Sampson loves his job — an assertion many people cannot make. Of course, Sampson is not like most people. In fact, he is not a person at all. Sampson is the University of Louisville Police Department’s drug dog, but he is not like most drug dogs.
Just hearing the words “drug dog” can strike up images of an aggressive German shepherd cinching down on a victim’s arm. Outside of having similar tasks as other drug dogs, Sampson bears no resemblance to the military type of drug dog. Often found in jovial spirit, friendly and energetic Sampson is a 2-year-old chocolate lab rescue. As Dion Dodson, Sampson’s handler, points out, “Sampson was selected for his non-aggressive attributes,” which is reassuring since he frequently mingles with students.
Once Dodson brings Sampson into the ULPD conference room, he jubilantly identifies David James, ULPD operations commander, and begins licking his hand until he pats him on the head. Obviously familiar with Sampson, James cracks a grin while Sampson tries to do a few circles within the confines of the close space of the room. After a few minutes pass he notices a visitor, cuts across the room, gives him a few sniffs and starts licking his hand.
Although it is easy to get caught up in Sampson’s joyful spirit, he does have a job at U of L: to detect drugs.
“Sampson is trained on marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine and heroin,” explained Dodson. “He’s strongest on marijuana. Of course, it’s the one that has the most pungent odor of those things.”
There are limitations to what Sampson can detect. Just after the beginning of the fall semester, Dodson and Sampson responded to a call in Miller Hall.
“It obviously was where someone had been smoking,” Dodson said. “Well, the dogs don’t pick up on smoke, they don’t detect marijuana smoke, but the odor of the plant itself.
“It’s an oddball that can pick up on the smoke odor itself. Then it might just be the fact that it’s smoke not just marijuana smoke.”
Much of the reason Sampson can smell specific odors is due to the training he received while attending Kentucky Lab Rescue in Winchester, Kentucky. According to Dodson drug detection dogs are selected based whether or not they have a strong ball drive. “They love to chase a ball, so they are actually very good for narcotics detection,” Dodson explained.
During a regular working shift, Dodson will make several stops, generally in a high-profile area on campus, to throw a tennis ball with Sampson. Although throwing a ball can seem more like a leisurely activity, it serves an important function for Sampson. From the very beginning of Sampson’s training he learns to associate the tennis ball with the smell of drugs.
The process begins with the canine being brought into a room with multiple boxes on a wall. One of the boxes will contain drugs. That box will have a tennis ball attached to a rope hanging from it, which will catch the attention of the drug dog. The dog will go after the ball, while someone holding the rope will pull the ball into the box, fighting for the ball will cause the dog to shove his nose into the box and get a full whiff of the drug. After they have mastered sniffing for the drugs without a tennis ball, they progress to being able to indicate the location of drugs.
Sampson’s indicator is to sit down. “He’s actually a passive dog and sits. Now the interesting thing about him is, if narcotics are somewhere they should be easily found, in a cabinet or something of that sort, he’ll usually put his nose right on it, take a couple of steps back and sit down. Well, if he doesn’t get his reward fast enough, he’ll bark.” The reward: his ball.
While being able detect drugs is his main task, he does have other jobs to perform, such as public relations. As many first year students are aware, Sampson made an appearance at the Blue Light Special during Welcome Week. Before the demonstration, drugs are hidden on the stage, then once Sampson is“cut loose,” he sniffs around until he locates the drugs and sits down.
“Everyone’s like (makes a gasping sound) Wow!” Dodson said. “At freshman orientation day, we sat at the activities center at Strickler and it was like a rock concert. Everybody wanted to come up and shake hands. So he was pretty popular that day.”
Besides being popular and good at drug detection, it’s clear why the University decided to purchase Sampson. Earlier this semester, U of L President James Ramsey sent out a newsletter alerting staff and the student body about campus safety.
“We are seeing a spike in crime right now – much of it driven by the huge growth in heroin usage not only around our campus but throughout our community and the state, and both the U of L Police department and Louisville Metro Police are aggressively working to apprehend the criminals,” Ramsey said.
“You know, there’s a little PR involved, I think,” Dodson said. In light of the recent drug-related crimes committed around campus, especially the drug-induced death of cheerleader Danielle Cogswell in July, as well as the growing pains the University is experiencing due to major expansions in neighboring areas, Sampson embodies a representation of student safety.
“You know, it’s not that we necessarily need to catch somebody,” James said. “As long as we’re preventing people from bringing drugs to campus simply by his presence, then that’s a good thing.”