Story and photos by Ike Dodson, PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Correctional Officer Charles Norris keeps the secret to his dog’s success tucked in the back right pocket of his tactical duty uniform cargo pants.

To reward his German short-haired pointer “Remmie” for successfully sniffing out contraband, Norris reaches for a rolled-up hand towel taped at both ends ― a tug that Remmie desperately needs to play with.

A correct passive alert (sit and point) on the location of hidden contraband gives Remmie some treasured play time with his tug.

It’s how CDCR K-9s are trained to sniff out contraband like narcotics, tobacco and cell phones inside state institutions.

Remmie and Norris are one of seven teams to graduate the latest 280-hour K-9 Academy March 23 at the Northern California Women’s Facility, an inactive prison in Stockton used for training. The frequent academies are the product of an approved budget change proposal by The Drug Interdiction Program that tasks CDCR with providing two K-9 teams at each of the 35 adult institutions in California.

The budget change was proposed after an independent report by the University of California, Berkeley, found that the K-9 program was one of the most effective tools for discovering both narcotics and contraband within CDCR institutions.

The noses matter.

In a three-year span, from July 1, 2014, to April 30, 2017, CDCR K-9 teams found 3,774 cell phones, nearly two pounds of cocaine, 192 grams of hash oil, roughly 10 pounds of heroin, over 126 pounds of marijuana, nearly 20 pounds of methamphetamine and well over 470 pounds of tobacco.

Remmie and his handler ― who fellow officers can’t help but dub “Chuck” Norris ― are designated for work at North Kern State Prison. Delano’s Dog-Walker Texas Ranger leads one of 54 teams, statewide.

Officer Chris Drake and his husky (as in muscles, not breed) partner “Bear,” a black lab, are designated for service at California State Prison, Sacramento (SAC)

“Gage,” an energetic German shorthaired pointer, is active at the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) with Officer Michael Krohn.

Officer Aaron Young and his remarkably calm black lab “Diesel” were sent to California Health Care Facility.

“Mango,” a forever-smiling yellow lab with a giant tongue and a keen sniffer, searches for contraband at California State Prison, Corcoran with Officer Socorro Rios.

Officer Derek Trone and his lanky German short-haired pointer “Aldo” were sent to Pelican Bay State Prison, while Officer Joey Martinez and his eager yellow lab “Rye” are at Wasco State Prison.

All the dogs are between 18 and 36 months old.

Each team was honored during the March 23 ceremony and congratulated by Division of Adult Institutions Associate Warden Bryan Donahoo and his team.

“I want to thank you seven who stepped up to the challenge,” he said. “You were hand-selected by your institutions, accepted that challenge and showed up here at the academy not knowing for certain what you were going to go through.

“I am extremely proud of you for successfully certifying in K-9 Detection and I look forward to your many successes out in the field.”

The program also graduated eight teams last December, sending teams to California Correctional Institution, California Institution for Women, California Medical Center, DVI, SAC and San Quentin State Prison. The next academy will begin May 14.

The dogs are purchased from Antioch contractor K-9 Specialized Training And Consulting (K-9 STAC). The handlers spend a few days in classrooms, get paired up with dogs of compatible personalities and spend the remainder of the academy perfecting their hunt for contraband.

“Not many organizations have the caliber of trainers like Lt. Jeremy Packard, Sgt. Gene Chamberlin and Sgt. Eladio Alfaro,” Donahoo said. “They put in hours and hours of work, from when the dogs are being selected by the vendor, through the academy and during monthly mandatory training.

“We couldn’t do it without them.”

Handlers are picked from a list of current correctional officers that have completed their Apprenticeship Program and submit a letter of interest after institutions announce a K-9 team vacancy.

“We look for correctional officers who exhibit dependability, a strong work ethic, are ethically sound, confident, have good communication skills, work well with others, and who show initiative in actively searching and finding contraband,” Statewide K-9 Coordinator Lt. Packard said. “We also look for employees who continually communicate their findings and intel with their Investigative Services Unit.

“K-9 officers are often recruited after building a rep as a search hound.”

The dogs work regular hours, like their partners, and return home with their handlers. The dogs eat grain-free dog food and stay well-rested at home.

Because of the reward method for successful searches, work becomes play.

“The dogs are extremely excited to go to work,” Packard said. “Every time they do something good, it’s like they won the lotto.”

It always comes back to that sweet reward in handlers’ back pockets ― an unspoken “Tugs, not Drugs” campaign.