Narcotics detective dog, sniffs out new career path

Rigorous training as a narcotics detective canine was supposed to prepare Cassie, a two-year-old black lab, for a life in crime-fighting police work, or TSA security jobs. 

There was just one problem, though. Cassie was the runt of the litter with a small stature and gentle disposition.

"She is a lab. She's less than 40 pounds, so she's very small," said Joe Schrank, Cassie's owner.

Schrank says police departments passed her by, when they visited the canine training center in Texas. So when Schrank called the center looking for a canine, Cassie found a new career path. 

It turns out, Cassie's drug-sniffing skills and temperament were perfectly suited for Schrank's drug rehab center in San Francisco, making sure his clients are in compliance with their treatment plans.

"So if they're abusing their medication, if they're using medications that they shouldn't be, we need to know all of that. So Cassie, as a trained narcotics detection canine, helps us make sure everyone is staying on point," said Schrank, founder of the Remedy Recovery drug treatment center.

"She can find anything...opiates, she can find valium, any derivative of a drug, any street drug, heroin, cocaine," said Schrank. 

He says Cassie is also used in intervention visits, such as when parents want to know whether their children are using drugs.

Cassie's other role on the team, is serving as a therapy dog for clients who might have difficulty connecting with people. 

"Here they get to sit around, pet the dog, walk the dog, it kind of wakes them up if it's a rough detox," said Ian Lobell, the clinical director at Remedy Recovery.

Cassie is part of the team that started the program in San Francisco in January, which incorporates, Cassie with medical assisted treatment, that uses cannabis and medication to help people overcome drug addiction.

It is a different approach to drug treatment in a field where 22.5 million Americans (8.5% of the U.S. population) aged 12 or older needed drug and alcohol treatment, according to a 2014 survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

Amanda Reiman, a former social welfare researcher at U.C. Berkeley, says recidivism can be high. She points to a study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse which found 40-60% of patients treated for substance abuse can end up relapsing. 

Reiman says she's seeing more treatment centers incorporate therapy animals, and hopes there will be more research on the efficacy of using narcotics detective canines as part of  the team. She cautions, it depends on how the dogs are deployed. 

"It's really making the patient part of the process and if doing that through the connection with the animal helps them be more honest that's a good thing," said Reiman. "But if it is an extension of policing, I don't know if research would support that."