By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS
IT IS now six years since the founding of the charity Dogs against Drugs and five since Shetland’s first drugs dog, Buzz, started working.
Black Labrador Buzz was later joined by beige-coloured Labrador Nico, now three years old, who joined the team at the age of one year and then had a year’s training.
Together with handler Michael Coutts the pedigree dogs form a team in the front line of Shetland’s battle against drugs, a job for which both Mr Coutts and the dogs have to be licensed.
Their work is to “find drugs, deter drugs and to educate”, and to this end Mr Coutts has spoken to over 1,000 school pupils this year alone. Their core duty is to recover illicit drugs as directed by the police – Mr Coutts is a special constable working for the crime management unit – and the dogs have recently been involved in finding stashes that have led to high-profile convictions.
The dogs are trained to sniff out all illegal drugs, and if new illicit narcotics come onto the market they can be trained to find them too.
Even when not on police-related work the dogs are in full- time training. “It’s a game of hide and seek for them,” Mr Coutts said.
There are various points of entry for drugs to get into Shetland – through the post, through goods handled by freight companies, at NorthLink ferry terminal and at the airports – and the dogs are regularly taken to these places to hone their skills, finding packages of hidden drugs in unlikely places. The dogs also train outside as drugs can be hidden anywhere – on the ground, under stones or on a person.
A demonstration in the post office sorting office showed both Buzz and Nico finding a small amount of heroin within seconds. The slim package was secreted among letters in an area that handles three tonnes of mail, equating to 10,000 items a day, ranged in boxes in more than 20 containers.
Nico indicated the package by standing directly in front of it and wagging his tail excitedly, and Buzz, on the same test, banged the container with his nose and foot. Both were rewarded by having a ball thrown for them.
Watching the demonstration was acting detective sergeant Iain Souter, who explained that following a find, the police can make a “controlled delivery” and if necessary force entry to a property under powers granted by the court.
In spite of the dogs’ prowess, Mr Coutts said they are just one “tool” in their work, which relies heavily on intelligence from the public. Any bit of information, however small, is valuable.
Dogs against Drugs is a popular charity with a hardworking committee. The charity pays Mr Coutts’ wages and for his van, as well as holding events to raise money and raise awareness of the work of the drugs dogs.