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TDCJ handlers train dogs to sniff out smuggled cell phones

Trainer watching dog as the dog sniffs for contraband
Trainer Stacy Halbert watches as Smoke alerts to a sealed compartment containing a cell phone.

Photos by David Nunnelee

It’s not hard to find people who think that cell phones stink, and those who train dogs to search for contraband phones at TDCJ facilities would agree.

“It’s a minute odor, something that we don’t even think about,” said Lt. Jimmy Evans, who oversees the training of dogs used to search for narcotics and cell phones within state prisons. “But if it’s unique to what you’re looking for, you can train a dog to find it.”

The unique odor that betrays the presence of a contraband cell phone comes from niobium oxide, an ore used as an electrical conductor inside the multifunctional devices. Humans can’t smell it, but “cell phone dogs” exposed to the ore throughout their training can. Even the strong scents of peanut butter or coffee cannot mask the odor of a hidden cell phone from trained dogs.

Efforts to find and remove cell phones smuggled into TDCJ facilities intensified earlier this year when a sweep of the agency’s correctional facilities turned up a number of the devices. In response, the agency formed specially-equipped search teams in two regions to seek out all types of contraband, instituted pat search procedures for persons entering a facility and purchased three Labrador retrievers already trained in cell phone detection. The agency subsequently purchased seven more Labradors from breeders and is training them under Evans’ guidance. Another three Labradors were expected to be added to the cell phone canine corps in July.

Dog sniffing cell phone
After scratching at the compartment door, Punch finds a cell phone inside.
Unlike dogs trained to sniff out more than one narcotic, the odor of niobium oxide is the only one cell phone dogs are taught to specifically recognize, although they inevitably learn more. TDCJ learned of the odor emitted by the ore from the North Carolina Department of Corrections, which also experienced problems with cell phone smuggling and asked scientists at the University of North Carolina to isolate a smell unique to the communication devices. Labrador retrievers were chosen because of the breed’s reputation for conducting careful and thorough searches.

“You’re looking for a dog that’s a little more meticulous,” Evans said. “The dog that works in the penitentiary has to be a much better than a law enforcement dog because you have offenders who have 24 hours a day, seven days a week to try to hide what they’re doing.”

Evans said the time it takes to train a dog to detect cell phones varies, sometime requiring eight months or longer. And before taking the field, the dogs must become accustomed to their workplace. The agency’s first three dogs were acclimated to the prison environment for several months before beginning regular patrols earlier this summer. Initially, the dogs were assigned to search units in three of the Correctional Institutions Division’s six regions.

“The problem you run into is advancing the dog from a training area to a penitentiary,” Evans said. “Because of all the distractions, it takes a long time to bring him up from recognizing what a cell phone smells like to where he’s proficient in a penitentiary.”

The first seven dogs trained by TDCJ were, in fact, housed with offenders at the Skyview/Hodge complex in Rusk for six months so they could grow accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells of a prison facility.

The odor recognition stage of their training began at what Evans calls “The Wall” at the Region II headquarters building outside the Beto Unit near Palestine. It’s actually two pieces of plywood fitted together to form an L. Each piece has chambers cut into it, some open and some covered, to hold nonworking cell phones. Initially, the phones are placed in an open chamber for what the trainers call an “easy find.” As training progresses, they are moved to different open chambers around the training wall or hidden within a latched chamber.

The dogs learn to recognize the odor of the niobium oxide by repeatedly retrieving a towel sprinkled with a powdered form of the ore. To the dog, the towel, and later the contraband cell phone, becomes a toy.

“They’re just looking for their toy,” Evans said. “They don’t know what a cell phone is. They think it’s their toy. So for a dog, it’s play every day.”

While in training, the dogs are paired with a handler chosen from the ranks of correctional officers who volunteer for the duty. The dogs may live at the home of the handler or be kenneled at a unit.

“We have to find the most motivated and dedicated correctional officers we can to work as handlers because it requires a big commitment,” said Charles Bell, assistant director for Security Systems.

Neither Evans nor Bell thinks that the dogs alone will rid units of illegal cell phones.

“The cell phone dogs are a tool in your tool kit,” Bell said. “They’re just a piece of your overall strategy. But I’m optimistic about it being a successful part of our whole strategy against contraband.”

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