A nose for narcotics

Lincoln’s K-9, Whisk, gets training to sniff out illegal drugs
By: Cheri March The News Messenger
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Lincoln's furriest police officer is honing his nose for crime. Since last month, the Lincoln Police Department's K-9, Whisk, has been training for a spot on the narcotics force. At graduation, the 3-year-old German shepherd will be able to sniff out marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, in addition to his current patrol duties. His new role is just another service to accommodate Lincoln's expanding population, said his handler, Lincoln Police Officer Nancy Best. We're a growing city and stat-wise, when there are more people, there is more use for a dog, she said. Last week, Whisk and five other K-9s from various departments practiced in an empty house used as a training facility, scouting out drugs in everything from refrigerators to barbecue sets. We hide them in houses, under furniture, in vehicles, basically anywhere you can conceal them, Best said. Trainer John Riboni begins the six-week program with a towel toy marinated in real narcotics. While playing with the toy, he said, dogs become accustomed to the scent. When the toy is hidden, the animals identify it by odor. Eventually, handlers conceal just the drugs, and the dogs will scratch “ and, when fully trained, sit “ when they detect the scent. When they find the odor, they learn the toy will appear, Riboni said. But later, they figure out they have to find the odor to get the toy. Riboni has made a career training police dogs since he retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department 15 years ago. He purchases K-9s such as Whisk based on specific traits. Ideal candidates for narcotics work, for instance, demonstrate a near-obsession with play. You want a dog that likes its toy so much it will search for it for a really long time, he said. It's not enough to have a good nose. You want a dog who will look and look and not give up whether he finds something or not. That's something you can't teach “ it's genetic. Once the right dog is selected, though, training isn't over. The biggest challenge usually isn't the dogs, Riboni said. It's teaching the handlers. Sometimes handlers indirectly use body language they shouldn't use, telling the dogs where the narcotics are without realizing it. But Lincoln's team is an exception, he said. Whisk is probably one of the best in the class, Riboni said. Nancy is doing a real good job, and (Whisk) is just a natural. Whisk joined the department in January 2007 as Lincoln's first K-9 in more than a decade. As the only dog, it was a natural transition to cross-train him (in patrol and narcotics), Best said. As Lincoln grows “ and funds allow “ Best said Lincoln plans to add more K-9s. But for now, the responsibility rests on her partner. The rewarding part is seeing the dog grow as training goes on, Best said. He's like any other officer on the street. He's another partner. Except he goes home with me every day.