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Features / Tribute to Shetland’s first drugs dog

Buzz worked for nine years as a drugs dog in Shetland.

LOCAL charity Dogs Against Drugs went into action more than 10 years ago with their very first drugs dog Buzz, who passed away earlier this month. Here project manager and dog trainer Michael Coutts talks about how it all began and Buzz’s nine year career stopping drugs from entering these isles.

Tennis balls

It was the summer of 2002 and I headed down to the Borders to fetch Buzz. I was to meet with gun dog breeder Les Davidson at his home near the village of Gordon in Berwickshire. As I got one leg out of the car I was met with the sight of a six month old male black Labrador bounding towards me at full pelt. A happier meeting you couldn’t wish for, we were going to hit it off and we both knew it.

Buzz came back to Shetland and stayed with me for a few months to bond (though we didn’t need it) until he was one year old, and we then headed off to The Police Dog Training School in County Durham. We were both nervous of what was in store for us for the next six weeks but I had him and he had me, we knew we would be OK.

The course initially involved scent identification of controlled drugs, this was done by placing a sample of the drug in small pots and using a tennis ball for a reward when the dog got a whiff of the scent.

At no time was the dog allowed to touch the substance but had to get as close as he could without touching the pot, technically called “Going to Source”.

Buzz was very good at this and picked up the idea of the game very quickly and enjoyed his tennis ball reward so much so that it was a regular visit to “replace bursts” to the sports shop for me for more tennis balls.

The guy in the shop must have thought me very strange to buy so many tennis balls out of season as this was winter and snow was on the ground! But like any good Shetlander I love a bargain and they were half price.

On the scent

The training quickly moved on to hiding drugs on people, firstly low down on the body in their shoes and socks, but eventually getting higher until Buzz could detect drugs hidden under a hat on someone’s head. He had a very good indication and when he was “on the scent” he would have followed the “carrier” until the carrier stopped, even at jogging pace.

When we got back to Shetland we had a few months to work on our new skills until our next course at the Dog School. Chief Inspector Andy Walker was the man in charge of Shetland Police at the time and he was very enthusiastic and supportive of our newly formed charity and the people who were behind it.

Our first shift on duty Chief Inspector Walker had organised a police operation of a scan of the pubs and clubs doors in Lerwick and Buzz detected three people on that shift, two with personal amounts and one with dealer quantities, not bad for our first go and we were still learning.

The few months passed and in the summer of 2003 it was back down to Durham to do the second and final part of our training. This part involved active searching, a different style of searching than we were used to.

Up until now all the scanning had been done on the lead but now we were having to learn to free search. This type of searching basically involved looking for the scent of controlled drugs everywhere (buildings, vehicles, outside areas etc).

Buzz was already aware of what scents he had to look for and again picked up this style of scanning without much problem, and by the end of the course was finding all of the drugs.

Dual dog

Buzz was one of a new wave of Drugs Detection Dogs in the UK as he was classed as a “Dual Dog” – in times past you would have a body scanning dog or an area search dog. Buzz was one of the first to be both – a trial which is now in the present day a necessity, a trial which turned out to produce a high drive and efficient drugs search dog, but when he went home with me at night he was just Buzz the pet Labrador.

Over the years he worked in Shetland, Buzz had very many drugs detections here is the story of just two of them that come instantly to mind.

One morning we were on duty at the ferry terminal in Lerwick and were scanning passengers exiting the ferry. A male in his 40s was approaching us, well dressed, pulling a trolley suitcase.

As he came level with us Buzz was instantly interested in him and as he kept going past us Buzz was on the move and in his usual style when he was onto something, pulling so hard on the lead my arm was having difficulty remaining in the socket.

We asked the gentleman to stop and Buzz gave his usual full sit indication in front of him looking up with bright eyes, if a dog could smile this would be a time when it would. As I looked at the gentleman’s face he said nothing, but his facial expressions said to me: “Oh shit”. He had £35,000 of multi-commodity drugs on his person and in his bag.

Old Spice

On another occasion we had intelligence from the police that drugs were due up soon to Shetland in a shoe box-sized package either by post or through the freight companies.

For a few weeks we had been regularly looking. As a team we never gave up! One morning at one of the freight companies Buzz was showing a lot of interest in a cling film wrapped pallet of boxes which was in the freight shed.

A quick word to one of the workers (they were always happy to help) and the plastic was cut off and the pallets contents were spread out. Buzz worked his way through the boxes and indicated on one.

As I moved the boxes out of the way to get a good look at the box he was interested in I thought: “Oh my god, it’s a shoe box sized box.” My heart was in my mouth.

Buzz’s tail was wagging so much it was like somebody hitting me with a length of rope. Buzz was given his tennis ball, which he instantly started to destroy and I looked at the address and reported back to the police what we had found.

A short time later the box and the owner were in police custody. I went up to the CID office in Lerwick to witness the box being opened which was done carefully to preserve evidence and photographed at each dissection.

The brown paper packaging was removed to reveal the shoe box. Inside the shoe box was a lot of bubble wrap all taped up with something in the middle of it. This was like ‘extreme pass the parcel’ and I was so keen to see its contents, but procedures have to be taken and I knew I had to be patient.

The item in the middle of the bubble wrap was a metal thermos flask, the two cup kind, sealed and complete with lid. The cup and lid were removed to reveal the most intense smell of Old Spice after shave (the CID office stank of it for weeks after). It had been impregnated onto toilet paper and as it was being pulled out of the flask I estimated that it must have been about a full roll had been packed into the flask.

After this had all been taken out and the windows opened, in the bottom of the flask £10,000 worth of heroin was removed.

To answer the question: “How could the scent of heroin get to the outside of the packaging?” is relatively simple.

Most people have had smoked fish for tea and the left overs placed in a plastic tub for the next days lunch. As you know, even by washing the tub after it still smells of fish as the scent of the fish has impregnated into the plastic, though through time this will dissipate.

The same theory applies to the rubber seal on the thermos flask and if anything the scent of the aftershave has helped carry the scent of the drugs to the outside of the package.

On that day Buzz would have smelt many things on that package, the paper, the tape, the box, the thermos flask and rubber seal, the toilet paper, the aftershave and also the heroin. He would have then filtered these scents through his olfactory glands in his nose and this would have sent a message to his brain telling him heroin was present.

Through this thought process, which would only have taken micro seconds, his main thought would have been: “Hurry up it’s here, now give me the ball!”

Ultra gentle

Drugs detection wasn’t Buzz’s only line of work and he regularly came with me to schools all over Shetland to help me deliver our drugs education programme to school pupils of all ages.

Buzz was always good with the bairns and would let them pet him and say hello. He was very gentle with the younger/smaller children and you could see a change in his demeanour when he was around them – if anything his gentle nature naturally went down a notch to ultra gentle and this would also happen when he paid visits to the ASN departments at the schools and you could see that everybody benefited from those visits by the smiles on the pupils faces.

Buzz worked for nine years as a drugs dog in Shetland and found hundreds of thousands of pounds of drugs during this time, many Class A drugs which included heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.

He retired at 10 years old and had two years of happy retirement living with me. Buzz loved to swim in the sea and run around and fetch stuff. One of his tricks off duty was to go to a burn and duck under the water and fetch back, in some cases, impossible sized stones, I always worried about his teeth, but it never affected him. Buzz was tough.

Buzz passed away on 14 March 2014 peacefully and with no pain. Many thanks go to Jim Nicolson and the Westside Vets lasses for all their kindness and help.

Buzzes ashes are to be spread at Michael’s Wood in Aith and a tree planted in his memory.

Dogs Against Drugs Charity has been running since 2001 and its commitment to Shetland is as strong as ever.

Please visit our website at www.dogsagainstdrugs.co.uk to learn more about the dogs currently working or howyou can help by making a donation.

Thank you for reading our story.

Michael Coutts
Dog Handler/Project Manager
Dogs Against Drugs