Crime Fighters

Law enforcement agencies find that Pit Bulls have the right stuff for bomb- and drug-detection work
By Allie Johnson, June 2009, Updated February 2015

Washington State Patrol Trooper Gary Lane and K9 Hemi, a narcotics detection team, work the streets of western Washington.

An ad shows a brown and white Pit Bull—tough, beefy and ready for a challenge. Above his photo, the copy reads: “Yeah, He’s a Fighter. A Crime Fighter.” With his partner, trooper Dave Dixon of the Washington State Patrol and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Pit Bull Neville patrols the Seattle ferry system and checks about 300 cars a day for explosives as part of a counterterrorism effort. He has sniffed out guns, bullets and fireworks.

Last year, Neville helped put away a dangerous ferry rider who, during the trip to Seattle, began ramming other vehicles with his car. “We got a call when the ferry docked,” Dixon says. “This guy just was not right.” Dixon put Neville to work. The dog began sniffing the car, then sat down to signal a find. The trunk was packed with fireworks. “The bomb squad said there were enough fireworks in there to make a bomb,” Dixon says. “Later, we found out the guy had a bunch of prior arrests for bomb making.”

It’s successes like that—and a great disposition— that make Dixon so happy with his canine sidekick. “He’s gentle. He’s loyal. He works so hard,” Dixon says. “He’s the perfect partner.”

Enter LawDogsUSA
But Dixon never would have gotten the chance to team up with Neville if not for the LawDogsUSA program, started in 2004 by dog trainer Diane Jessup, who has worked with Pit Bulls for 25 years and published a magazine called Fully Bully. Jessup—who describes most Pit Bulls as people-friendly and stable— started the program partly to show off the side of Pit Bulls that rarely makes the newspapers.


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“Today’s press coverage of the American Pit Bull is one-sided. ‘Killer Pit Bull’ is a sexy headline,” Jessup says. In fact, the American Pit Bull was once America’s favorite family dog—think Petey on The Little Rascals—but started getting a bad rap when they replaced Doberman Pinschers as the fad dog for owners who wanted to look tough. Once Pit Bulls began falling into the hands of irresponsible and abusive owners, and even criminals, they started making the news— and not in a good way.

After 9/11, Jessup saw her chance to do something about it. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York, the demand for bomb and drug-detection dogs shot up. But Jessup knew that it takes a special kind of dog to do this kind of work. Those lacking strong drive and dogged determination need not apply. Since shelters were being picked clean of dogs with those qualities, many law enforcement agencies had turned to brokers who bring in untrained dogs from Europe and sell them at hefty sums—up to $6,000 each in some cases. That gave Jessup the idea for LawDogsUSA. “I thought, what about ‘Made in America’?” Jessup says. “I thought, ‘There are thousands of dogs dying in shelters now who can do this work.’”

So, Jessup put the word out that she was looking for Pit Bulls with the right stuff for detection work. She would provide them with a bit of training, then give them to law enforcement agencies for free. Soon after, she got a call about Neville.

From Shelter to Police Cruiser
 The young, red-nosed Pit Bull had been picked up by animal control officers on a dirt road about 60 miles from Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Officers tracked down the owner, but he didn’t want the dog back because he couldn’t afford to comply with a new law requiring muzzles and special fences for Pit Bulls. The unwanted dog was scheduled to be put down.

But even on death row, he showed a playful spirit that tugged at the heart of a shelter worker. To give him a second chance, she called a rescue group, Bullies in Need. Volunteers bailed Neville out, then drove him across the border into the United States. But they had no idea how they would get him to his new foster home in Washington state—a family with an already full house, including seven kids, three other dogs and two cats. Just when the volunteers were losing hope, an anonymous donor gave $3,500 for Neville’s airfare and expenses. He was on his way.

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.”

Changing Stereotypes
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.”

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 45: Nov/Dec 2007

Photograph of Pit Bull in car ©Andrew Williams
Photograph of Gary Lane and Hemi courtesy LawDogsUSA/Diane Jessup

Allie Johnson is a journalist who lives in Kansas City, Mo., where her two dogs allow her to write articles during occasional breaks from belly rubs and backyard games of fetch.