One good dog is worth hundreds of drug agents

Pete is four years old and sniffs drugs. But he's not an addict. He uses his quivering nose to fight drugs rather than to take them.

Dark eyes staring at this reporter watchfully, Pete is 70 pounds of alert short-haired German shepherd dog, straining at the end of a leash gripped by his handler, New York customs officer John Rupchis.

Pete is white, with a fine brown head, one of 21 customs dogs in the New York area who last year sniffed out illegal heroin, cocaine, and marijuana caches worth $31 million in air and sea luggage and freight. Indirectly, Pete and dogs like him have cost smugglers much more in drug-related assets appropriated by customs under federal forfeiture laws.

On one cold night at Kennedy airport in New York, Pete was balancing on an outside conveyor belt carrying toward him baggage from a flight just in from Jamaica. The flight is notorious for marijuana smugglers.

Jamaica supplied about 10 percent of marijuana traded in the US last year. Sixty percent was from Colombia. The rest was from Mexico or from inside the US.

At Rupchis's signal, Pete bounded forward, sniffing each oncoming bag in turn as he stepped across it. He has been taught to associate the smell of drugs with his favorite toy, a white towel folded into the size of a bone.

He pounced on three suitcases, snarling and worrying them, thinking his ''toy'' was inside. Later, passengers waiting for the luggage were questioned and searched.

Morris Berkowitz, customs supervisor, said later that each case had contained marijuana residue and had clearly been used to transport marijuana in the past. But no actual amounts were found that night.

Officer Berkowitz sees the dogs, trained in Front Royal, Va., as valuable tools. ''A dog can do the baggage of an entire flight in 20 minutes,'' he said as we watched Pete hard at work. ''That's 400 to 600 bags. A man would take two to three hours to open them.

''Pete can sniff out a car in two minutes: an agent would take an hour. Pete can screen 1,000 packages on a postal mail belt in 20 minutes. A man needs 30 days.''

Other countries have asked for dogs to be trained in the US. Saudi Arabia is one, but because Saudis dislike handling dogs themselves, they contract to have handlers from Malaysia trained with the dogs. Greece went to England for three dogs. Police did the training, and the United Nations drug commission in Vienna paid for it.

Meanwhile, Pete had completed his Jamaican luggage check. John Rupchis slipped him his reward, the terry-cloth towel. Dogs recently sniffed out 1,000 pounds of marijuana in the hold of a flight from Jamaica. It was worth half a million dollars on the street.

''Yet,'' says Mr. Berkowitz, ''in the whole country, customs has only 89 dogs. When I started this work in 1971, we were supposed to have 500 by 1980.

''We're nowhere near that.''

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