Nose for Hire

drug dogConnie Johnston, who lives in Edmond with her two German shepherds, loves her job because it combines her two passions: working with dogs and alleviating one of Oklahoma’s biggest problems — drug abuse. Johnston is part of the sales department at K9 University in OKC, a private company that offers different types of dog training from basic obedience to protection, and bite safety to drug detection. “I’m really impressed with what these dogs can do and the fact that there are kids that could be helped before they become addicted. It’s just a win-win,” said Johnston.

Johnston says that people who suspect there is a substance abuse problem in their family often don’t know how to address it. She said contacting a company like K9U could be an easy first step. A team can check a home, garage or car in less than an hour and the process is far less invasive than drug testing. And even if something is found, it is up to the family to decide what action to take. “We are separate from law enforcement; we don’t make arrests, we don’t publicize anything,” she said.

The statistics are alarming. According to the insurance industry website, two Oklahomans die every day as a result of drug overdose. In 2011 the website ranked Oklahoma No. 1 in the nation for prescription drug abuse.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone (main ingredient in Oxycontin) and oxymorphone (marketed as Opana), more than tripled in the U.S. in the past decade. And one of every 12 people in Oklahoma, as young as 12 years old, reported using painkillers without
a prescription.

“If you are worried at all that something is going on in your home, there’s probably a reason for that. Don’t wait,” said Angel Soriano, dog behavioral expert and founder of K9U. The company has worked with several businesses and numerous private homes in the Edmond area. He said parents and grandparents often unknowingly become the source for their children’s use of painkillers by not locking the doors of drug cabinets and not disposing of old medications. “The grandkids come over to visit, go to the bathroom, and go through the drugs. A lot of stuff is sitting there that’s been there three, four years, but that’s still enough to do damage. So it’s important that you clean up your house,” he said.

There are currently 16 dogs that are part of the company’s drug detection unit. Most of them are German shepherds, which are genetically equipped with strong olfactory receptors, are athletic and can work two to three hours at a time without a break. “They have good work ethics. They don’t stop until they finish the job,” said Soriano.

The dogs undergo special training, based on a reward mechanism. If a dog is crazy about a ball, trainers start hiding the ball near an illegal substance, like marijuana. The dog will start making a connection between the ball and the marijuana. Eventually, trainers will hide the marijuana only but the dog will get to play with the ball as a reward. “You repeat that a couple of thousand times and you now have your dog alerting marijuana,” explained Soriano.

K9U’s drug detection services are available not only to companies and homes but also to schools. Everything is kept confidential. “We are responsible for the well-being of our children,” said Soriano. “It’s a killer to us to even think about what they are headed into in the school system.” He said one of the most popular and most dangerous drugs among teens is K2, also known as synthetic marijuana. Soriano said some teens are even drinking hand sanitizer to get high. The consequences could be deadly.

“The important part about this is that drug addiction is fixable and the person doesn’t have to hit rock bottom,” he said. “Once the team leaves, you have clarity that you don’t have a problem or that you have a serious problem and you have to deal with it.”

The role of family members is crucial in early detection. Anything out of the ordinary in children’s behavior, such as lack of or impaired motor skills, imbalance, emotional outbursts, dilated eyes and impaired judgment can be signs of trouble.

Johnston agrees. “Parents just need to be more involved, they need to know what their kids are doing, what are they in to, who are they hanging out with, what are they interested in. A little more involvement would go a long way,” she said.

“There are such great things in our state. [Drug abuse] is not what we should be known for,” added Soriano. For more information about K9 University and helpful resources, go to or call 231-4335.

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