On a chilly December morning at the Dallas Police Department auto pound, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Jan demonstrates her crime-fighting nose. Three suitcases are lined up against a blue shipping container, and Jan is sniffing around them. After a few passes, Jan stops at the middle suitcase and starts scratching. She has found the drugs.

Jan is one of the dogs that have been donated by the organization Safer Dallas Better Dallas to DPD’s narcotics division, one of the few departments in the country that uses rescue dogs for its operation. The department’s trusted trainer is Sharon Perry from Southern Star Ranch in Florence, Texas. Jan has Perry to thank for her life.

Three years ago, Perry heard about Jan, who was sitting at a shelter in North Texas. Perry called the shelter the day Jan was scheduled to be euthanized and asked an attendant to throw a ball and observe Jan’s reaction. Jan went crazy for the ball, and Perry asked the shelter to hold off on the euthanasia.

dog_02 Weez and Andy are the other two dogs in DPD's narcotics division. Both were rescued from shelters. photography by Sylvia Elzafon


It costs $6,000 to send the dogs through the three-month training program with Perry. Though the dogs are taught many things, the most important is how to sniff out drugs. This training comes through the use of bright red chew toys called Kongs. The Kongs are loaded with cotton balls that have been infused with the odor of narcotics. The handlers play catch with the dogs until they’re trained on the scent. When the team is called out to do a drug search, the handler takes the dog to where the drugs are suspected. The handler pretends to throw the Kong, tricking the dog into thinking it’s somewhere in the area, and the search is on. When a dog alerts to an area where it suspects the Kong is, the handler rewards the dog with playtime.

Jan and her fellow dogs’ handlers, who can’t be identified because of their undercover work, are all big, barrel-chested men, the type you wouldn’t want to see at a Greyhound station if you were trying to smuggle crank. But when the men talk about their dogs, they sound just like any other dog lover. Weez’s handler raises his voice a few octaves when rewarding his dog for finding drugs. Jan’s handler puts his favorite college team’s logo on her vest. And Andy’s handler, who has had his dog for only nine months, is eager to talk about Andy’s quirks. With rescue dogs, he points out, there are a lot of unknowns.

The dogs go home with the handlers, but the men emphasize that the dogs aren’t pets; they’re tools.

Jan has proven to be a very useful tool in her time with the department. The first week on the job, she found two big pallets of marijuana. Once, she uncovered 500 pounds of marijuana encased in aloe vera lotion. Recently, she helped find one of the biggest meth labs in the southern United States.

Not bad for a dog who was hours away from euthanasia.