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Top dog in town

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 09/05) - With wide eyes, perky ears and a penchant for drooling, the newest member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police met members of the media Tuesday afternoon.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Handler Cpl. Marks Hicks met the media Wednesday afternoon along with the newest member of the RCMP G Division, Lasse, a five-year-old German Shepherd. - Andrew Raven/NNSL photo

He is Lasse, (pronounced "loss"), a five-year-old German Shepherd from Denmark, who is being tabbed as a saviour in the burgeoning battle against crack cocaine and other illicit drugs in the Northwest Territories.

"He is a tenacious working animal," his handler, Cpl. Mark Hicks, told reporters who gathered at the G-Division headquarters to meet the $85,000 canine.

Lasse lives with Hicks, though he's far from being the family pet. His training in Denmark was strict and did not involve socializing with people, Hicks said.

Wednesday afternoon he moaned while cameras flashed and Hicks answered questions. The press was warned to leave anything they dropped on the ground. "That's his," one officer said.

"He is a high maintenance dog," said Hicks with a smile. "He shows some anxiety, but he's much better. Before, he would be barking."

Hicks, the lone handler on staff at G-Division, the unit that covers the Northwest Territories, has been partnered with dogs since 1985.

He still uses some Danish commands with Lasse though the canine seems to have overcome most of his initial struggles with English.

Lasse is what police call a full-service canine. He can sniff for drugs, tackle criminals and search for missing people and merchandise.

"He can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Hicks said.

The last full-service dog in the Northwest Territories retired in 1975, though there was a drug-sniffer in Yellowknife two years ago.

Police envision Lasse working throughout the Territories, with an emphasis on drug detection, a problem that has worsened in recent years.

He is trained to detect a range of narcotics including crack, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin, Hicks said. Once he has found something suspicious, he sits in place and barks.

Lasse got off to a fast start. Tuesday morning he found 280 grams of crack cocaine inside a package at the bus depot. The drugs had a street value of about $33,000.

Hicks said he moved through the boxes at the bus depot relatively quickly, though his progress was slowed by cold weather which dampens smells.

At about 95 pounds, Lasse also has the strength to bring down fleeing suspects, grabbing them by the arm and hauling them to the ground.

And his reward for all this gruelling police work?

"This," said Hicks, pulling a pock-marked, florescent yellow ball from his pocket. Lasse immediately stood at attention, ears perked and eyes trained on the ball.

"We do not give food rewards," said Hicks, whose system in based on praise and, sometimes, cuddling.

There are about 120 general duty canines in Canada and 20 who specializes in bomb detection. Before, the police in the Northwest Territories would rely on dogs from Northern Alberta.

Lasse does not come cheap. The program start-up was $85,700 and the annual price tag comes to about $187,000 with vet bills, kennel costs and Hick's salary, an RCMP spokesperson said.