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Dogs' New Trick: Finding Cellphones

Maryland has some of the country's first trained search dogs -- not for people or drugs, but for cellphones. Dogs like Tazz and Alba could help solve a nationwide problem of smuggled cellphones in prisons.Video: Dan Morse/The Washington PostEditor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com

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By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

We could all use one from time to time: a dog that can find the darn cellphone.

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Maryland has three. Their job is to sniff out phones smuggled into prisons.

"Seek," Sgt. David Brosky told his dog Alba yesterday, offering a public demonstration at the former Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.

Alba made her way through an unoccupied prison cell until she came upon a rolled-up pair of jeans on a bed. She sat, a signal she had found something.

"Good girrrrrrrrrrl," said Brosky, a corrections officer, handing the dog a ball, a reward for finding the black cellphone tucked in the pants.

The state's trained dogs -- Tazz and Rudd, along with Alba -- could be the solution to a problem facing prison administrators nationwide, a solution taking hold in the Washington region.

Smuggled cellphones allow inmates to run criminal enterprises, threaten witnesses and warn fellow inmates about the movements of correctional officers, state officials said.

"Cellphones are perhaps the worst type of contraband," Gary D. Maynard, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, said yesterday. "In most cases, they provide an easy, continuing connection back to the inmate's life on the street."

As cellphones have become smaller, they have become easier to hide. They are smuggled into prisons by inmates on work-release programs, visiting family members, contractors working in the facilities and corrections officers, state officials said. In some cases, phones have been tossed over fences to prisoners, officials said.

Inmates don't just use the phones; they trade and sell them, sometimes for as much as $350.

The three Maryland dogs have been trained to smell cellphones using techniques employed to teach dogs to smell drugs. It isn't clear which parts of phones the dogs detect, but the animals probably take in a combination of odors from various sections, said Maj. Peter Anderson, who heads up the state's K-9 operations for prisons.

It's harder for dogs to detect cellphones than marijuana, Anderson said. But it was clear yesterday that Alba and Tazz (Rudd didn't participate) were up to the challenge.

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