Photo: Jerry Baker, Contributor / Houston Chronicle
By nature, dogs tend to be experts at searching out food and treats. Yet, there are some canines who use their snouts to uncover prohibited items such as illegal drugs, firearms and alcohol: these are dogs with jobs.
Theyâ€™re trained by Interquest Canine Detection, which is a Tomball-based company that has been sniffing out contraband in schools, corporate offices, oil refineries, chemical plants and manufacturing facilities for 30 years.
Debbie Farmer started the company with Mike Ferdinand, who is the vice president.
â€śLaw enforcement canines have well-defined rolesâ€¦in school environments they are limited to finding illicit drugs. Our program is one additional tool school administrators can use to reduce the things they donâ€™t want on campus,â€ť Ferdinand said.
Therefore, the dogs are trained to find not only key illicit drugs, but also ethanol-based alcohol and gunpowder. Ferdinand said that the dogs can also discover commonly abused medications â€” of which they found about 3,400 instances of last year nationwide.
â€śOur intent is not to go out there and create problems for individual kids, but to send a clear message that the school has the capability to find these contraband items and provide a safe learning environment,â€ť Ferdinand said.
While the company operates in more than 20 states across the nation, they have six handler and dog teams who work together in northwest Houston school districts such as Tomball, Cypress-Fairbanks and Klein.
They also service area private schools like Concordia Lutheran High School, Cypress Christian Academy and Northland Christian School.
Matthew Schleicher is the assistant principal at Concordia Lutheran, which serves almost 600 high school students. He has worked with Interquest to schedule canine visits for at least 10 years.
While Concordia Lutheran has had a school resource officer for a few years, Schleicher said that the canines help to maintain a drug and alcohol-free school environment.
Interquest conducts searches at the campus four times each school year.
â€śThe dogs have helped us locate some problematic items over the years. We want to help our students resist temptation by holding them accountable through proactive, regular narcotics canine visits,â€ť Schleicher said.
When an Interquest handler and dog team enters a school, they check lockers, cabinets, restrooms and parking lots. They also check classrooms and student backpacks.
The dogs are conditioned to canvass an area from left to right so that they donâ€™t miss anything.
Tracy Patton is the corporate trainer who teaches the dogs these techniques.
She starts by letting the dog work independently to find hidden scented towels, then does drills with them by hiding scents in lockers or backpacks.
Finally, if they need it, the dog goes through obedience training.
â€śOnce the dogs are finished training, we get them some experience before theyâ€™re placed with a permanent handler. When we go into the schools, weâ€™re under the discretion of the campus. They tell us what theyâ€™d like us to check that day,â€ť Patton said.
In the summer, Patton also does maintenance training with the older dogs to make sure they stay sharp.
Farmer, Interquest co-founder, explained that the handler and dog truly work as a team.
â€śAs handlers, we learn to read our dogs and give them the best opportunity catch the odor. We interpret what they do,â€ť Farmer said.
For a half-day of Interquest service, it costs approximately $270.