Drug Sniffing Dogs Join Sheriff’s Office

Two K-9 teams will begin working in the coming weeks

By Justin Franz
Flathead County Sheriff’s deputies Charles Pesola, left, and Matt Vander Ark, pose with their respective drug-detection dogs, Sawyer and Victor, at Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell on June 19, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office has welcomed two new drug-sniffing dogs to its ranks and the K-9 teams will be deployed in the coming weeks.

Victor, 8 months old, is paired with Deputy Matt Vander Ark and Sawyer, 18 months old, is working with Deputy Charles Pesola. Both dogs are yellow Labradors and trained to sniff out illegal narcotics.

Last year, Sheriff Brian Heino said establishing a K-9 program within the sheriff’s office would be one of his top priorities. Heino initially hoped to have the program in place by 2020, but Vander Ark and Pesola took it upon themselves to work with the Flathead Community Foundation to raise money for the program. Vander Ark said the community response was overwhelming and it quickly raised enough money to buy the dogs and cover most of the associated costs of training and housing them.

Both dogs were acquired through Makor K-9, a California-based company that trains patrol dogs, drug sniffing dogs, bomb sniffing dogs and search and rescue dogs. Jason Kerr, one of Makor’s trainers, said the dogs come from breeders who specialize in working dogs. The dogs spent four weeks in a training program in Indiana hosted by Makor and will now spend two weeks training with their new handlers.

“They’re basically training us now,” Vander Ark said during a training session at Stillwater Christian School.

Victor and Sawyer will be used to find drugs in cars, crime scenes and schools. While drug-related crimes are serious offenses in the eyes of law enforcement, to the dogs it’s all just a game. After the dogs find drugs at a scene, they are able to play with their favorite tennis ball.

“His favorite game is finding drugs,” Vander Ark said. “We don’t want him to be a frisbee dog, we want him to be a drug dog.”

The sheriff’s office recently outfitted two vehicles to house the dogs. The dogs will stay in an enclosed area behind the officer that has a window and fan to keep the animals cool in the summer.

If everything goes well, Vander Ark said the sheriff’s office hopes to get two apprehension dogs sometime next year.

“We want to expand our K-9 program,” he said.