Pubdate: Fri, 30 Oct 2015
Source: Alaska Highway News (CN BC)
Copyright: 2015 Glacier Interactive Media
Author: Jonny Wakefield


Inside the Life of an Oil Patch Sniffer Dog

When Commander shows up to a worksite in Northeast B.C., some line up 
to pet him. Others start scanning the job ads.

Commander, a high-energy, two-year-old German Shepherd, enjoys 
treats, going for walks-and sniffing for drugs. He's one of a handful 
of detection dogs searching vehicles, worker camps and drilling sites 
in the B.C. oil patch.

"He's focused, he isn't intimidated by lots of people and activity," 
said Mike Friesen, his handler. "I don't allow (people) to pet him 
while he's working. But when he's done and we're standing around 
chatting? Sure, they can pet him."

The presence of sniffer dogs in the oil patch is relatively new, and 
not without controversy. But handlers say work sites are safer because of them.

The use of detection dogs to weed out contraband in the oil patch 
came into vogue around 2008, according to handler Grant McCulloch.

"The heads of security of a lot of oil companies will meet once a 
month, and if one guy has a program-'what are you doing in your camp 
for narcotics detection?' 'Well we use dogs.' 'Oh, who are you using?'

"It's just word of mouth," McCulloch said.

When McCulloch retired after 28 years with the RCMP-including 22 in 
the police dog service-his phone started ringing.

"Different oil companies were starting up drug detection programs, 
canine narcotic detection programs," he said. "It was just crazy busy 
for five years until everything started to slow down in April."

Those five years included a lengthy stint working for the drilling 
company Nexen in Fort Nelson.

Unlike other jobs, Nexen kept McCulloch and Alex Mann, another former 
RCMP member, on site for lengthy periods of time.

"After awhile, the guys got to know you, they knew you were fair, 
they knew you weren't on a witch hunt," Mann said. "When we went in 
with the dog, it was quick and clean. It's five or six seconds that 
the dog is in the room. The dog goes in, goes 'nothing here, Dad,' 
and that was it. We're not going through drawers or emptying bags, 
going through your personal stuff.

"We're not there to get anyone fired, we're there on the safety side 
of things," he said.

At those Nexen sites, "we just did not have a drug problem," McCulloch said.

Sites where dogs weren't present were a different story.

"Ninety-five per cent of what we do is deterrence, the other five per 
cent is enforcement-finding some dope and removing that guy from 
site," McCulloch said. "You can't underestimate the deterrence factor."

While many handlers are former officers, Friesen went into drug 
detection as a side business.

Friesen is owner of MC Rehabilitation and Wellness, which offers drug 
and alcohol testing, as well as other workplace health and safety 
services. He's now the only Fort St. John-based handler of detection dogs.

He learned the trade at Pacific Coast K9, a kennel in Washington 
State. From there, the Justice Institute of B.C. requires annual 
certification tests, where a handler puts his or her dog through the paces.

At the kennel, Friesen was paired with Commander. He trained with 
eight dogs, including labs, retrievers, shepherds and spaniels, all 
of which are considered good candidates for detection work. Friesen 
grew up with shepherds, and decided Commander was the best fit.

There's debate in the industry over the use of "floppy-eared" dogs 
versus "pointy-eared" dogs like shepherds, which some maintain are 

While he worked with shepherds in the RCMP, McCulloch now uses two 
floppy-eared dogs, Jett and Sarge.

Mann also used a retired RCMP shepherd, but now opts for floppy ears, 
which seem to put some people at ease.

Friesen has heard the arguments before, but doesn't buy them, saying 
it comes down to temperament and training.

"(Commander) has pointy ears, he's very alert, but if you let him 
sniff you, he'll lick your face off," he said.

Regardless of temperament, some are wary of the increased use of 
sniffer dogs. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has taken on cases 
related to sniffer dogs in schools and airports, as well as a mass 
termination at a "dry" worker camp where employees were found with booze.

As an officer, McCulloch regularly gave evidence in court cases, and 
said some courtroom experience comes in handy in his current job.

"Oil companies and lawyers love that because liability is always an 
issue when you're conducting searches," he said. "You're not doing it 
under the federal statutes-no one gets arrested or anything like 
that-but they're violating company policy by bringing narcotics into camp."

Most searches are conducted on day one, when a worker gets off a 
plane or arrives in camp. Employees found with contraband are usually 
put right back on the bus and sent home. However, some companies run 
periodic searches of rooms, vehicles and worksites.

Those searches can take hours, and in the summer, Friesen will put a 
vest loaded with ice packs on Commander to keep him cool.

"Eventually a dog will burn out," he said. "When they're sniffing, 
they're hyperventilating. If you were to stand in one spot for 20 
minutes and hyperventilate, you would just pass out."

When a dog smells something, its body language changes, followed by a 
"sit confirmation" near the source.

"Then we... call the guy and his supervisor and say 'you know what, 
there may be something in your room here, I think you need to come 
back and we'll have a look,'" McCulloch said.

The relationship between dog and handler is complex-a combination of 
pet and coworker. Commander lives at home with Friesen, who has two 
young girls. That meant finding a dog that is both good with kids and 
good at finding drugs.

"A lot of times service dogs don't live an overly-glamorous life like 
a pet would," he said, saying too much playtime can dull Commander's 
enthusiasm for work. "You're dealing with a high-energy work asset. 
You have to treat him like a business asset before you treat him like a pet."

For McCulloch, the bonds that develop between dog and master vary.

"I had more of a bond with the three police dogs I worked with for 15 
years because they're out there catching bad guys and saving your 
life. It's not the same with these guys, but you still spend an awful 
lot of time with them, and you get attached."
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