It would be tough to find a cuter anti-drug messenger.
With her big brown eyes, floppy ears and over-sized puppy feet, the eight-week-old chocolate Labrador being trained as a drug sniffer by Lacombe Police Service Const. Bryan Zens is expected to be a big hit in Lacombe schools when she makes her debut in September.
The as-yet-unnamed puppy will be the tail-wagging ambassador for the Dogs for Drug Free Schools program, an education and deterrent program that has already been introduced in schools in Medicine Hat and Edmonton.
“It’s about educating kids about the harmful effects and keeping drugs out of the school environment,” said Zens, who is a school resource officer.
The 10-year police veteran is enthusiastic about the program because he knows it works.
Before coming to Lacombe nearly two years ago, Zens spent more than eight years with Medicine Hat police and introduced the program to schools there in 2006. It proved a big success and was singled out for an award by the Alberta Solicitor General in 2007.
“It was a program that was well received by the staff and the students,” said Zens. “It became part of the community of the school.
“That’s the thing with this program. Every day the students see (the dog) grow within the school. They see its potential and the way it’s able to find drugs.”
Over the next year or so, Zens will train his four-footed partner to detect a variety of common drugs. When the dog gets a whiff of something it recognizes, it will sit.
About 18 months from now, Zens will give a drug presentation and show students what the dog can do. Zens plans to take the dog outside the high school to visit all students from kindergarten on up.
The use of drug-sniffing dogs in school divisions has proven legally contentious. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that random searches by sniffer dogs that lead to criminal charges are unlawful. The high court said that randomly using drug-sniffing dogs amounts to unreasonable search and a breach of privacy rights.
Zens said the Lacombe program is not about surprise drug sweeps in schools.
“We’re not running up and down checking lockers. We’re not searching every student when they come in the door.
“This is about educating the students and then deterring them from bringing (drugs) into the school.”
If the dog does chance upon drugs, Zens is more focused on getting the student help than laying criminal charges, although that remains an option depending on the circumstances.
“The prime purpose of this program is to get those kids help.
“If you think you’re going to win the war on drugs by laying criminal charges, my experience again is that doesn’t work.”
It is better to identify drug users when they are young and steer them towards programs and organizations that can help them choose a different path, he said.
The dog serves as an ideal ice breaker to open up lines of communication with students and get them talking about the issue. Dogs can also have a therapeutic influence.
Wolf Creek School Division assistant superintendent Curt Sacher said the program can only help build relationships between the resource officer, staff and students.
The presence of a gentle Labrador will make it easier for students to open up to Zens and give him more opportunities to steer students in the right direction.
“We just couldn’t see any reason not to support his idea.”
Sacher said the program is not seen as an enforcement initiative. “We believe the schools were already doing everything possible to minimize the drug influence in the school setting.
“Our purpose was education, communication and prevention of (drug) issues.”