Meet the Oregon police dogs who have a big drug problem
There’s little doubt that Travis Dahl adores his dog Dora, and absolutely none that she adores him. But their partnership is on borrowed time. Soon, Dora will leave for a new home and a new job. “It’ll be a bittersweet moment when she leaves, that’s for sure,” he says ruefully.
Dora, you see, has a drug problem. When it comes to marijuana, she can’t help herself. She’ll find it in sealed bags in the trunks of cars, hidden under floorboards, inside walls, drawers or pockets. And when she finds it, she won’t move until Dahl retrieves it and rewards her.
She’s just as zealous in searching for meth, coke and heroin. But while it’s still illegal to possess or traffic in those substances, from 1 July, weed will be 100% legal for adults in the state of Oregon to buy, to have and to smoke in private places. Instantly, Dora’s ability to sniff it out will become a liability to her handler and his department.
In the three years she’s worked with officer Dahl in the police department of little Roseburg, just off the I-5 in southern Oregon, Dora has been involved in about 300 drug cases. (If that seems like a lot for a town of 25,000, Dahl agrees, conceding that “Douglas County has a reputation”, particularly as a centre for growing marijuana.)
Dora is a belgian malinois, or belgian shepherd. She resembles a german shepherd but a little less heavy-set, and a lot more bouncy. “They’re kinda high-strung and playful, which is why they’re good at this.” Indeed, she couldn’t be further from your mental image of a vicious police dog. Her demeanour is that of a loving (albeit well-trained) family pet – affectionate to all, and especially loving to her owner.
Malinois have a keen sense of smell, but so do other breeds. Her temperament is the key. Dora lives to play tug or fetch, and every time she finds coke, meth or weed she gets rewarded with a moment of play. For her, sniffing out drugs, and sending people to prison, is nothing but a never-ending game.
It’s not the only breed used for this work – police have successfully used labradors, German shepherds, poodles and even chihuahuas. But the specialist breeder/trainers that Roseburg deals with are in Holland, and they do malinois. (Dahl has to give her the basic commands in Dutch.)
The dogs are a five-figure investment, and Roseburg’s small PD in only able to afford them thanks to an “anonymous benefactor”. Once they are in the US they are perfected by specialist trainers who, as is often the case, are at least half-focused on training the handlers. (“Dora never makes mistakes,” says Dahl “only I do.”)
Dora’s abilities generally give the police probable cause to search a car, a house or a person. But they can’t take it for granted: time and again, Dahl has had to explain to courts and juries what her abilities are, why they are reliable, how she was trained, and how he can be sure that she hasn’t smelled the tobacco, snacks or ammo that drugs may have been stored with.
Because harder drugs are so often stored with weed, in Oregon there will be circumstances where a legal drug is stored with an illegal one. If it can be argued that Dora smelled the legal drug, and not the illegal one, probable cause goes out the window. As Dahl puts it, “I couldn’t stand up in court and swear she hadn’t smelled the marijuana.”
It’s too difficult and dicey now to exclude marijuana from her repertoire. At the end of June, she’ll retire from the force, and move on to the city’s jail, to sniff out contraband in one of the few buildings in Oregon where marijuana will still be absolutely forbidden.
Dahl has to give her to her new handler. He’s planning to give her some space. “I’ll stay away from her for a while. It would be too hard for her, and for me.” He’ll get a new “three drug” dog who will never have been trained to smell out pot.
We can respect him, and his bond with his animals, and still wonder, at the beginning of the end of the war on drugs, whether all this has been worth it.All over Oregon, police forces are either retiring their drug dogs, or playing wait-and-see, and betting for now that prosecutors will be able to carry the day until their dogs serve out their term. Meanwhile, in Roseburg’s prison, Dora may well find herself interacting with people who she helped to send there.
For those of us who are dog-lovers, but who also feel dismay at all the time, energy and money that’s gone into punitive approaches to drug use, that may seem a little sad. A dog’s love, playfulness and eagerness to please in doing the job it was trained for mean that like so many inmates, it has to be wrenched away from its loved ones and spend its days behind prison walls.
How long do we want to go on making love a part of the apparatus of the war on drugs?