COLUMBUS — Drug smugglers are learning a lesson the hard way: Detour around Ohio unless you want to get arrested.
Euro, Jack, Miki, and Pluto are a big part of the reason that drug seizures on Ohio highways have increased dramatically this year from 2012 — 137 percent in methamphetamines, 87 percent in cocaine, and 25 percent in heroin.
The four central Ohio canines are among 32 specially trained dogs on duty with the State Highway Patrol statewide. That’s twice as many as 10 years ago.
Because of the dogs’ presence in the state, drug smugglers are starting to deliberately move shipments around rather than through Ohio, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
“We’re trying to make Ohio unattractive to the business these people bring to our great state,” said Patrol Superintendent Paul Pride.
The canine program is a major investment for the patrol.
The dogs, either Dutch shepherds or Belgian Malinois, are bought only from the Netherlands at a cost of up to about $14,000 apiece, including initial training.
Drug-forfeiture money pays the cost.
Sgt. Terri Mikesh trains each dog to sniff out drugs and explosives and then carefully matches them with a trooper handler, whose duty is to work with the dogs full time.
Patrol officials said the canines more than earn their keep by helping prevent dealers from feeding the state’s drug problem.
Opioids alone were responsible for 1,765 fatal overdoses in Ohio in 2011. That’s more than the total number of people killed in auto accidents in Ohio that year.
Last month, Euro sniffed out 52 pounds of cocaine — worth an estimated $2 million — that was hidden in a false wall in a 2001 Freightliner tractor-trailer that had been stopped for a turn-signal violation on I-70 near West Jefferson in Madison County.
The trailer was loaded with humidifiers bound for a Home Depot in New Jersey.
Days before that, a dog assisted in the seizures of 42 pounds of cocaine and 2 pounds of black-tar heroin in Wood County.
The patrol bought its first six dogs under former Superintendent Thomas Rice in 1990. The number has steadily increased over the years.
“He’s basically the best partner you could have,” Trooper Jerrold March said about Jack, the dog he handles. “He thinks everything we’re doing today is a game.”
The dogs are trained to search for four scents: cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine. When they find what they’re looking for, they are rewarded by the handler with their “toy” — usually a piece of PVC pipe — several warm pats on the head, and encouraging words.
Capt. Rick Fambro, criminal-patrol commander and overseer of the canine program, said the dogs elevate the work of the patrol.
Like any good employee, patrol dogs do retire, typically after eight or nine years of duty.
Handlers are given the option to keep their dog.
All of them have.