A few months ago, Dixee was a homeless mutt on the streets of Olive Branch, Mississippi. Now she's a working member of the Memphis Police Department (MPD).
For several years, the MPD has adopted rescues such as Dixee to sniff out narcotics with the Organized Crime Unit (OCU) rather than shell out big bucks for German Shepherds from police canine vendors. Of the department's 10 drug dogs, eight are rescues.
"It's cost effective to train rescues," says Keith Watson, who oversees training of the dogs. "Some of the trained police dogs cost $10,000 to $15,000. But I can spend $5 of city-funded gas to drive to a local shelter and pay $30 or get the dog donated to the city of Memphis. Then I can turn that dog into one of those $10,000 dogs."
Dixee, a tan-colored Labrador and hound mix, was picked up by Olive Branch Animal Control and then adopted through Tipton County's Dogs 2nd Chance program. From there, she went to live in 2nd Chance director Linda Sutphin's home as a foster. In May, Sutphin contacted the MPD to suggest that Dixee might make a good police dog.
"Every dog is not born, designed, or has the enthusiasm to be a police dog," Watson says. "So I give the dogs a seven-point test, and a lot more fail than pass. But sometimes you get a dog that passes the test, and you have a pretty good feeling about it. Dixee had that when I first looked at her."
At Sutphin's home, Watson tested Dixee to determine her level of interest in a tennis ball. Police dogs are trained to sniff out drugs when officers place the odor of narcotics on dog toys.
"[Watson] put a tennis ball under a milk crate and then he stood on the crate. Dixee knocked him off to get to that ball," Sutphin says. "He was very impressed with Dixee."
Dixee whizzed through training, where she learned to detect the presence of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. But not every rescue can handle the stress of police training.
"A lot of rescued dogs have been abused, and when it comes to training, there's a high level of pressure," Watson says. "Some dogs can't take that, and they crash."
Once an animal passes training, they are assigned to a handler. Dogs live as pets in the handler's home, and they accompany their handlers on search warrants and drug raids to detect narcotics.
"The dogs often outlast the police officers," Watson says. "A typical narcotics agent doesn't stay in the department more than five or six years due to promotions. A dog can work about 12 to 13 years depending on the diet and exercise that the handler maintains."
Other K-9 unit dogs have come from the Memphis Animal Shelter as well as from shelters in Hernando, Mississippi, and Lauderdale County.
"These dogs go from death row to a life of luxury," Watson says. "They go from almost losing their lives to saving lives, especially when we're able to stop shipments of drugs from going through our city."