When he got to Washington, Jessup met him and decided he would make a great “law dog.” But like all dogs waiting to enter the Washington State Patrol Training Academy, Neville first had to pass a series of trials. To test his drive to hunt, trainers hid a ball under a traffic cone to see if he’d look until he found it. They tested his responses to crowds, loud noises and slick floors. He passed every test.
Then, Neville began the three-month, 400-hour training—during which trainers use boxes with holes cut in them to teach the dogs to find either explosives such as gunpowder, or drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. “We put the target odor behind a box, and we trick the dog into thinking that their toy is in one of the holes,” says K9 trainer Steve Gardner, with the Washington State Patrol Training Academy. “They start looking for their toy in the beginning. Then, as soon as they stick their nose in the hole that has the target odor in it, the toy comes out. After hundreds of repetitions, they learn to look for that target odor to get the toy.”
It’s not easy. When Neville went into the academy, he was one of 14 dogs in a class of seven new handlers. Since the expectation was that half the dogs would not make it to graduation, by the end of training, each handler would have a dog. As a result, Neville wasn’t matched with Dixon at first.
“There were German Shepherds, bird dogs, Labs. And then there was Neville,” Dixon says. “We just made eye contact one day, and I started working him. After that, whenever he came in with a different handler, he would search the room until he found me, and then just start wagging his tail.”
Now, six of Jessup’s Pit Bulls have graduated from the academy and are working in law enforcement in Washington state. And they’re doing more than fighting crime: Neville and his companions also are fighting the stereotype of Pit Bulls as scary and dangerous. The charismatic Neville charms ferry passengers every day—even famous ones, such as Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo, who admired his good looks. He made such an impression on country singers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill when they were passing through town that they sent Dixon tickets and a backstage pass to a concert— and asked him to bring Neville.
“These dogs are helping change people’s minds,” Jessup says. “Our ferry system is one of the largest in the nation, so an awful lot of people see these Pit Bulls out there protecting them every day.” And the dogs work in other places too —including the highways. A small white Pit Bull, Moto, rides along each day with trooper Jason Knott, often snoozing in the back of the cruiser until Knott calls on him to check a vehicle for drugs. Then he gets to work. In the past two years, Moto has racked up more than 360 drug finds—everything from 180 pounds of marijuana in the back of an SUV to two ounces of methamphetamines hidden in an air duct in the basement of a house. He loves to work—for the simple reward of a piece of rubber sandblasting hose that serves as a tug toy. Moto does his job with such enthusiasm that even as suspects busted by his keen nose are being led away in handcuffs, they make admiring comments. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, what a cool dog,’” Knott says. “People just love him. He’s a little guy with a big smile.”
That indomitable spirit is even more amazing, considering Moto’s past. As a puppy, the little white runt-of-the-litter was found by animal control officers sitting in a filthy crate in a barn near a pile of trash. He was with his sister, who was so sick and malnourished that she later died. Most of the other LawDogs have come from similarly rough backgrounds. Hemi was a Hurricane Katrina survivor. Shaka was a scrappy New York stray. And X-Dog was plucked off death row in a Seattle shelter.
But Neville’s story might be worst of all—abandoned by his owner, then kicked out of a country just for being a Pit Bull.
Dixon says he sometimes wonders if Neville’s old owner might have caught a news story or heard through word of mouth that the dog he left to fend for himself is now protecting U.S. citizens— and is even thought of by some as a hero. “I wonder,” Dixon says, “if he knows what his dog is doing now.”