Don’t let his cuddly, tail-wagging disposition fool you. Gizmo, a 6-year-old yellow Labrador retriever at the Frederick County Adult Detention Center, is a highly trained tracking machine.
Trained from the age of 1, Gizmo is used as a narcotics dog. He sniffs out cocaine, methamphetamines, Ecstasy, marijuana, heroin and many oxycodone products that may be harbored by inmates or visitors.
“He’s a passive alert function dog,” said Correctional Officer First Class Christopher Pawlus, Gizmo’s handler. “He gives a sit alert, not an aggressive scratch alert.”
Pawlus and Gizmo work together scanning the cell blocks, patrolling the perimeter of the campus and sniffing cars in the parking lot. They also inspect labor program inmates and visitors to the detention center.
If Gizmo detects a drug scent, his behavior and breathing change dramatically before giving the full sit alert.
“I randomly pick times to go into the cell blocks,” Pawlus said. “Inmates have 24 hours a day, seven days a week to plan their activities, so it’s best if they don’t know when I’m coming in.”
Pawlus and Gizmo work varying shifts in a mixture of days and nights. They’re also on call all day every day.
“I’ve only been called out a handful of times since being assigned to K-9,” Pawlus said. “In this facility, it’s really hit or miss. It just depends on who brings what in.”
Pawlus has been with the K-9 Correctional Unit for five years, and applying was no easy feat.
“An officer has to be off their 18-month probation. They have to spend one year as a correctional officer first class, so it takes at least 30 months,” said Capt. David Ward, the director of security at the detention center. “It’s a competitive process with a written test and an oral interview.”
Supervisors also look at where a candidate lives, what kind of home life they have, their demeanor and if they have any children or other pets. Gizmo lives right at home with Pawlus and gets along well with his two sons, ages 10 and 8.
“Between here and home, wherever you go he’s loved,” Pawlus said. “It’s great to have him as a whole, as both a household pet and a work dog. Yeah, he’s the sheriff’s office’s property, but one day he may be our pet full time.”
Many Labradors work until the age of 10, Pawlus said, though he has seen police dogs working as old as 16. Pawlus has five years before his own retirement, and he hopes Gizmo can retire at the same time to come live with him.
Even as a full-time worker, Gizmo still undergoes 16 hours of exposure to scent-based items each month for additional training. The dogs are also trained using narcotics bags and hide boxes.
When factoring in handler salary, special transportation and food and veterinary bills, the approximate cost for keeping one dog is $75,000, Ward said. Detention center officials hope to expand the K-9 program to include another dog.
“In the future, we’d like to obtain a German shepherd that’s cross-trained, which means it could detect drugs and it is an attack dog that we could use as a deterrent in the facility if a fight or a riot broke out,” Ward said. “A lot of inmates will never back down from another individual, but they’ll back down from a dog if it’s growling and snarling.”
The price for assaulting Gizmo, or any police dog, is steep. Any inmate who kicks at or taunts the dog is charged with assault on a correctional officer.
Other breeds used around the area for police work include springer spaniels, bloodhounds and Malinois (Belgian shepherds) for contraband cell phone detection.
When the job is done, Gizmo is content to gnaw on his favorite black rubber ball. As Pawlus threw the ball to reward him for quickly completing a detection exercise, he said that Gizmo is always hyperactive, even at night.
“It’s like a remote control,” he said, laughing as Gizmo took off. “You just throw it out and he comes right back. Eventually his batteries will wear out.”