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Sheriff's Office adds another keen nose

Rob Ruth

The newest member of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is about as friendly a being as you could ever hope to meet, and if there are illegal drugs around, he’s the guy equipped to sniff them out.

“Slim,” an approximately 2˝-year-old neutered male mutt, a rescued stray, has fully graduated K9 team training along with his human handler and teammate, WCSO Deputy Curtis Wheeler. The pair received their team certification on Saturday, April 1, at the Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy in Meridian.

The accomplishment came after more than 80 hours of training donated by Weiser’s Leonard Messer-smith, a 23-year member of the Washington County Sheriff’s Posse who has 10 years of experience in training K9 teams, including WCSO’s established team of Deputy Rocky Sherman and “Tucker,” a toy-loving cowdog. Messersmith also donated Slim, who was adopted by the Messersmith household a year ago after Messersmith’s son found the homeless animal wandering loose. Slim, who received some training from the Messersmiths as a hunting dog, was good at retrieving but a little disconcerted by the sound of gunfire.

A pronounced affection for toys is the foremost qualification a potential law enforcement dog candidate has to meet. The animal’s temperament is another critical factor, of course, but if a pooch can’t be motivated to learn and work for the simple reward of a tossed tennis ball, he’s a washout.

Slim, like Tucker, is quite satisfied with the job’s pay, thank you very much.

Slim is trained to find four different illegal substances: methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. Once commanded to search, he’ll sniff around at a scene until he locates a suspected illegal stash, if there’s any to be found. If he can touch it with his nose, that’s what he’ll do. Then he’ll sit at that location and gaze at Deputy Wheeler, effectively communicating that he has made a find. Wheeler then rewards his teammate with a tennis ball.

Messersmith says training a dog to find particular substances is the easiest part of team training. The more difficult part is helping the human handler to learn what his canine teammate is trying to tell him in those widely varying situations which don’t follow the textbook example. Often, the message amounts to something on the order of: “It’s here, I smell it, but I can’t get to it.” If the substance is too high for the dog to reach, the handler can lift him. In other instances the target item may be wedged in among other items, so the handler should assist by separating the items so the dog can clearly identify the one he was after.

That’s what happened recently at Washington County’s jail. During a search of a reading area, Slim signaled to Wheeler that he had found something within a shelf of books. After Wheeler took the books down and separated them on the floor, Slim picked the offending volume. Although it contained no drugs, it had been recently handled by a newly arrived inmate who was a drug user.

With Wheeler and Slim now certified, the sheriff’s office can greatly expand its drug enforcement coverage out on the county’s roads and on U.S. 95. Sherman and Tucker will work the day shift, and the new team will work nights.

Wheeler says a relatively new law allows teams to sniff the outside of any vehicle without the owner’s permission. If the dog signals there’s an illegal substance pre-sent, that signal furnishes the probable cause needed to legally search the vehicle’s interior.

Wheeler says the WCSO plans to become more aggressive in drug enforcement. Currently, he adds, the Treasure Valley is awash in cheap cocaine, a new concern to go with the area’s already chronic methamphetamine problem.

Sheriff Marvin Williams hailed Slim and Wheeler’s certification, saying he was “excited to have a second team.”

The new team is the third now working in local law enforcement. In addition to the WCSO’s two teams, the
Weiser Police Department has one: “Jake” and Weiser Police Sergeant Val Blevins.   Slim springs for his reward after finding a package of drugs.