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Retraining, replacing drug-sniffing dogs considered after MT marijuana legalization

Uriah Wood and Villi
Villi K-9
Posted at 12:34 PM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-08 14:36:47-04

HELENA — Law enforcement agencies across Montana have used trained drug-sniffing dogs to search for illegal narcotics for years.

Now, though, possession of small amounts of marijuana – one of the drugs they’ve been detecting – is no longer illegal in the state. That means those agencies are having to consider the possibility of retraining – or even replacing – their K-9s.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office currently has one K-9: Villi, a 6-year-old German shepherd. He is trained for apprehending suspects and tracking as well as drug sniffing. When he detects a targeted drug, he will stop and paw at where the odor is coming from.

Sgt. Uriah Wood, LCSO’s K-9 handler who has worked with Villi since November 2016 contacted the company that trained the dog to ask what they could do to react to marijuana legalization.

“He said we have two options: We can turn Villi in and get a new dog at a discounted rate, or we can attempt to do what’s known as abandonment training, and get him to abandon that target odor,” Wood said. “Knowing how trainable and how smart he is, I suggested to our administration – plus as a cost savings – let’s try the abandonment training."

Administrators agreed. Wood and Villi went to Ohio for two weeks in March, where they went through repeated trainings aimed at showing the dog he won’t be rewarded for locating marijuana.

“When we first started, of course, there’s a lot of apprehension, because you’re like, ‘Can we do this?’” Wood said. “It’s a lot of time that went into him beforehand. This is going to make or break him continuing to work for our agency.”

He says the results have been clear. “He went through it; he passed with flying colors,” said Wood. “We’ve been out on the street working; he hasn’t given any indication of marijuana in any of our trainings. It’s an interesting smell to him, but there’s no alert behavior.”

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Not every agency is taking the same approach.

Leaders with the Montana Highway Patrol say they don’t plan to retrain any of their nine drug-detecting dogs. Instead, they will replace each one as they come to the end of their law enforcement career – typically about seven years.

“At this time, we’re strategically going to have some of those dogs, as the replacements come in, not be trained on marijuana,” said Sgt. Jay Nelson.

However, MHP does plan to keep some dogs who are trained for marijuana, so that they can detect large amounts, which are still prohibited.

“Our K-9’s are not used on the person that doesn’t use their turn signal and gets stopped,” Nelson said. “It isn’t just a random thought to utilize a K-9 sniff. These are cases that there are several indicators that this person is transporting a large quantity of illegal drugs.”

During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers appropriated $300,000 to provide grants for local and state law enforcement agencies to purchase or train drug-sniffing dogs to prepare for the changing marijuana laws.

Each dog is different, and Wood acknowledged retraining may not always be the best option. However, he believes they made the right decision with Villi.

“It’s great to be able to do it with him – a partner – and be able to make some impact on the drugs and the crime here,” he said.

Wood said they spent about $5,000 to $6,000 on retraining Villi. He said it would have been about $15,000 for a new dog.