A Doggy Departure

 County canine retiring after 4 1/2 years of sniffing out drugs

By Pamela Bond

Waco Tribune-Herald

Aug. 25, 2007

CLICK HERE to see a PDF of this story with pictures of Shadow

 Shadow always looks like he’s smiling. But don’t be fooled – behind the floppy ears and twinkling brown eyes, Shadow is all business.

As the McLennan County Sheriff Office’s drug dog, Shadow has spent the past 41⁄2 years sniffing for illegal drugs and chasing bad guys at the side of investigator and K-9 handler Michael Gates. But because of a medical condition, the 9-year-old black Labrador retriever will retire Sept. 30.

“He’s a working dog,” Gates said. “He’s not real affectionate towards a lot of other people. Where you see Shadow’s personality come out is when he’s working. He’s strictly business. Every now and then he wants to be petted, but most of the time he wants to play.”

During his time working with Gates, Shadow has found 163 pounds of marijuana, 338 grams of methamphetamine, 595.9 grams of cocaine and $301,427 in cash. He’s also assisted in the arrests of about 120 defendants, Chief Deputy Randy Plemons said. Shadow has sniffed out drugs at traffic stops, searches at local schools and drug raids, and has worked with several agencies, including the Texas Department of Public Safety and area police departments.

“The county definitely got their money’s worth with Shadow,” Plemons said. “He’s done a tremendous job for us.”

Shadow’s skills were put to the test in April, when he and Gates competed at the National Narcotic Detector Dog Association’s National Championship in Fayetteville, Ark. Shadow placed seventh out of 125 competing teams.

“We had no idea that would be the last hoorah,” said Shadow’s trainer, Nancy Bidwell of Abbott, who owns Scentry Place, which trains bomb and drug dogs and certifies their handlers. “We knew right away that Shadow was a winner. You don’t go and win seventh place at nationals if you haven’t been working your dog.”

Scentry Place takes dogs from local animal shelters, mostly retrievers, and trains them for six to eight weeks or longer, depending on the dog. Then the dog is paired with a handler and the two go through a certification test. The sheriff’s office originally bought Shadow six years ago, and he worked with another handler for almost two years until he was paired with Gates.

For the drug-detection certification, Shadow and Gates had to find hidden drugs in three minutes or less. The team is certified in finding marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. Gates also works with Shadow doing reinforcement training eight to 10 hours a week.

“Every time he’s doing his job he’s playing, he’s having fun, he loved it,” Gates said. “It’s just something in that part of the training. When you’re training the dog, and the dog locates a hide or a find, you’re jumping up and down, yelling and screaming and telling him good job and playing with him, and the reward is some type of toy that the dog likes. You really get their drive up when they find it, so that’s what they’re working for.”

Shadow’s veterinarian recommended that he retire next month. The arthritis in Shadow’s spine has made jumping and other aspects of the job difficult for the 107-pound dog.

“It’ll be a huge difference for Shadow,” Gates said. “To help him out, he’s on a pain medication right now and it won’t be as severe if he’s at home, not jumping and doing his normal duties that he has to do. He’s going to be more comfortable at home.”

The commissioners court will vote at the Tuesday meeting on the recommendation that Shadow retires to live with Gates. Plemons said money for a replacement drug dog, which can cost $4,500 to $8,000, has been included in the 2008 budget. It is not clear yet whether Gates will be the handler of the new dog.

“That’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime dog right there,” Bidwell said. “I know he’s going to have a wonderful retirement life with Michael. I just wish every one could end up like that.”

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