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Minnesota drug detection dog is best in the country


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[b]Hennepin County drug detection dog is best in the country[/b]

David Chanen, Star Tribune
Published May 14, 2003 NARC14

It was almost unprofessional the way deputy Dana Nelson's partner stared into his eyes. The affection was returned with a rub on the belly.

This is not the typical working relationship at the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office -- unless your fellow deputy has big, floppy ears and sniffs out drugs like nobody's business.

Boston, a 7-year-old American water spaniel who was ready to be put to death at the pound as a pup, was crowned top dog at the U.S. Police Canine Association's annual national detector dog trials last week in Lakeville.

The expertise of Boston and a yellow lab named Ally, who also won awards at the competition, was no great surprise to sheriff's officials. Last year they scouted out 1,645 pounds of marijuana, 41 pounds of cocaine, 20 pounds of methamphetamine and $182,000 in cash. All this work for the price of food, a few vet bills, tennis balls and chew toys.

What ultimately creates success is the dedication of the dog's handlers. Nelson, 40, and Rick Palaia, 32, went through a two-week training session after Boston and Ally trained nearly three months with Jan Ballard, a former police officer in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. Ballard scouts humane societies for dogs with the right stuff to work in law enforcement.

"They have to be absolutely crazy when I show them a toy," she said. "I then take the dogs outside, hide the toy and see how persistent they are to find it."

Nelson got Boston, who holds badge number 9008, about five years ago. He wanted a dog as a pet, but said he didn't feel right leaving one home alone while he worked long hours as a deputy. Boston and Ally come to work everyday, which is why everybody in the office seems to have doggie treats on their desk.

Ally has been sniffing out drugs for nearly three years. Palaia said he learned how to move around a room with the dog, reading breathing patterns and the sounds Ally makes during the search. During her first year, she found more than $1 million worth of drugs.

"You are impressed with the big finds, but Ally has found a single marijuana seed under a bed," Palaia said.

It's hard to picture such mellow dogs combing cars and houses, but their energy level kicks into hyper mode when commanded to search for drugs. When a stash is found, the dogs simply sit down facing the spot.

As fearless as Ally might be, Palaia said they had to work through her fear of pillows. She had been beaten by her previous owner and is a little skittish around people.

Rarely a week goes by that the dogs aren't working on a case, which includes helping other agencies. On two occasions, Ally found more than 17 pounds of methamphetamine stored in car bumpers.

Not to be outdone, Boston found 7 kilos of cocaine, which when sold in smaller units could have a street value of $1.4 million, Nelson said. Boston also was checking luggage at an Amtrak station once and locked on to a suitcase belonging to a man they were looking for, he said.

The suitcase had $345,000 in cash, but Boston was drawn to it because the money had the scent of marijuana, Nelson said. The dogs aren't trained to pick up the smell of money.

At last week's trials in Lakeville, 71 dogs competed by searching five cars and three rooms full of junk. Boston placed first overall, and Ally won second place for the inside search. Together, they placed second for the best department team.

When the dogs retire, Nelson and Palaia will keep them; they joke that they should get retirement benefits for their partners. They probably wouldn't take on another dog because "it would almost be like cheating on them."

"The hardest part would be not having the dog at work," Nelson said.

Their bond with the animals doesn't stop when work ends. Ally once had an allergic reaction to a toy, and her face swelled.

"I had my red lights on the whole way to the vet," Palaia said.



David Chanen is at [email][email protected][/email].

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