K-9 in training to combat Juneau’s heroin problem

Juneau Police have a new tool to sniff out a steady flow of heroin and other narcotics entering the city. It’s been about 25 years since the department had a K-9 on staff.

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Buddy has been with the Juneau Police Department for about three weeks. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Buddy has been with the Juneau Police Department for about three weeks. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

His partner, Officer Mike Wise, is training Buddy at Dzanktik’i Heeni Middle School to sniff out drugs on campus.

Inside a classroom, Wise snaps on blue plastic gloves while Buddy waits in the car.

“So, basically right now. I have some narcotics on me I’m going to be planting and basically getting ready to hide,” he says.

Wise unscrews the lid off a mason jar and pulls out 4 grams of black, tacky looking heroin.

“We’re going to put it in the stash box and then we’re going to put it inside the filing cabinet.”

The police department received nearly $25,000 in grant money from the feds to bring the K-9 on staff. Buddy was Russian-born and snapped up by a recruiting agency that finds dogs with a “high drive” for law enforcement.

Officer Wise had to fly down to Alabama to pick up Buddy, then named Baddie.  He remembers walking in a kennel with 30 dogs barking. The handler pointed to a German shepherd and handed him a collar.

“And I didn’t know who this dog was, I’d never met him before, and he’s never seen me,” he says. “And for a stranger just to walk into his kennel was kind of terrifying.”

But Buddy just looked at him and wagged his tail.

“There was a huge relief to know that this dog is not going to try to eat me. The first day Buddy walked off and he just wanted to pull me everywhere,” he says.

Slowly, Wise started to bond with his new partner; he brushed Buddy’s fur, played with him and did some additional training before bringing him back home to his wife and two kids.

“And from then on it’s been inseparable. We just stay together.”

Buddy is trained to smell heroin, meth and cocaine. But not marijuana since that’s legal now in Alaska. His nose is so good that he can detect each note in the narcotics. For example, you might walk into a room and smell a delicious pizza.

“He smells every little ingredient that’s involved in making that pizza. That’s how he does it with the meth, cocaine or heroin and knows that’s something,” he says.

The police department is going to need the help. Last year, they confiscated over $4.6 million of heroin in Juneau. There’s a big incentive for smugglers. A dose here is worth five times more than down south.

Lt.  Kris Sell oversees investigations. She says Heroin gets to Juneau in a number of ways.

Officer Mike Wise watches Buddy play with his “paycheck.” A piece of hose, sometimes PVC pipe. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Officer Mike Wise watches Buddy play with his “paycheck.” A piece of hose, sometimes PVC pipe. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“The people who are importing heroin move regularly between the U.S. mail, other mail delivery services and bring it in on the airlines or on the ferry,” she says.

Last year’s seizures were made up of a couple of big busts and several small ones. A drug conspiracy involving stolen Costco jewelry yielded 10,000 street doses of heroin.

“In Juneau, we’ve had such a heroin problem, I think you’d be hard pressed to find an adult who doesn’t know a  family who’s been impacted in some way by the addiction.”

Sell says there hasn’t been a sudden spike in heroin, it’s more like a steady march. And finding it once it’s here can be difficult.

“People have done things like taped drugs to the underside of the baby’s dresser in the baby’s room,  Buddy will help us ferret out things like that. Things we’re worried we haven’t been finding.”

Back inside the classroom, Wise holds tight to Buddy’s leash which is attached to a police harness. He walks him around but, really, Buddy is leading him to the place where we stashed the heroin.

Right when he sniffs the filing cabinet, he lays down–indicating this is the spot.

A black piece of rubber hose is discreetly thrown over Buddy’s head.

It’s his paycheck for a job well done. Wise will play tug of war with it and let Buddy win. Then he’ll hurl the toy back out of sight. Buddy is restrained from going after it.

“So, he’s always assuming his toy’s in the field out there. So when we’re working. He’s looking for this toy again. That’s why he’s doing what he’s doing for that thing right there,” he says. “So, we’re going to hide it from him. It kind of makes him mad a little bit, but we gotta keep working. ”

Wise hopes with Buddy’s help, incoming drugs can be kept off the street. They’ll start patrolling the airport, commercial barges and ferry system soon.