PEQUOT LAKES, Minn. — A sharp, wet nose swiftly sniffs its way along rows of gym lockers, punctuated by the echoing of an energetic tail thumping against the metal.
“Check it. Show me? Good boy!”
Sara Fox, a detection canine handler, tosses a toy to her 2-year-old yellow Lab partner, Buddha, who just finished inspecting the locker room for contraband.
Fox and Buddha work for the northern Minnesota franchise of Interquest Detection Canines, a company that sends trained dogs to search for unapproved and dangerous substances in schools, businesses and other organizations.
Pequot Lakes High School has hired Interquest for more than a decade to hold students accountable and keep the school safe.
“It provides a sense of security,” said high school Principal Aaron Nelson, escorting the search team around the premises. “If something’s going down, the school is on top of it.”
Fox said Buddha and the other detection canines are trained to find the scent of gunpowder and black powder, medications that are commonly abused, alcoholic beverages and illegal drugs.
“We do what we call ‘negative reinforcement training’ to make sure he doesn’t react to food or cologne or perfume,” said Fox. “And he’s never rewarded for any of those things. He’s only rewarded for the odors that we specify. He wouldn’t associate smelling a ball and getting his toy.”
When Buddha locates potential contraband, he signals with a “passive alert,” and sits directly next to the source while making eye contact with his handler.
“The head tilt is his signature,” said Fox, laughing and patting an excited Buddha after he located a small container scented with marijuana that she placed in an empty locker minutes before.
Fox said she periodically plants scents for Buddha to find throughout the day so he feels a sense of accomplishment. He doesn’t recognize this task as work, but sees it as a game. Intentionally hiding contraband allows him to win and keeps him invested in the search.
“It’s kind of like his paycheck,” said Fox. “If you were a teacher getting paid once a month and you didn’t get your paycheck at the end of that month, you probably wouldn’t want to do your job for too long. This is the same thing. He gets his toy for finding something and that’s his paycheck.”
The Interquest teams know to search not only personal spaces, such as cars and lockers, but also places with heavy traffic flow, like bathrooms or classrooms. More often than not, contraband is found in these common spaces.
“We usually find things in places where individuals can’t be identified,” said Nelson, unscrewing a utility panel in a bathroom stall for Fox and Buddha to inspect. “It’s becoming less common to find things in lockers because I can say, ‘Well, that’s so-and-so’s locker,’ but if I leave it in a bathroom, classroom or common space, people have been in and out all day.”
Fox and Nelson agreed that contraband is harder to find now than it used to be. Students have learned to be creative with their hiding places, using options that don’t even look accessible at first glance. Toilet paper dispensers and breaks in countertops are popular spots, said Fox.
Students are also keeping materials on their person. They cannot be searched without reasonable suspicion, and dogs like Buddha can’t trigger on a student because it is considered an illegal search.
Another reason that contraband is becoming harder to find, Nelson said, is that the substances themselves are changing.
“To be honest with you, we’re not finding a lot of stuff because things are synthetic now,” he said. “Synthetic drugs don’t trip the same odors and are harder to detect.”
Vaping has also far surpassed the use of tobacco products and other drugs among Pequot Lakes students, Nelson said. As of now, most detection canines are not trained to locate electronic cigarettes and other vaping paraphernalia.
Fox said Interquest is a different take on safety than traditional law enforcement practices. Detection canines are not competing with local police departments, but act more as an accessory. Her job as a handler is to guide her dog and inform school authorities of any found substance, but her role ends there. The school then takes over to determine consequences.
While detection dogs are not considered K-9 units, they still go through plenty of training. Buddha began tests at just 4 weeks old to determine whether he had an aptitude for detection. Four months later, he was approved for official training, and as a 9-month-old puppy Buddha was already out working in the field.
“Basically, the dogs that do this job are kind of like the Marine Corps of the dog world,” said Fox. “Out of 100 dogs that we test, only one or two dogs make it.”
Buddha and Fox are more like coworkers than a pet and an owner, even though Buddha lives with Fox. He gets plenty of playtime and stimulation while on the job, which tires him out by the evening. Of course, said Fox, when they get time off in the summer, they split time between training and “just being a dog.”
“You definitely have to have one that absolutely loves to do this,” said Fox. “You can’t force them to do it, because if you hate going to work every day, you won’t stay.”