Dogs against drugs

MARQUETTE – For more than a decade, the Marquette Police Department K-9 unit has played an integral role in maintaining the safety of the community.

With training in drug and bomb detection, tracking, handler protection and tactical obedience, among many other things, K-9s Scud, Frodo and Nitro are much sharper than the average four-legged, tail-wagging dog.

During a training exercise Thursday, K-9 Scud, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois, located a hidden bag containing methamphetamine at the police station in less than a minute.

“Marijuana has a strong odor … you and I can smell that,” Sgt. Marty Munger said. “But not cocaine, heroin, meth … their (scent) glands are so much better than ours.”

After detecting the drug’s odor, Scud began to scratch at the area where it was located and bark repeatedly – what Munger and K-9 Officer Todd Collins referred to as an “aggressive alert.”

The dogs participate in “maintenance training” on Thursdays or Sundays, said Collins, to make sure they remain efficient and precise.

“They’re very accurate,” Munger said. “We have to make sure they’re ready.”

In addition to drug detection, the agency’s two narcotic K-9s also provide protection for their human counterparts and can be used in tracking situations, building or area searches and community demonstrations. A third K-9 is trained in bomb and explosives detection.

“A lot of what the dogs do is (public relations),” Munger said. “We use them as a police dog, but they also have to be able to have contact with kids.”

They accompany patrol officers during visits to schools, churches and community events.

“We realize the importance of that to our community,” he said.

Collins and Munger each care for a drug detection dog around-the-clock, and share the responsibility of caring for K-9 Nitro, an energetic 2-year-old black labrador retriever that detects explosives.

While they’re treated like family in both of the officers’ households, they take the job seriously.

“They know the difference,” Collins said. “When I’m getting dressed for work, (Scud) is at the door ready to go.”

They also save the agency money, they said, since dogs typically don’t expect a salary for their hard work. The handlers receive one paid 12-hour day a month for caring for the dogs.

“We don’t ever double up with a patrolman,” Munger said. “The dog takes on the responsibility of protecting us.”

The same is true vice-versa, he said, adding that he and Collins also have a duty to protect their furry companions.

“Our dogs are our partners,” Collins added. “The guys on the midnight shift also have a partner … mine is just four-legged.”

Scud and Frodo – Munger’s K-9 partner, a 6-year-old Dutch shepherd – were purchased from the Netherlands, where they were trained for dog competitions.

Both attended a five-week K-9 training course at the Oakland Police Academy.

The department got Nitro when he was a puppy and trained him from the ground up, Collins said.

“We strive to have good dogs,” Munger said, adding that the MPD abides by the guidelines of the National Association of Professional Canine Handlers.

Both Collins and Munger have special police vehicles with equipment to accommodate the K-9 officers.

They ride along during all patrols, Collins said. During a traffic stop, if the dog alerts, it can give the officer probable cause to search a suspect’s vehicle.

“It helps us do the job people expect us to do … keeping drugs from being sold on the street corner,” Munger said. “It’s a deterrent.”

In many instances, Collins said suspects will see the dogs or hear their barking and admit to a crime before a search can be initiated.

“We tell people the dog is going to find (their drugs), and they just end up telling you where they are,” Collins said.

During training Thursday, Frodo had some practice with aggression control and handler protection with the station’s bite suit.

Scud practiced tracking by following Munger’s footprints in the snow, and K-9 Nitro located a gun hidden in the parking lot after Munger had just fired a blank.

“They’re putting their life before ours,” Munger said. “That dog is going to take a bullet for you.”

Earlier this month, both K-9 Frodo and K-9 Scud assisted U.S. Customs in the search of a freighter docked in Marquette.

“The dogs make the search so much faster,” Munger said. “It would take triple that amount of time with just men.”

In the police station is a memorial to the K-9 that started it all, Nero. His ashes, along with a photograph, are there to remind officers of his life and service.

In 2006, Nero led a seizure of $70,000 in cash from a vehicle in Marquette. The suspect had a long history of drug dealing, Munger said.

To this day, Munger considers that the biggest accomplishment of a K-9 officer. The MPD received $46,000 of the seized money, helping them to purchase necessary equipment, including a police vehicle.

“They’re a proven tool – there’s a long history of canines being used in law enforcement, the military and border patrol for drug interdiction,” said Chief of Police Blake Reiboldt. “They’ve been a great asset to our department and a great liaison for our department in dealing with some of the issues that we’re facing regarding drugs and other issues we face on a daily basis.”

Reiboldt also applauded the work of Munger, who is a certified K-9 master trainer in the state of Michigan, and one of the only ones in the Upper Peninsula.

“Marty was an instrumental part in getting this K-9 program up and running with the first dog, Nero, and also where we’re at currently with the success of the program,” he said.