A good nose for crime: A day with Cork’s canine police

They are some of the sharpest sleuths in the Revenue Commissioners’ arsenal. Brian Canty goes to Cork Airport to learn how sniffer dogs go about their job

IF he didn’t like me back in Junior Cert., things weren’t about to change now, as my former schoolteacher Mr Tobin approached from my right, and Harvey, the country’s best sniffer dog, swooped from the other side. A collision course you couldn’t invent.

Truth be told, I was a brat in school. I’d hide the chalk, wedge the doorstop to keep an unwanted classroom visitor (like an English teacher) at bay. Simple stuff.

Now, there was 50 grand in my ass pocket as I curled up in the corner of the departures lounge at Cork Airport and Tobin was about to have the last laugh. “Er, hello sir! Fancy meeting you here?,” I said. “Canty, is that you?” It’s then that Harvey barges in, glances at Olivia, his handler, before he scans me with a contemptive look and rests his head on my lap. Game over. “Not even you can bullshit your way out of this one Canty,” is what Tobin would have once said. “I can explain”. Now there’s a line he’s heard before.

“Step this way, sir”, instructs Olivia and we’re headed for the dressing down in an interrogation room adjacent. Mr Tobin, meanwhile, looked on bemusedly. It was just a simulated sting and, despite a public shaming, I can’t say I didn’t want to take Harvey home afterwards…not to mind the cash (which was real, by the way).

Harvey, who detects cash and tobacco, is one of 16 trained sniffer dogs working for the Revenue at locations throughout the country. Here in Cork, he’s accompanied by fellow springer spaniel, Max, who is trained to detect drugs — cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines and heroine. The Starsky and Hutch of the doggy world.

Sourcing of the dogs, as well as training, is complicated and time-consuming, says Olivia.

“The dogs are initially trained in the UK, before coming to Ireland to be paired with their handler and, there, they spend a further six to eight weeks training together, before beginning work.

“They’re trained from about 15 months to two years. Normally, they’d be two years old or less when we get them and the first year they’d be settling in and getting used to it, but from about two and a half to three years you really see them working well. When you get them first, they can be a bit skittish,” she said.

The training is intense and works like this: once dogs with a strong scent drive, or retriever scent, are found, they’re screened for potential medical issues — they must be agile, for example. If they clear the physicals, they begin training.

Then, trainers scent one toy with four target odours — cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin, in Max’s case, and the dogs are then taught to find the toy. They are then taught to sit, when they discover the target toy, and once they’ve learned a set of smells, they practice finding each odour separately.

They’re treated like staff, because they are. They have regimented hours, regularly work over-time, have breaks, days off, but, as Eddie says, “no pension”.

“I bring Max home and Olivia brings Harvey home and they have very normal lives,” he says. “We try to avoid giving them treats and things like that. Their treat is a toy after finding something. That’s the main difference between them and ordinary dogs. On their days off, they can be off at home around the garden, but the (reward of) play has to be a big deal when they find something. It’s not that we’re being mean to them, but we don’t make a big deal out of it.”

Ah, yes, finding stuff. That is what they’re here to do, and boy they do it well.

“Harvey has been very successful,” says Joe Martin O’Sullivan, the customs enforcement manager at Cork Airport. “So far, he has uncovered a lot.”

Money is the “up and coming” illegal ‘substance’ and, in August, Harvey sniffed out €19,000 in cash in two separate seizures.

This was uncovered when Harvey gave indications about luggage belonging to two men, about to board a flight to Malaga. Separate sums of money were seized in accordance with the proceeds of crime legislation.

Which is? “Mostly, it would be the proceeds of crime we’d be working under and that would be €6,000,” says O’Sullivan. “Anything over that, and Harvey would detect that in a bag or in a person. The other day, he sniffed out someone who had a money belt, but a lot of the time, people don’t realise how thin cash is, you wouldn’t spot it too easily. €20,000 is even hard to spot. It’s the up-and-coming thing, is cash, it’s becoming very popular.”

With so many flights in and out of the airport, surely two dogs is inadequate?

“There’s a lot of work done beforehand,” says O’Sullivan, half-expecting the question.

“It comes down to historical data we’d have, international trends and feedback from our colleagues on the ground. We have this thing called streetscape, where we can see what’s being sold, so there’s a lot of things. You don’t just pick six flights at random. Some days you might do no flight, two days you might do no days, but then all of a sudden that could change.

“And it’s not just the airport, either. The dogs could be here, or down in the docks doing containers, they could be down in the ferries, they could be going to houses, shipping, trains — if a specific request came from the Gardai, so it would be any type of importation. It’s a combination of the two; the work that goes on before, in the airport or the docks or a courier company or a premises, and the staff there and the dogs as well.”

So what happens when a discovery is made?

“We’d have certain questions to ask,” says O’Sullivan, “and the normal person would have the credit union receipt — if it’s money, and they can prove where they got the money, whereas people who are carrying the illegal money won’t be able.

“A lot of the time, people are carrying a large amount of cash for legitimate reasons, like buying a car, but we’d stop and ask them. There’s questions you need to ask and you know, in a few minutes, whether they’re telling the truth or not. The same for drugs.

“Sometimes a person could be questioned about having drugs on them, but it could just be that they were around someone who was smoking a particular drug and Max picks that up.

“So, if there’s a doubt, we can seize the cash for further investigation, we go to the judge and he’ll give us an order to hold the cash, if it’s cash, for three months to conduct our investigation. That’s how it works.”

The relationship between handler and dog is what makes the partnership so successful and that’s assessed regularly to ensure they’re up to the job.

“They’re assessed every year and the handlers even have to go through a selection process,” says O’Sullivan. “We don’t just pick anyone. There are applications there and people get in through that procedure. Eddie and Olivia have been very successful and, in some ways, the handler is as important as the dogs and the relationship between the two is key.

Says Eddie: “It’s part of the exam process to build a relationship with the dog. If you take a dog into a tobacco container, he knows he must do his thing and not roll around the floor or get into something he shouldn’t.

“You have to be passionate. I’ve other dogs at home, but they’re home dogs. I still have the first drug dog I ever had, but he’s retired now. He just got too old. Once they get to a certain age, they start developing various deficiencies, mental problems, same as a person.”

So now, Mr Tobin. You have your explanation...


Are you and your family venturing into the room outside? Peter Dowdall has some useful advice.Now that the world’s on gardening leave, are you venturing into the room outside?

The virus crisis doesn’t have to dampen our enthusiasm for Easter treats, writes Roz CrowleyWe've got it cracked: Top 8 Easter eggs

More From The Irish Examiner