October 28, 2010 in Washington Voices

Drug dog, new to Liberty Lake police, making a difference

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

J.J., the new drug dog at Liberty Lake Police Department, is rewarded by handler Mark Van Hyning after finding a hidden target in an office at the police department. The dog’s reward for finding hidden drugs is a ball attached to a cord, which he usually destroys.
(Full-size photo)

Calling J.J. energetic does not do the word justice.

The Liberty Lake Police Department’s new drug dog is constantly in motion, whether he’s chewing on a tennis ball, greeting people or sniffing for drugs. The only time he is still is when he locates hidden drugs, points his nose at them and then abruptly sits down, gazing expectantly at handler Officer Mark Van Hyning and waiting for his tennis ball and a nice game of tug-of-war.

J.J. is a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever mix. “He’s pretty unique looking,” said Van Hyning. “He’s cute.”

The dog previously worked for the Spokane Valley Police Department after he was rescued from a local shelter. His handler was retiring and he needed a new home and a new handler. Van Hyning had always wanted to become a K9 officer. “It’s been one of my ultimate goals throughout my career,” he said.

He was spurred to move forward with his goal when the search-and-seizure laws changed last year. Officers used to be able to search a vehicle after any arrest; now they are not allowed to search unless they have probable cause (such as smelling marijuana) or receive permission. Having a drug dog alert on a car gives officers probable cause to do a search, Van Hyning said.

Liberty Lake is bisected by Interstate 90 and is located close to a state border, which brings a lot of drugs through town. About 90 percent of drug arrests in the small city are people just passing through town, Van Hyning said. “I’m very confident this is going to be a good move for the city,” he said. “There are a lot of drugs coming through here.”

J.J. already has three “collars” under his collar. Over the weekend he found marijuana in two cars and on a motorcycle, but none of the arrests were in Liberty Lake. Van Hyning and J.J. were asked to assist Washington State Patrol with two of the calls and the other was to help the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. It seems that everyone knows about the new drug dog in town. “The word got out,” said Van Hyning.

Liberty Lake did not have to pay to add a K9 to the nine-person police department. The department got a $3,000 grant from State Farm Insurance to pay for training, equipment and a year’s worth of dog food. Medicine Man Pharmacy and Dr. Susan Ashley each donated $750. Dr. Julie Clark at Harvard Gentle Care Animal Services has volunteered to care for J.J. Northwest Fence donated a kennel. The Priest River Police Department in Idaho donated barriers for the back seat of Van Hyning’s patrol car and installed them so that Van Hyning can still transport a prisoner.

“People just came together,” Van Hyning said of the community response. “It was cool to see.”

Each K9 and its handler have to be certified as a team, so J.J. had to go through training again with Van Hyning even though he was already working as a drug dog. Van Hyning said he has been a drug recognition expert for four years and the training he went through with J.J. was tougher than that. “You almost have to be a dog whisperer,” he said. Van Hyning had to learn to read J.J.’s signals during weeks of training that often topped 10 hours a day. Now J.J. lives with Van Hyning and his family.

J.J. is motivated to work for a tennis ball attached to a slim rope that Van Hyning keeps in his pocket. When he finds drugs he gets to play with the ball and chew on it. “They have to have that tennis ball drive, because that’s the only way they’ll search,” Van Hyning said. “If he sees a tennis ball, he’ll dive off a building (to get it).”

On a recent day Van Hyning hid a small amount of drug in a plastic bag in a room in the police station. J.J. ran across the room, sniffing eagerly. He’s trained to locate marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin and drug paraphernalia. He found the bag and flung it across the room with a quick flick of his head as if to say “See, I found it.” Then he sat and waited for the chance to play tug-of-war with Van Hyning. The tennis ball was soon drenched in dog slobber. “He is slobbery, isn’t he?” said Van Hyning. “My uniform always looks fabulous.”

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