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Police test dogs on drug-sniffing
ST. MARYS -- Drug dealers often learn the hard way that it's nearly impossible to hide their stash once a K-9 unit dog is called to the scene.

They can hide drugs in drop ceilings, in packages coated with axle grease, petroleum jelly or diesel fuel, or in hidden compartments difficult for the human eye to detect.

But a well-trained dog and handler can find any drugs the animals are trained to detect.

A certification program for drug-sniffing dogs was conducted at St. Marys Middle School Wednesday while students are on summer vacation. Dogs that have been certified in the past also have to prove once a year they are still capable of performing their jobs.

The drugs the dogs were trying to sniff out in the school were hidden by law enforcement officials in places many believe would be difficult to detect, such as on top of a florescent light fixture 10 feet off the ground or in a paper towel dispenser above a sink.

Dogs and the handlers had no idea where the drugs were hidden. Each team was accompanied by certification officers, who watched closely to evaluate how the dog and handler worked with each other.

When the handler recognized the dog's response to hidden drugs, certification officers would often suggest ways for them to work better as a team.

"As long as there is an odor, it's hard to trick them," said Matt Gourley, a K-9 certification sergeant for the Georgia Department of Corrections.

It takes lots of training for both the dog and its handler to achieve certification.

Chris Reaves, a K-9 certifying sergeant for the Department of Corrections who was also evaluating the dogs and their handlers, said most officers take 250 hours of instruction to become a K-9 officer. Dogs go through four to 12 weeks of training with their handlers.

Lt. Shannon Brock, a St. Marys Police investigator, said the certification is crucial for prosecutors to be able to prove a search was conducted legally and by a qualified dog and handler.

"Certification shows the dog and handler work as a unit," he said. There is no particular breed handlers favor, he said.

The dogs are trained by associating the odors of seven different illicit drugs with their favorite toy. When they successfully locate illicit drugs, their handlers reward them by revealing their favorite chew toy near the location where they detected the drugs.

"We use toys as motivational tools," Brock said. "They are trained to get as close to the odor as possible."

Other dogs are trained to detect the odors of 18 different types of explosives, but those dogs aren't trained to sniff for drugs. Dogs trained to detect explosives are used in drug investigations when authorities suspect a meth lab may be booby trapped with explosives, Brock said.

* Reporter Gordon Jackson writes about Camden County and other local topics. Contact him at, on Facebook or at 464-7655.

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