforce as needed.

Hewitt said in the past, the taskforce has called for K-9 help from the Grantsville City Police Department or Utah Highway Patrol. Although both departments have been helpful and supportive, he said, the taskforce had enough operations that they feared being a drain on those two departments.

“We’ve relied heavily on the UHP, we’ve relied on Grantsville in the past — agencies that have dogs — but it puts an undue burden on them,” said Hewitt. “The taskforce needs a dog weekly, and calling them all the time? They’ve got other stuff to do.”

The addition of a police dog will not significantly change the way the taskforce executes search warrants. However, Hansen said, she does make the process quicker, noting that a recent operation in Overlake would have likely taken another two hours for officers to achieve the same goal alone.

“When you’re trying to search a house, especially when you’re searching for drugs, and they can be extremely small and the tip of a pin, it’s hard, time-consuming, boring, laborious, I don’t care what adjective you use, it is really hard to search that,” he said. “To have a dog, it builds the confidence of the team, have her do it, and it puts them more at ease to know we did the best we could, and the time factor alone, it really increases the speed.”

Hewitt said Maggie’s nose can also help officers be neater and more efficient about how they go about those searches.

“Contrary to popular belief, we don’t want to tear a person’s entire house up,” he said. “If the dog can pinpoint us to where the drugs are, especially if the suspects don’t want to cooperate, it saves us time, it saves a mess, it just makes us more efficient.”

Tooele City Police Chief Ron Kirby said while the cost of their officer’s time — their only real  incurrance — is substantial, he feels the situation is mutually beneficial for the city and the taskforce. The city has wanted a narcotics dog since its last dog left about eight years ago, he said, but could not afford one on its own.

Partnering with the taskforce helped decrease the financial burden, and gives the dog a home-base of sorts in the city, where her talents would likely be utilized most often, he noted.

“A lot of the drug interdiction work going on in the county is going on in the city, a substantial portion of it, so citizens of Tooele get ready access to a drug taskforce dog,” he said. “When this was proposed, it was the perfect solution. The drug taskforce, I think they’re happy with it, and we’re using her already.”

Lisa Christensen

Staff Writer at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Lisa covers primarily crime and courts, military affairs, Stansbury Park government and transportation issues. She is a graduate of Utah State University, where she double-majored in journalism and music, and Grantsville High School.

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