You Can’t Teach an Old Drug-Sniffing Dog New Laws
There’s no easy way to tell a drug-sniffing dog he’s fired.
Amid the quickening march of marijuana legalization at the state and – hey, who knows – maybe soon even federal levels, dogs trained to detect cannabis aren’t useful to police departments the way they once were.
Retraining an expensively bred, expertly educated German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, or Belgian Malinois to sniff out everything but the smelliest drug on the market is both costly and imprecise. It’s also not worth the legal headache now that defense attorneys can successfully argue for the illegality of a car search spurred by a cannabis-trained dog in any jurisdiction where carrying weed is no longer a crime.
Culture changes. And the law changes with it. But when you’re a dog, a smell stays the same.
And to expertly trained drug-sniffing dogs – still the best smellers in the business, better than robots and mini-pigs imported from Vietnam – marijuana still smells like a Schedule I controlled substance. Even in Colorado.
Tulo Topples the Trash Cans
Consider Rifle, Colorado’s favorite working dog – a yellow Labrador Retriever named Tulo. He retired in January after a productive seven years on the police force.
“The fact is, he was trained to alert on marijuana,” says Tulo’s handler and trainer Corporal Garrett Duncan. “And so, with the state of Colorado legalizing marijuana, Tulo was no longer very useful.”
The day we discussed Tulo’s adjustment to retirement, Tulo’s three-year-old replacement – a dog named Macai, whom Duncan trained to detect every drug but cannabis – passed his certification test to take Tulo’s place.
Any day now Tulo will start seeing Duncan leave for work every morning with Macai, who was until recently, the rookie.
And Duncan honestly doesn’t know how Tulo’s going to handle it.
For now, he’s making the best of their downtime. A working canine doesn’t get to play much. “As a puppy in his younger days, we’d try to conserve a lot of his energy,” Duncan explains.
So there’s one obvious upside to Tulo’s funemployment. “He can go hiking, he can go fishing.” As we’re talking, however, Tulo is at peace: Stretched out on the floor, drooling, thumping his tail every time he hears his name. “He seems to really like his life.”
Often, working dogs with obsolete skills will simply retire, as Tulo has, to lives of ease in their handlers’ warm and happy homes. They tend to adjust reasonably well, Duncan tells me.
But he wasn’t thrilled to find himself weaning off the force at first. When Tulo started to notice the chief was tossing him fewer shifts, he staged a protest. Word spread quickly around the police department when, on one of the first days that Duncan went to work without him, Tulo launched a protest. “He kind of did get into the trash that day and tear through it,” Duncan recalls.
If Tulo misses work, work misses him too…
“These dogs just love going to work,” said police chief Tommy Klein, Duncan and, formerly, Tulo’s boss at the Rifle Police Department – where Tulo was “sort of a mascot.”
“I think he’s having a hard time staying home with his owner,” says Klein, who seems to be speaking for the guys at the station as much as for their canine friend.
Coming to Ringo’s Rescue
In the absence of uniform regulation or aggregate data, police departments and dog trainers across the country do what they can to keep track of canine retirements. But with so many cannabis-trained canines retiring in the coming years, police departments can’t always be counted on to retire their dogs the right way.
With so many cannabis-trained canines retiring in the coming years, police departments can’t always be counted on to retire their dogs the right way.
Eleven-year-old Ringo and his trainer, Randy Hare, learned that the hard way last fall.
Hare has been training and selling drug-sniffing dogs to police departments in his home state of Mississippi for decades. He teaches and certifies his dogs’ professional handlers, too. And thanks to yearly recertifications and a network of friends and colleagues spanning the region, he keeps in touch with the countless dogs he’s trained. He does what he can to keep track of them once they retire from the force, as well.
In the case of Ringo, however, Hare was almost too late. “I got a call from a woman I knew who’d heard from someone who’d been through one of my courses that they thought they’d seen Ringo at a kill shelter.”
Hare called the shelter in Jackson, Mississippi, where his tipster thought Ringo might be. And he asked them to spare the expertly trained, crime-fighting yellow Lab from lethal injection.
“Sure enough it was him. He’d been turned over,” Hare says, his voice breaking. “It could have gone very badly. If he’d gone to another shelter, it could have gone any number of ways.”
Now, Ringo lives with Hare and spends his days at the same training center where he first learned to put his nose to use. “He’s a great dog. He doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But he’s a love bird,” Hare tells me. “Sometimes we’ll put him into rotation and let him have a little work. His sniffer’s not as good as it used to be, but he enjoys it.”
Ringo’s handler who’d left him at the shelter received a demotion within his department – and a stern phone call from Hare. “I laid into him pretty good,” Hare tells me. “If he’d just called me in the first place, I’d have come and got Ringo. I don’t know why people do what they do. I know some of these guys don’t like to hand over control.” The handler, detective Carl Ellis, was also named and shamed in the New York Times.
But there’s no way to ensure that every department finds a safe and loving home for its retired dogs, whether their skills are outdated or they’re simply old. For a drug-sniffing dog who’s about to retire, the difference between being a close-call rescue like Ringo and rolling around on the floor at home like Tulo for the rest of your life remains “completely at the discretion of the departments,” Hare says, “at least until there’s a public outcry.”
Ringo wasn’t a near casualty of changing laws. He was just old. But it has helped raise the alarm among trainers and trendsetters like Hare about outmoded marijuana sniffers’ uncertain fates. Marijuana legalization, Hare tells me, comes up most often when departments in the process of purchasing dogs from him find themselves having to anticipate the as yet unknown updates to their local legal landscape.
“I get asked all the time if you can train a dog off marijuana,” Hare says. “I use the analogy that if you learn a standard before an automatic, sooner or later you’re going to reach down and try to shift with that brake.” He advises replacing retired dogs with dogs trained not to detect cannabis at all – the path that most police departments and training schools are following, according to the officers and experts consulted for this article.
The New Normal of Ignoring Weed
In most cases, deploying a marijuana-trained dog in a state or county where marijuana is no longer against the law introduces a costly liability. A dog’s handler won’t know whether a cannabis-sensitive nose has detected someone’s dime bag of legal weed or a kilo of fentanyl.
“I wish we could read their minds,” Chief Klein says. “The dog may be alerting on marijuana, but we just don’t know that, so we’re unable to use just his alert to search the motor vehicle for controlled substances.” In Klein’s state of Colorado, current case law – pending appeal – permits the use of marijuana-trained dogs only when the handler can claim a reasonable suspicion that there’s something other than marijuana inside the vehicle.
It was in anticipation of case laws like this that Klein started cutting back on Tulo’s deployments. “It kind of forced our hand,” he adds, “the fact that he would alert on marijuana.”
The marijuana-trained dogs of the future will be specialists – like arson dogs, who are trained to detect the source of a fire’s first spark, or the airport-based Beagle Brigades, whose training in exotic produce prepares them to patrol the international arrival gates. School resource officers stalk students’ lockers with cannabis-trained German shepherds – policing drug possession among arguably the one demographic by whom liberalization would be most welcome, but for whom it would be least advised.
For the most part, drug-detection dogs who would have been trained on cannabis a canine generation ago just won’t learn the scent at all in the coming years, or so predicts former trainer and current criminology professor Charlie Mesloh. Federally – and, for the time being, in 15 of the 50 states – marijuana possession in any amount remains illegal. But no police department, even in those 15 mostly southern and midwestern states, will want to incur the costs of falling behind the legalization curve.
“The problem is going to be in the courtroom,” Mesloh explains. Departments would rather not lose case after case when they find themselves unable to prove whether a dog initially hit upon a legal or an illegal scent. “If the defense lawyer is any good, they’re going to raise a reasonable doubt – and that’s enough to dismantle the case.”
The cost of replacing cannabis-trained dogs … will be negligible compared to the cost of so many lost cases.
The cost of replacing cannabis-trained dogs – even those still in their prime and therefore worth tens of thousands of dollars, per Mesloh’s estimate – will be negligible compared to the cost of so many lost cases… and of cases never pursued.
“What you’re really going to miss out on,” he explains, “is that guy who’s committing other crimes and just carelessly smoking marijuana in the car. Those cases are now gone.” Hundreds of thousands of cases, he believes. “Now, you’re never going to get in that car.”
Legalization isn’t just a blow to these dogs’ sense of purpose, in other words. Although it’s that, too.
“Where it becomes a little more complicated as a handler,” says Mesloh, who trained and handled three drug-sniffing German Shepherds of his own before an injury landed him among the professoriate, “is when you leave, and the dog sits there alone while you and the other new dog go to work. That would be,” he pauses, searching for the right word, “uncomfortable.”
Mesloh, who brought his retired dog with him to the classroom in the first few years after they left the force together, hadn’t heard Tulo’s story. Nor does he know how Tulo will feel when, in the coming months, Corporal Duncan starts going to work full-time without him. He just knows, as every trainer does, that in the awkward early years of cannabis legalization there will be more – too many – excellent dogs tipping over trash cans and wondering why they’re not wanted at work anymore.
Alice Lloyd is a writer in Washington, D.C. and a Weekly Standard widow.