Tiny drug dog sniffs out big career
CHARDON, Ohio (AP) -- Though she's only a 6-pound Chihuahua-rat terrier mix who looks like she belongs in Paris Hilton's purse, Midge has the will, skill and nose of a 100-pound German shepherd.
The newest recruit for the Geauga County Sheriff Department's K-9 unit could very well be the nation's smallest drug-sniffing pooch.
"Good girl," Sheriff Dan McClelland says, praising the 7-month-old, tail-wagging puppy, during a recent training exercise.
McClelland began training Midge for drug-detecting duties when she was just 3 months old, after reading about departments being sued by suspects whose cars or homes were damaged by larger dogs.
Like many police departments, Geauga County has had German shepherds and Labrador retrievers for years. In fact, visitors often ask, "Is the big dog out?" -- referring to 125-pound (56-kilogram) Brutus, says Lt. Tom McCaffrey, Brutus' handler.
Still, Brutus' intimidating, deep-pitched bark disappears when Midge -- her name is short for midget -- playfully wrestles with him in the grass outside the old jail. That's where the dogs participate in narcotics training, where Midge watches the bigger dog maneuver through cabinets, heating vents and other spaces in search of marijuana.
Police dogs must pass a test in which they successfully search for drugs in several places to get state certification. Then they can officially become K-9s and conduct legal searches. McClelland hopes Midge will receive her working papers when she is about a year old.
McClelland's idea of using smaller dogs was reinforced when he returned from vacationing in Canada and saw U.S. Customs officials using beagles to sniff luggage.
The sheriff seems to be part of a trend, as others are training smaller dogs for police uses.
Dogs called Belgian Malinois have earned spots on departments in Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina and Ohio after training by Dave Blosser, owner of the private Tri-State Canine Services in Warren, Ohio. The breed can be as small as 40 pounds (18 kilograms), and Blosser compares the dogs favorably to larger breeds.
"Size-wise, endurance-wise they last longer," he says.
There are other advantages to smaller dogs, says Bob Eden, whose Eden Consulting Group trains police dogs and handlers. "Smaller pups can get into smaller and tighter spaces in order to carry out their searches," Eden says.
On the other hand, dogs that are too small may not be able to get around certain obstacles -- and there could be a credibility problem, Eden says.
"A Jack Russell terrier may make an extremely capable narcotics detection dog," he says, "yet some agencies would shy away from using such a breed simply because the dog doesn't have the same respect level from the public as a Lab or shepherd might."
As for a Chihuahua-rat terrier like Midge working as a K-9, well, the president of the North American Police Work Dog Association, H.D. Bennett, says he's never heard of a police dog so small it nearly fits in an outstretched palm.
That's not stopping McClelland, who bought Midge from a co-worker's relative and takes her everywhere with him -- she even has a pair of goggles for rides on the sheriff's motorcycle. On a recent day, she was curled in his lap, sporting a black "sheriff" vest over her brown-spotted white fur.
The sheriff says he knew instantly Midge would be good for his police experiment in Geauga County, whose picturesque rolling farmland and old-fashioned town squares are home to about 90,000 people east of Cleveland.
"She is very calm. She is not yappy. She likes people a lot, really loves kids," he says as he strokes the dog.
Midge has helped boost the department's relationship with the community. The tiny dog was grand marshal for a parade for the Memorial Day holiday in May, wearing an American flag scarf while perched atop a motorcycle.
She has been a hit in the county jail, where McClelland takes her to visit well-behaved inmates. Wearing flip-flops, some of the prisoners giggle when Midge licks their toes. Others cuddle her close as they talk with the sheriff about missing their own dogs at home.
On visits to school classrooms, Midge gets passed among tiny hands. And McClelland offers a lesson:
"I tell the kids, 'Even when you're small, if you take a stand you can make a difference.' "
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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