Jetta loves her job.
The 5-year-old black Labrador retriever gets excited whenever she’s called on to search for illegal drugs, alcohol, weapons or medications, says handler Dennis Jones, owner of Interquest Detection Canines of Montana.
“She turned out to be an amazing little dog,” Jones said. “She wants to work.”
Jetta made her first unannounced visit to Bozeman High School last month to search classrooms and lockers.
Principal Ken Gibson said it went “great.”
“We have a lot of people complaining that drugs are everywhere in our building,” Gibson said. In the past, law enforcement dogs have searched the school occasionally. But they’re trained to sniff one locker at time, he said, not to go through a whole line of lockers.
Jetta “alerted” several times at Bozeman High, Gibson said, but “every one was explainable.” For example, the dog found what turned out to be an Excedrin in a purse.
Either Bozeman High students are being careful to avoid bringing illegal things to school, “or school is not as bad as what they think,” Gibson said.
More searches are planned – next at Bozeman’s two middle schools, Jones said. He didn’t want to reveal the date.
All three Bozeman schools held assemblies in December to introduce Jetta and her fellow search dogs to students, to demonstrate the dogs’ abilities and friendliness, and to warn students there will be unannounced searches.
Asked if anyone complained that search dogs smacked of a police state, Gibson said he heard from one upset parent worried about illegal searches. Gibson explained that the dogs only search school-owned property – classrooms, lockers, hallways and parking lots – and don’t sniff students, which would require a specific “reasonable suspicion.”
“I heard more kids say they’re glad they’re here, or ‘cool,’” Gibson said.
Jones, former vice principal at Polson High, got the Interquest Canines franchise for Montana 11 years ago. He and his dogs travel hundreds of miles each week, from Montana to the Dakotas and Wyoming, from schools to oil rigs and prerelease centers.
Rather than using German shepherds that are trained as police narcotics dogs or attack dogs that bite, Jones said Interquest uses people-friendly hunting dogs, like Labs and golden retrievers. They don’t come in like a SWAT team or treat all students like felons, he said.
Interquest dogs are trained to alert to illegal narcotics (meth, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy and LSD); alcohol (beer, wine, whiskey, even hard cider); gunpowder (guns, ammunition, explosives, fireworks, spent bullets); and medications (over-the-counter and prescription, including OxyContin).
“It’s a game of hide and seek for the dogs,” Jones said.
His dogs recently found in a central Montana middle school what looked like a large ballpoint pen that could shoot a .22-caliber bullet. The dogs can find an unopened can of beer in a locker, or a jacket with the lingering smell of marijuana smoke.
The cost to schools is $650 for a full day.
Jetta, born in Michigan, was so hyperactive and prone to biting that her owners were going to euthanize her. A new owner got her at 5 months old, but four months later put her up for sale on Craigslist. An Interquest trainer in Michigan took Jetta before she could be put to sleep, and that changed her life.
“This is one smart little dog,” Jones said. “She’s extremely fast.” As soon as he puts on Jetta’s harness, the cue that a search is about to start, “she gets turbo charged.”
“We want kids to feel comfortable with the dogs, but uncomfortable bringing stuff to campus,” Jones said. “We think it helps create a more safe environment for students.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.