A workshop at the RCMP's dog training centre in Alberta has attracted officers and animals from police forces across the continent eager to see the centre's pioneering work tackling the scourge of fentanyl.
"No agency in the world was conducting fentanyl detection for police dog service," explained Staff Sgt. Eric Stebenne, senior trainer at the RCMP police dog service training centre in Innisfail, Alta.
"We really got interested in finding a safe way to introduce fentanyl detection as part of our program."
Close to three dozen people from Canadian, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies, some bringing their own dogs, completed the two-day workshop last week to learn RCMP methods for training dogs to search for fentanyl.
Since fentanyl can be deadly if inhaled, the RCMP needed to create a diluted, liquid form so the dogs could safely learn the scent without the risk of inhaling airborne particles.
The training program is so new, Stebenne said the pilot program that trained the first three dogs only happened last year. But he said it saw success quickly, with one of the dogs intercepting 12,000 fentanyl pills in British Columbia.
In February, the RCMP announced it would train all 139 RCMP narcotics dog teams across Canada to detect fentanyl and word of their work spread.
"My office started getting phone calls from all around the world, more specifically from Canada, the United States and Mexico, of different police departments and agencies very interested in learning from what we had done as it relates to fentanyl detection," Stebenne said.
The RCMP decided to host a workshop to teach others how to train dogs for fentanyl, Stebenne said, and invited everyone who had called.
Fentanyl is an opioid about 100 times more toxic than morphine. It can cause serious harm, including death, police say. It has been used in tablets made to look like prescription drugs.
The coroner's service in B.C. reported last week that the powerful painkiller fentanyl was detected in 72 per cent of people who died from overdoses in the first four months of this year, up from 60 per cent last year.
Safe training protocols stressed
Stebenne said it's not difficult to train a dog already trained for narcotics detection to sniff out fentanyl, noting it can be achieved in as little as two or three repetitions. The dogs are happy to do it for a reward such as a ball, he said.
But the safety protocols are serious.
First, Stebenne said there's a dedicated room at the training facility and the liquid fentanyl is on a secured side, and neither the dogs nor their handlers can directly access the sample.
Second, when the animal locates the sample, it doesn't aggressively go after it. Rather, it sits, and that's the signal to the handler that it has found what it's searching for.
Every handler carries antidote
In the real world, the fentanyl wouldn't be in a safe form so every handler carries Naloxone — the antidote for fentanyl — in the form of a nasal spray that can be administered to dogs as well as people. Handlers also carry injectable Narcan, which they've always carried for heroin, but which also works for fentanyl.
The goal of the workshop is for the attendees to go back home and develop their own fentanyl detection training system.
"Dogs can really adapt and locate any scent, really. There's really no limit to what they can smell," Stebenne said.
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