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Top dogs sniff out first place

June 20, 2000|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

Straining at his leash, Maverick, a chocolate Labrador drug detection dog with the Maryland Division of Correction, can't wait to get started.

His assignment: To sniff out a hidden stash of marijuana in a locker room at the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown.

Scanning the lockers, Maverick excitedly jumps up and touches the top edge of a 6- foot-high locker before sitting in front of it. On top of the locker is a packet of marijuana.

The 2 1/2 year-old purebred is one of the Maryland Division of Corrections' premiere drug detection dogs. He was part of a five-team K-9 unit that took first and second places in group competitions at the 2000 National Detector Dog Trials, sponsored by the United States Police K-9 Association in April.

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The Maryland Division of Correction K-9 unit is comprised of 31 trainers, 29 drug detection dogs, 22 patrol dogs and three bloodhounds. All of the animals and their trainers go through weeks of instruction at the Hagerstown prison complex under the direction of Capt. Michael Ocker.

During the national competition in Johnson, Tenn., the Maryland Division of Correction K-9 contingent beat out 82 other teams for overall first and second places and took fourth, fifth, ninth and 15th places in individual heats.

"I'm extremely proud of the individual accomplishments but I'm most proud of how well the team did," said Ocker.

He said "anyone can have one outstanding dog," but the team's win is indicative of the overall quality of the Division of Correction's training program.

This was the Division of Correction's first year in the competition, which consisted of searches for narcotics in various buildings and vehicles, he said. Judges also evaluated how well the trainers and dogs worked together.

"They have the best drug dog program in the country," said Staff Lt. Sue Coppola, K-9 trainer with the Delaware Department of Correction who visited MCI-Hagerstown recently to observe the local prison's dog trainers.

The Maryland Division of Correction K-9 unit was started in 1981 with one handler/dog team at the Hagerstown complex and grew gradually.

In October 1999, the K-9 unit was made an official department under the Division of Correction Headquarters Security Operations Unit providing services to all prison institutions in Maryland.

The drug detection dogs, which can be various breeds, come from animal shelters or are donated or purchased locally. They are used to conduct searches of inmates, their housing areas and work sites. They also conduct drug detection on visitors, staff, mail, vehicles, state property and vehicle check points, Ocker said.

The patrol dogs help staff control inmates, search for escapees and find evidence.

Training for the handler and dog is about 12 weeks for patrol dogs and 10 weeks for drug dogs, said Ocker.

The K-9 correctional officers receive specialized training in one-hand shooting, drug identification, hidden compartments and packaging techniques. They are instructed in animal first aid by local veterinarian Dan Franklin of the Mid-Atlantic Veterinary Hospital in Hagerstown.

K-9 dogs are worked until they are about eight years old and then normally are adopted by their trainers.

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