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A narc with a bark

By Staff | Mar 7, 2010

Star, a female black labrador pointer mix, once fostered by Nathan and Allyson Larsen, will soon complete her training as a narcotic detection dog in the Twin Cities. Star’s cleverness, high energy level and drive for toys are some of the reasons she was adopted from the Faribault County Humane Society by security personnel based in the Twin Cities.

One of the greatest stories to ever come out of the Faribault County Humane Society, since its rebirth in September 2008, involves a dog named ‘Star.’

The female black labrador pointer mix, once abandoned, has led a sort of ‘rags to riches life’ since she first was brought to Dr. Jack Peterson’s Veterinary Office in Bricelyn in the spring of 2009.

“My wife Allyson and I had just transported a golden retriever mix, we were fostering, to Dr. Peterson’s Veterinary Office for an appointment when a guy came in with a black and white dog,” says Nathan Larsen. “He said he was the site manager from the Prairie River Camp north of Bricelyn. The dog had either been abandoned or was lost. He wondered if anyone had contacted the veterinary office about the dog. He said he would keep it for awhile until someone claimed her.”

Unfortunately, no one claimed the dog, so she was turned over to the local Humane Society in April 2009.

As members of this volunteer organization, the Larsens agreed to foster the dog until it was adopted.

“She was an incredibly affectionate dog with lots of energy,” says Allyson. “She was a very sweet dog who loved her stuffed animals.”

One afternoon while in the care of the animal-loving Larsens, Star Jones was being interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey show. Allyson knew ‘Star’ was a fitting name for the dog.

“We got her in April,” says Allyson. “We put announcements on the radio about her and also posted a picture and description of her on petfinder.com.”

In July, the Larsen’s received an inquiry about Star from a lady who lived in the Cities. She ended up adopting Star, but it didn’t work out since she already had one older dog and two cats. Star was simply too energetic and did not fit in.

Star was returned to the Larsen’s by the tearful lady who later sent a whole box of toys for Star to enjoy.

Allyson thought it was only appropriate a thank you note be written for the toys, so she penned a letter as if it had been written by Star. In part it reads:

…I LOVE THE TOYS! As soon as the package came, my foster mom went to open it and I was curious! I immediately jumped up on the couch next to her and tried to sniff the contents of the package. The first toy I got was the raccoon. I LOVED IT immediately! I carried it everywhere with me. My foster parents say I’m possessive of my toys sometimes. I don’t know what that means! Hopefully someone will fall in love with me and adopt me really soon!

By August the Larsen’s received a call from Janet Ballard, a trainer for working dogs at the Minneapolis International Airport. She had seen Star’s profile on the internet and wanted to meet with the Larsen’s to run Star through a bunch of tests and see whether she met their criteria. Among the qualities Ballard was looking for in Star was her drive for toys, her cleverness and her energy.

Star passed with flying colors.

The Larsens were happy to know the energetic and toy loving dog was again going to be adopted.

“Knowing Star is being trained by security personnel as a narcotic sniffing dog makes it seem as if she is serving our country,” says Allyson. “It’s also probably a good way to use her energy. She would play all day long if she could.”

Presently, Star is staying with her trainer, Steve Pearson, in the Twin Cities.

Pearson says it is common to get detector dogs from shelters such as the Faribault County Humane Society. Common breeds used for this purpose include pointers, labradors and Heintz 57 varieties.

“Dogs like Star are a pain in the butt,” says Pearson. This is what makes some owners give up and abandon them.

“You have to think and speak dog,” says Pearson. “Dog handling is not an easy gig. You have to bond with the animal. Dogs live in a non-verbal body language mode, so the handler has to understand this and respond accordingly.”

Star is not certified yet as a narcotic search dog. Hopefully, Pearson says, she should be ready for certification later this month.

Typically, a basic training course for a narcotic search dog is 6-10 weeks before they can find an odor the majority of the time. It could take up to 6 months to a year however, before they really become good at their job.

Originally, Janet Ballard, head trainer, had thought Star would ‘fit’ as an explosives search dog. However, Pearson says she is a little too energetic for this. In fact, she is “kind of a bull in a china closet.”

Pearson says the name the Larsen’s selected fits her.

“Star knows she is a star,” says Pearson. “She’s sassy and is simply crazy about toys. This is good because we can use toys as a reward instead of food. We like a toy reward dog.”

He also says Star works for Star. She will burst if she cannot work. She likes repetition and would never be the type of dog to just lie in front of a fireplace.

“Star is a very energetic dog,” says Pearson. “She’s smart and she’s very soft. She is not a rough and tumble dog.

During the training process, which is basically a game of hide and seek, Pearson says they generally show a dog the odor of whatever substance they want found. The handler teaches the dog if they find this odor, then sit, they will be given a toy as a reward.

The key to a good narcotic search dog is the fact they must use their nose and not their eyes to find the substance.

“They have to be out of sight, out of mind dogs,” explains Pearson. “They have to have a strong work ethic in which they are willing to work all day long until their tongue is three feet long and they finally find the treasure. It’s like one big treasure hunt with a toy as the reward.

Star is getting her training in churches, car rental lots, schools, in hangars and at the airport. She also is being taught to get on conveyor belts.

“We teach them to sit and not to destroy,” says Pearson. “This is why these facilities allow us to train our animals in them.

Currently, there are two certified narcotic detector dogs and until recently there were six explosive search dogs under the jurisdiction of Ballard. Hopefully, Star will soon join their ranks.

Pearson says because of their excess energy, one has to run dogs such as Star a lot. As a result, he is considering buying a treadmill for Star to wind her down a bit.

“We basically play and have fun,” says Pearson of his interaction with Star.

Star is a unique real life working dog doing her job and having fun along the way.

And to think her journey of service to others began when she was fostered by Nathan and Allyson Larsen, members of the Faribault County Humane Society.