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The Wyoming Highway Patrol’s canines use fentanyl detection daily

A Wyoming Highway Officer stands outside next to his car and wit his yellow lab.
Aaron Kirlin with the Wyoming Highway Patrol

In a small break room in Laramie, a Wyoming Highway Patrol drug detecting dog searches for methamphetamine.

Becky pushes up against the cabinet where it’s been hidden by her handler. She continually bumps her nose against the cabinet while she licks, scratches, and even bites at the handle before calming into a focused stare. She gets her ball as a reward and happily starts chewing on it.

For Becky and the nine other Highway Patrol drug dogs, this focused stare is their signal to show they’ve detected something. But the continued booping of her nose, they say that’s a Becky thing.

Sergeant Michael Petruso, Becky’s handler, said every one of the dogs has its own unique detection signal.

“The scratching, licking, that's her thing,” said Petruso. “That's her changes and behavior alert. Some dogs you'll just see just bracketing from left to right, up and down.”

Becky is an eight-year-old springer spaniel. She’s worked with her handler, Petruso, for five years. In November of last year, she was trained to detect fentanyl. It’s part of the department’s efforts to fight the ongoing fentanyl crisis in Wyoming.

Fentanyl-related deaths in Wyoming have been on the rise since 2015, with 106 overdose deaths in 2021 alone. Lieutenant Joshua Hardee, the canine team supervisor, said people need to be extremely careful when taking any illicit drug because of the risk of fentanyl.

“It just takes once and it's killing people,” said Hardee. “You should be terrified of trying any drug because of fentanyl because it only takes one time and you're done.”

Because it’s a man-made drug, fentanyl is easy to produce illicitly, and that’s partly why it is often laced in other products. With fentanyl being up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, it’s highly addictive and deadly.

While there has been a desperate need for more resources to help the fentanyl crisis, training canines to detect the drug was extremely dangerous until recently. With only two milligrams being a potentially lethal dose, Hardee said just training to detect fentanyl could put the dogs and their handlers at risk of overdose.

“We met with who we get our canines from, and there was always this skepticism of how this can be done safely, that it's just too dangerous to do fentanyl,” said Hardee. “And there was never really any plans in place or anything that we heard that was safe.”

This was until Wyoming Highway Patrol discovered a new product in late 2021. It’s a tube that’s been infused with the smell of fentanyl. So it releases the scent without any risk to the dog.

All ten narcotic detection canines at the department have been nationally certified for fentanyl detection and have had no incidents or exposures while working. Hardee says there's still a risk for the dogs while working, but the handlers take as many precautions as possible to keep themselves and the dogs safe.

And the dogs don’t just detect fentanyl. They are trained on four other odors too: marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

The handlers spend two weeks training their dog. Trooper Aaron Kirlin has a lot of recent experience with this training. His previous canine partner just retired after seven and a half years.

He started the training process again only a month ago with his new yellow lab, Crank. Kirlin said Crank, at only 15 months old, is already certified.

“He actually certified in everything including fentanyl in his first week,” said Kirlin. “He had about eight days of work before we certified. He's actually already got a couple of real life finds. We were on a deployment last week.”

While the dogs are required to do 16 hours of training a month to maintain their skills, Kirlin said handlers usually exceed this limit.

“Training sounds like it's some sort of work for us,” said Kirlin. “But for them, it's playing. It's hide and seek. You hide the drugs; they seek it, and they get their ball. So, it's more of a game for them.”

The dogs get to use their training pretty often while at work. Kirlin said that with fentanyl becoming more popular, using dogs to find it is a new constant.

“It's seldom that you get a stop, especially local people, where fentanyl is not involved in some way, shape or form,” said Kirlin. “And in some cases, that's the only narcotic that you see in the vehicle. So, it has to make an impression that the dogs are able to detect that one drug.”

While Lieutenant Joshua Hardee said there aren’t any hard numbers on the success of the program, he says even one detection makes a difference.

“You can just say, as a whole, we know we're making a difference,” said Hardee. “Anytime you take an illegal drug off the street, you're saving somebody somewhere.”

Sage Montana is from Parker, Colorado but has been residing in Laramie for the past five years while attending the University of Wyoming. She is pursuing a dual degree in chemistry and communication with a minor in professional writing. After graduating in the spring, Sage plans to attend graduate school to earn a doctorate in analytical chemistry. She has had an internship in biochemical journalism in the past and is excited to continue working in science news. Outside of school and work, she likes to crochet!
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