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June 14, 2021

Dogs can sniff out trouble on campus

San Benito High School students have some regular visitors who come to campus two to three times a week – a pair of golden retrievers named Ranger and Sparks, along with their handlers Sean and Janelle Haggett.

When they are on the job, Ranger and Sparks wear a vest that signals to them that it is time to work. On a recent morning, the dogs made their presence known on the “senior mound” in the center of the campus before they were taken inside the locker rooms to sniff around the metal doors. The dogs are certified in K-9 narcotic detection to find marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, crack cocaine or opium.

The areas the dogs search change with each visit, sometimes searching the perimeter of the campus or in bushes. Other times they search the locker rooms. They have not yet been used in classrooms to sniff backpacks, something that is approved by the high school district board policy.

Principal Krystal Lomanto said the dogs serve as a visual deterrent and that she has seen drug-related suspensions decrease from the start of the year.

The Haggetts offer the service for free through support from Greenwood Chevrolet, Lil’ Pal’s Pet World, and Janelle’s parents, Randy and Gloria Hanvelt. They are working on getting approved for nonprofit status so they can increase donations or apply for grants while also expanding the number of schools with which they work. They are in talks with Anzar High School and the Hollister School District about potential partnerships at more schools.

Janelle is a dog trainer by trade who teaches group classes for a company in Los Gatos. Sean worked as a general contractor for many years. He said when the economy started to slow down – and building slowed with it – they started thinking of something else he could do. They talked about training the dogs for search and rescue, bomb detection or as cadaver seekers.

“He doesn’t like anything to do with that,” Janelle said, of cadavers. “I said, ‘Let’s do some drug dogs.’ And he said, ‘OK, I could do that.’”

They found a trainer and it took six months of intensive work for the dogs to be certified. In the final test, they said the dogs were tempted with fresh fast food and other distractions. If they had gone for the food before hitting the drug mark – scented Q-tips or cotton balls used in training – they would have been suspended for 60 days before they could test for certification again. Likewise, if the animal relieves itself during the test, it is a 30-day waiting period to retest.

The dogs do spend a few hours each day training to maintain their skills on the days they do not visit the campus. But Sean said they know when they are heading to “work.”

“When we get around the corner from the school, they start barking,” Sean said.

He said the number one question they get from students on campus is asking if they can pet the dogs. The answer is always no, when they dogs have their vests on. But this week Lomanto arranged a meeting between the Haggetts and the principal’s advisory committee.

During the meeting, the dogs were allowed to have their vests off to interact with the students. Sparks put his paws up on some of the students, while Ranger headed toward a box of donuts. The kids laughed and petted the dogs before discussing the benefits and concerns they have about having drug detection dogs on campus.

Most of the students in the group said they see the dogs as a positive thing because they prevent drug use and make the campus safer. One student said the dogs are a “cute way to provide a safe environment.” Others said it is good because there are fewer suspensions and fewer students in trouble. The students also shared that their might be issues with students who have dog allergies or who are afraid of dogs. Others said it might be embarrassing if a student is singled out when they have a prescription drug.

Lomanto explained that the dogs are not allowed to sniff students, but in the future they may be used to sniff backpacks. She said drug-detecting dogs are used to sniff the bags students bring with them on the overnight grad night trip in the spring.

“We use them as a deterrent,” she said. “It’s our job to keep a safe environment.”

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