"Detector Dogs" Sniff Out Smugglers for U.S. Customs

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 12, 2002

Drug smugglers are consistently creative in their attempts to get illegal narcotics across America's borders. They need to be. Getting past tireless U.S. Customs officers like "Pepper" is not an easy task.

At the port of Newark, New Jersey, officer "Pepper" indicated to inspectors that the roof of an innocuous looking sea container needed a closer look. Upon further inspection, the container was found to contain more than 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of cocaine.

The Customs Service got a major bust. "Pepper" got a pat on the head, and a well-deserved treat. For "Pepper," the bust was just a game; for the smugglers the experience was far less enjoyable.

Officer "Pepper" is part of the Customs Service's Canine Enforcement Program, one of over five hundred enthusiastic dogs who form a major part of the Service's drug interdiction efforts. Despite the use of high-tech surveillance equipment to protect America's borders, a well-trained dog is still among the most effective weapons against drug smuggling.

The track record of these canine investigators is stunning; the dogs annually keep billions of U.S. dollars (street value) worth of drugs off the streets. In Fiscal Year 2001, for example, dogs discovered over one million pounds (454,000 kilograms) of marijuana, over 26,000 pounds (11,800 kilograms) of cocaine, and 21.6 million dollars in cash. Their alerts in 2001 resulted in nearly 8,000 arrests.

From the Pound to the Border

Where does one recruit such valuable officers? According to John Makolin, a Supervisor Instructor at the U.S. Customs Canine Enforcement Training Center, the vast majority come from the humble origins of your local animal shelter or rescue league.

While a breeding program now supplies some dogs, and a small percentage are donated by their owners, approximately 80 percent of these drug-sniffing specialists come from a network of animal shelters that contribute to the program.

"The people at these facilities know what we're looking for in a dog, the behavioral characteristics," Makolin said from the Front Royal, Virginia, training facility "and we have people visiting the bigger pounds and shelters all the time."

It's a matter of supply and demand, and demand is high for these dedicated animals who have enjoyed such success on America's borders.

So what kind of dog makes the grade?

Continued on Next Page >>


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