From soup to markers, drug-sniffing airport dog's nose knows narcotics
The two-year veteran with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chicago Field Office is the complete package.
Loyal, energetic, smart, eager to fight crime. He's also low-maintenance, given all he wants after a drug bust is a good chew on his toy.
Hans-A, a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois, is a dog of few words. His eyes and nose do the talking. As packages stream along a conveyor belt at O'Hare Airport's International Mail Branch facility, he scrambles from one to another, tail wagging and eyes darting.
Within a few minutes of intense sniffing, Hans subsides in the sit position, paws pointing toward a nondescript white package, and looks to his handler, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Canine Unit officer J. Flores.
"So far, he's never failed me," Flores said.
True to form, Hans is spot-on. CBP officer Nicholas Vigare opens the bubble envelope to find a packet of dry spaghetti Bolognese sauce. Inside is a baggie stuffed with MDMA, used to make ecstasy.
Flores is nonplused. "I've seen drugs hidden in food, puzzles, toys and teddy bears," he said.
Of all the foreign mail that comes to the United States, 25% travels through O'Hare. The mail center handles about 114,000 international items daily, with 100,000 coming from China.
Mail is initially screened through X-ray machines, but that doesn't catch all the narcotics in various guises. Instead, the CBP's Chicago Field Office relies on the noses of Hans and five other drug-sniffing dogs comprising Belgian Malinois, German shepherds and Labrador retriever breeds.
The field office, which includes 11 states, has racked up more than 15,000 narcotics seizures this year, CBP public affairs specialist Steven Bansbach said during a recent tour.
Dogs are trained to sniff out marijuana, crystal meth, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, and hashish. With the growing opioid crisis, fentanyl was added to the list recently.
Many of the packages intercepted at O'Hare originate in China and the Netherlands, officials said, but everything's game to Hans.
At Flores' command, he bounds on and off a conveyor belt in a cavernous sorting warehouse.
Within 30 minutes, he's identified four suspicious packages that officers confirm contain drugs.
First, Hans freezes in front of an innocuous envelope holding a blank diary titled "Good Vibes." Pages are ripped out to leave a resting place for a plastic baggie with blue ecstasy pills next to a note saying, "Best wishes from Holland!"
Hans waits with a big dog grin for Flores to drop a stout rope. Then, it's playtime. The dog leaps for the rope, worries it, and has a tug-of-war with Flores, who murmurs endearments. "We try to make it as fun as possible," he said.
Energized, the reddish-brown and black dog returns to work, quickly singling out a package concealing about 100 pills of ecstasy with an estimated street value ranging from $20 to $30 each.
His last catch before a break is a suspicious packet of markers. Vigare pries open the pink, the green, and then -- bingo -- the orange marker that conceals a packet of pills.
Other CBP canine units target firearms, currency and agricultural products. Training occurs before the dogs are paired with their humans and lasts seven weeks.
One intangible that can't be taught is bonding between handlers and dogs.
Hans can't take his eyes off Flores, who lives in the Western suburbs.
"He's very mellow but very protective," Flores said. "He does 98% of my job."
The dogs' break room contains several posters, some dissing cats and one that says "Just sniff it."
Flores calls the job part of a "war that's a forever war. One package at a time. That's our mission. One small package can save one life."