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Schools' police dog has a sharp nose for hidden drugs

ST. PETERSBURG

She saw him at a shelter and thought maybe the black Labrador retriever had potential. Nose potential.

Pinellas County Schools Police K-9 Investigator Barbara Baugher was looking for a great sleuth. Her longtime partner, a yellow Lab named Neo, was retiring after six years. And her superiors at the school district had said there might not be enough money to buy a new police dog, which can cost as much as $10,000.

The folks at the Humane Society of North Pinellas knew that Baugher was looking for a special dog, so when the attentive black Lab arrived, they did not put him on display right away. His name was T-Rex, and he was about 3 years old. His owners couldn't afford him.

More than a year later, a recycled school police badge hangs from T-Rex's neck (they don't give dogs new ones). The dog turned out to be just what Baugher was looking for: energetic, endlessly inquisitive and passive with humans.

"He has extreme energy," Baugher, a school officer for 20 years, said as T-Rex yawned.

Her former partner, Neo, 11 years old, stays home now, but students and teachers remember him still.

"Where's Neo?" a curious student at Lealman Intermediate School asked Baugher as she made her rounds the other day.

The school district's sole canine unit make an unlikely pair: the slight officer with strawberry blond hair and baby blue eyeliner, and the black Lab with chocolate brown eyes and a dorky stride.

Legally speaking, T-Rex can't search people, but he can inspect property. From lockers to book bags to school buses, it's all game for his nose. The partners float around the district's schools, often at random. T-Rex was trained to detect marijuana, hashish, cocaine and crack cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. He has yet to make his first bust, though his predecessor made plenty, Baugher said. The dog's presence is also meant to be a deterrent.

"When he hits the odor of drugs, he will literally drag her to it," said Frank Campbell, St. Petersburg Police Department's canine trainer, who was Baugher and T-Rex's instructor. "He was really one of the best dogs in the class."

When T-Rex does find contraband, he sits by it silently. He is rewarded with a rolled up hand towel.

Police dogs come in two varieties. Single purpose or "detector" dogs hunt narcotics, bombs or cadavers. Any dog, even toy breeds, can be trained to do this, said Russ Hess, executive director of the Unites State Police Canine Association. Dual purpose police dogs can smell and can also chase, confront and guard a suspect and protect their partner.

It is not uncommon for shelter dogs to become detector dogs, though in Pinellas County it does not happen often. It's difficult to pull off, because a police dog must be in top physical and psychological health, and have boundless energy and curiosity. The dogs cannot be squeamish about going anywhere the scent goes. They must also not show any aggression, even when prodded.

Finding a new partner was not easy. For a year, Baugher tested out half a dozen animals, including a Belgian malinois, a border collie and a springer spaniel. T-Rex completed the St. Petersburg Police Department's school in November.

T-Rex came to the shelter with no papers, only a name. Baugher decided not to rename him.

"I want whoever had this dog to know that he's got a great life now," she said.

Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Schools' police dog has a sharp nose for hidden drugs 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 3:30am]

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