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Making the job fun

April 09, 2007|by JULIE E. GREENE

Editor's note: This is the second story in an occasional series as The Herald-Mail follows six black Labrador puppies from birth through drug-detection training to going on the job at Maryland's state prisons.




Being a puppy hasn't been all play for six black Labrador puppies being trained to become drug-detection dogs for state prisons.

But that's what Capt. Peter Anderson, K-9 commander for the Maryland Division of Correction, wants them to think - that searching for and finding drugs is fun.

So training sessions are short, typically about 20 minutes long. Anderson doesn't want the 4-month-old pups getting bored with exercises such as sniffing out rolled towels, which smell like marijuana, heroin or cocaine, hidden in tall grass.

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Most of the puppies are faring well in training, though one female, Cayman, is lagging a little behind.

"To expect all the dogs to be superstars is far-fetched, but we're not giving up on her either," Anderson said. Whereas the other puppies have a natural desire to hunt scents, Cayman's will be a trained desire, he said.

To encourage Cayman, who doesn't always actively pursue the towel, Anderson and Cayman's handler Sgt. Eric Kretzer sometimes involve another puppy.

The competition for the towel raises Cayman's interest.

Ruger is the largest puppy at about 40 pounds. He is the furthest along in his training. He was the first of the puppies to try a training exercise in which marijuana is hidden inside one of a series of boxes. He is expected to eventually patrol two state prisons in the Cumberland, Md., area.

His handler, Sgt. Craig Blank, had Ruger stop at each box to see if he picked up a drug scent. Once a dog picks up the scent, it is told to sit and then is given a reward. This exercise teaches them to sit whenever they find a drug scent, drawing their handlers' attention to their findings.

When puppies complete a task successfully they are rewarded by their handlers with high-pitched praise similar to baby talk. The dogs respond to voice inflection, Anderson said - high-pitched pleasantries for positive re-enforcement and a harsh tone to correct a dog.

Before the handlers work with the puppies they work with 5-gallon buckets to learn leash control and timing.

"You don't feel so foolish talking to a dog in high-pitch tones after you've talked to a bucket for a few days," Anderson said.

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