Narc and Cody are finding out there's truth to the adage "you can’t teach an old dog new tricks."
The two drug-sniffing canines that work for Medford police could face early retirement because they are too good at detecting marijuana, which will become legal July 1.
“It’s kind of sad,” Deputy Chief Brett Johnson said. “Nobody wants to see a dog lose its job.”
The issue arises because drug-sniffing dogs are often used to provide leads — probable cause — that can allow police to search people or property for drugs. If a suspect were carrying marijuana and heroin and a dog trained to smell both indicated the presence of a drug, any arrest could be invalidated, because the dog may have been smelling legal marijuana.
Because it's difficult to retrain a dog on what to search for with its nose, one or both dogs may be phased out. Medford police have requested $24,000 in the upcoming city budget for new dogs trained to smell only heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, and not marijuana. Each dog costs $12,000, an amount that includes extensive training and certification.
Law enforcement agencies across the state are facing similar issues after voters approved Ballot Measure 91 last November, which made pot legal for anyone 21 and older.
Oregon State Police has eight drug-sniffing dogs used to detect drugs in vehicles, buildings, storage facilities, luggage and other locations.
Statewide there are 150 dogs working for various law enforcement agencies, according to the Oregon Police Canine Association. About 60 of the dogs are assigned to drug enforcement.
While some dogs are being phased out, larger police agencies are keeping dogs that can help find large amounts of marijuana, which would still be illegal under the new law.
Some agencies are sending their dogs to work at county jails, where marijuana will remain illegal.
Officer Eric Sorby of the Springfield Police Department said his agency has one narcotics-detection dog that joined the force last September and four patrol dogs.
"When we trained our dog, we didn't train it to alert us to marijuana," he said.
At the time, his department suspected that Ballot Measure 91 would pass. If it didn't pass, Sorby said, it would have been easier to add that ability at a later date. He said there are arguments about whether a dog can be retrained, but to err on the safe side, his dog was trained to detect only methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine.
Even though their days as drug dogs may be numbered, Narc, a Belgium malinois, and Cody, a Lab mix, are still as focused on their jobs as ever. Johnson said it's likely one of the dogs will continue to work, particularly in counterfeit cases in which money can carry the smell of drugs or in cases in which it's believed marijuana has been transported across state lines. Drug dogs typically work for about 10 years.
Narc is trained to sit when he smells a drug, while Cody essentially freezes in one position to alert his handler.
“When you train a dog, they develop synapses in the brain,” Sgt. D.J. Graham said.
Cody, who still looks like a puppy, is 5 years old, while Narc is a little younger. In addition to the two drug-sniffing dogs, Medford police have two patrol dogs that are used to search for people.
The first dog used by Medford police was Oxer, who was proficient in drug sniffing and on patrol and has a plaque in front of City Hall commemorating his service. Oxer served from 1990 to 1999.
Cody’s handler, Officer Levi Friend, said he’d be happy to keep the dog if the agency decides it’s time for his retirement.
The dogs will get a good home, police Chief Tim George promised. They definitely would not be euthanized, he said.
George said the ability to detect marijuana will become a mostly unneeded skill as more residents of Jackson County grow both medical and recreational cannabis in an area that's known for producing high-quality marijuana.
“We are marijuana central,” he said. “Nobody does it better than we do.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.