The right sniff: New K-9 trains to join Frederick Police Department

It’s clear Neeko, an 18-month-old fawn-colored Belgian Malinois from the Czech Republic, has found something as he relentlessly sniffs a sedan, gleefully wags his tail and pokes his paw through a tire rim.

“He’s in odor,” said Frederick Police Department Officer 1st Class Pete Genovese during a training session with his police dog last week. “What are we gonna do?”

The dog immediately lay down, intensified his stare at the tire, and nudged his nose in its direction. “There you go,” his handler said, tossing him a tug toy as a reward.

Neeko is a little more than halfway through his 12-week training to become a dual-purpose utility dog for the department. He will soon join five other dogs on the force with the ability to apprehend suspects on top of finding cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The canine will be given an important job that has the potential to save lives and get dangerous drugs off the street. But to Neeko, it’s all a game.

“Because these dogs have intense drives and traits, they wanna work,” Genovese said. “We teach them their purpose, and they enjoy it. They learn this is what their lives consists of, and it’s all play and fun for them.”

Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet Working Dog Center with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, described Belgian Malinois as the “Ferrari of dogs.”

“They are incredibly high-energy,” she said. “They need a job, they are intense, athletic and learn quickly.”

Finding dogs suited to law enforcement is extremely difficult, Genovese said. The officer said he spends a lot of time traveling to kennels, putting prospects through series of tests and trying to determine if they have the right traits and drives for the job.

The dogs must not only be capable of physically demanding tasks but also sociable enough to interact with all types of people in their day-to-day lives.

“One of the things we look for is sociability as a character trait in our dogs,” Genovese said. “We don’t want what people have a misconception of [when it comes to police dogs], which [are] vicious animals that go around biting everybody. That’s not the case.”

Dogs who tend to perceive everything around them as a threat and act out of aggression will not be selected, Genovese said, because they should bite only on command and not out of fear.

Drug-detection training

Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, while humans can have up to 6 million. They can detect layers of odors and pinpoint the smell of drugs or explosives through odors that may be overpowering to humans, such as coffee or air fresheners.

“The way we see the world with our eyes, they see with their noses,” Otto said.

Genovese’s bimonthly training with his unit begins with the detective hiding contraband where the other handlers can’t see. When they release the dogs, the handlers indicate which areas they want the dogs to check. The officers look for behavior changes in the dogs to determine an alert.

“We see a behavior change prior to the final trained response,” Genovese said. “If the odor is up high, they’ll jump up and they’ll kind of sniff for it. If it’s at a regular level, they’ll sit. If it’s down low, we allow them to lay down because it’s natural for them to lay down.”

Once the dog has a positive alert on an area with drugs hidden in it, the handler tosses the dog a toy as positive reinforcement.

The trainer said he ensures the dogs don’t make false alerts by routinely testing them with exercises including scanning vehicles without drugs in mock traffic stops.

Genovese, who first applied to join the department’s K-9 unit in 2011, is now only one test away from receiving certification as a K-9 instructor through the North American Police Work Dog Association.

While the NAPWDA is but one of several training standards departments use to train their dogs, having a certified trainer on staff has already benefited the department. Castle’s K-9 Inc., where the department used to purchase and train all of its dogs, charges $1,500 per week to train new handlers and the company’s package price to train a patrol and narcotics-detecting dog is set at $12,950, according to the company’s website.

Those expenses are now covered entirely by having Genovese, who spent several years working at Castle’s in his off-time, available to train new dogs in-house.

Last summer, Odin, the department’s first patrol and explosive detection dog, and Maverick, who is certified to work patrol and to detect narcotics, became the first dogs to graduate under Genovese’s tutelage.

Castle’s package to train a dog for patrol work and explosives detection costs $15,450.

Legal implications of drug alerts

If a dog alerts on a car, the officer has probable cause to arrest the driver and search the vehicle. If the alert doesn’t yield any narcotics, the driver is released from custody. A false alert doesn’t give the officer probable cause to search the driver’s home, and case law prevents police from scanning private property with drug dogs without a search warrant.

The abilities and effectiveness of the dogs are subject to intense scrutiny by defense attorneys, who routinely research a dog and handler’s certifications for any lapses and often challenge the handlers on the stand in court.

“The first thing I look for is how long it took the K-9 to get there. That’s the area where you win most of these cases, because I’ve never seen the city have their dog certification lapse,” said Eric Schaffer, a former Frederick County prosecutor who now handles criminal defense cases with Schaffer & Black.

Schaffer explained that most K-9 drug scans begin as traffic stops and the dog handler is rarely on-scene at the beginning. Case law dictates that, while police do not need any reason to have a dog scan a car, it must take place within the time needed for an officer to handle the business of the stop.

“From five to 15 minutes, you’re not going to win that, but when you start getting into the 20-minute territory for the dog to get there, you’ve got a better chance of success,” Schaffer said. “In just about all situations if it’s over 30 minutes, you’re going to win that suppression hearing if it’s a traffic stop.”

The city police K-9 unit’s records, studiously kept by Genovese, also contain data that defense attorneys sometimes call attention to in cross-examination.

By comparing the number of times police seized drugs as the result of a scan to the number of times the dogs provided a positive alert, Schaffer pointed out that the city’s six certified narcotics detecting dogs had a 56 percent success rate in 2017.

Between 2015 and 2017, the dogs’ success rate averaged 58 percent, according to the city’s data.

Such arguments rarely succeed in court, however, as handlers and witnesses for the prosecution will point to the strength of the dogs’ sense of smell.

“If it’s a drug-detection dog, it’s trained to find a drug odor, but that doesn’t mean there are drugs in the car. … You’ll often get situations where people have used drugs in the car, and while there’s no drugs in there now, that odor is still in there,” said Lt. Jeff Eyler, who oversees the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office’s five K-9 teams.

For that reason, the sheriff’s office doesn’t even track the number of positive alerts its K-9 dogs make like the city of Frederick does, Eyler said. For 2015 through last year, the sheriff’s office tracked only how many drug scans its dogs conducted and how many arrests were made.

The sheriff’s office does keep closer track of the rare times when its dogs make an error during training, which typically takes up at least 16 hours a month, Eyler said.

“The reason we do that is because in training, it’s a controlled environment. On the street, I never really know, so how can I say that the dog is wrong?” Eyler said.

To further help defend the accuracy of the dogs, Genovese also keeps track of another category for when drugs are indicated, even if no drugs are found after a dog gives a positive alert.

“So if we scan a car and we get an alert but we don’t find anything, but we talk to the driver and I say, ‘Hey, man, when was the last time you had drugs in the car?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, my buddy was in here and we smoked a joint a few hours ago,’ then we track that as drugs indicated,” Genovese said.

Combining the totals from the drugs indicated categories with the number of times drugs were seized boosted the city dogs’ success rate to an average of 79 percent from 2015 through 2017.

Judicial precedent generally favors police dogs, despite the criticism of defense attorneys and others over the dogs’ so-called success rates.

Departments across the state narrowly avoided a potentially debilitating obstacle when Maryland decriminalized possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana in 2014.

When that change went in effect, Schaffer and many defense lawyers speculated that, because dogs cannot indicate the amount or type of drugs to their handlers, the current crop of police dogs would have to retire.

Fortunately for police, the current training for dogs remained legitimate by virtue of a ruling in Carroll v. United States, a Supreme Court case that determined warrantless searches of vehicles were permissible in part if police had probable cause to believe that contraband was present, Schaffer said.

While the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is now a civil citation, any amount of marijuana is still contraband, he explained.

“I think there might be a little different an outcome should Maryland ever go to the legalization of marijuana, they’d probably have to retire the dogs because they do the same alert for everything,” Schaffer said. “They don’t do, you know, stamp once for heroin and twice for cocaine.”

For now, at least, Neeko and his fellow drug-detecting dogs remain valuable and perfectly legal law enforcement tools for their human partners.

A promising future

Neeko’s training is “coming along nicely,” according to Genovese.

The Belgian Malinois is the handler’s second K-9. His first, a 7-year-old German shepherd-Belgian Malinois named Baron, died from a medical emergency while off duty in February.

Baron’s sharp nose directly resulted in 57 cases where arrests were made for drug possession from 2015 through 2017, according to the department’s data. Genovese was hopeful to continue that streak once Neeko makes it out on patrol.

As they train and bond, each police dog becomes a member of its handler’s extended family.

“We spend endless hours with these dogs,” Genovese said. “They come to work with us for 10 and a half hours [a day], but even when we’re off, we still take care of them.”