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Trained Yellowknife dogs check mine employees for narcotics

Any employee trying to transport contraband to a mine site is going to have to trick the noses of some determined canines.
A K-9 narcotic detection springer spaniel named Leroy works in British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Mark Hicks

Any employee trying to transport contraband to a mine site is going to have to trick the noses of some determined canines.

Yellowknife North of Sixty K-9 Detection Services has been running since 2011 by a retired RCMP officer with 35-years on the force.

Mark Hicks, owner of the business, has been a dog handler for 25 years.

He created the service because he noticed many dogs travelling to the North to do K-9 detection work.

“I decided that me retiring in Yellowknife, I start my own business here but from a completely different perspective,” he said, adding that most companies do it for security or enforcement while he brings a health and safety approach.

He started the company “doing alcohol and drug detection to keep the mines a little cleaner, a little safer for everybody.”

As of earlier this month, Cheetah Resources, operators of the Nechalacho rare earths mine, began calling on Hicks before flying workers to the mine site at Thor Lake. Everyone that will step foot on the mine site will have to be sniffed first.

“We use the K-9 services several times a week.” said David-Connelly, Cheetah’s vice-president of strategy and corporate affairs.

Hicks said, “Cheetah is going to great lengths to keep the site clean and safe.”

A black Labrador retriever named OD was the detection services’ first dog. OD has been on the job for 11 years, although Hicks said “going to work is his happiest time.”

OD will continue to work as a detection dog “as long as he’s enjoying it and he’s healthy,” he said.

Hicks’ leads the dogs around people, letting the canines sniff everyone.

If the dogs pick up a scent of drugs, they will immediately sit down, letting Hicks know there’s something suspicious on the person.

If it’s a legal drug, Hicks will return it when the individual gets back from the mine site.

“We encourage a healthy lifestyle away from work but we can’t enforce what you do in your private time,” he said. “We give the employees an opportunity to get educated that they can’t bring certain things to the [mine] site. On the first occasion, I may return it to you, or you can just say you want me to get rid of it or destroy it.”

But if any illegal drugs is found, it is taken and destroyed.

The animals can detect alcohol or any type of drug that is methamphetamine or opiate-based.

“The dogs are considered a family pet when they’re off duty,” Hicks said. “That’s the environment that I want to keep — I want the dog to be socialized to all people and not to be threatening in any way.”

The detection services has two dogs in the NWT, one in Newfoundland and two in BC. Each dog has its own handler.

Training the dogs can take from two weeks to three months. Hicks starts with experienced dog handlers who are either retired or going into retirement.

While in training, canines are exposed to airplanes, airports, loud machinery, diesel engines, explosions going off and anything that could scare or make a normal dog jittery.

A narcotics detection dog named Topaz works in Norman Wells for North of Sixty K-9 Detection Services. Photo courtesy of Mark Hicks
OD, a black Labrador retriever, sniffs out drugs that are either methamphetamine or opiate-based. Photo courtesy of Mark Hicks