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From finding drugs to explosives, K-9 dogs help Conroe ISD

December 22, 2017 GMT

The marijuana stash wasn’t hard to find.

Not for Fila anyway.

Trotting excitedly, Fila, a police dog in the Conroe Independent School District, runs first to a white GMC Sierra pickup truck but instantly leaps to a multi-colored sedan, followed by a black Dodge Ram before finally settling on a large white van a few feet from where she began her search.

Looking toward her partner, CISD police Cpl. Joel Armstrong, Fila taps one of her paws on the driver side of the white van.

“Where?” Armstrong asks her. “Show me.”

Panting, Fila taps again and looks at Armstrong expectantly.

Armstrong hurls a tennis ball in her direction, and the 6-year-old Belgian Malinois dog scampers off to fetch it.

Armstrong and Fila are partners; a K-9 unit whose responsibilities include detecting narcotics inside backpacks, classrooms, lockers and vehicles in the parking lots of dozens of campuses across the 348-square-mile school district. The district has three police dogs, Fila, Bronco and Clara. Fila and Bronco focus on illegal drugs such as opioids, marijuana, cocaine and cocaine-byproducts as well as methamphetamine, among other drugs. Clara hunts for explosives.


From marijuana and ecstasy to cocaine and heroin, these detection dogs can sniff out a handful of illegal drugs, including any variation of the main form of a drug such or crack cocaine.


Conroe ISD Police Chief William Harness said in most cases, the dogs are used in preventative work in an effort to keep schools drug-free.

“Our drug dogs have alerted on vehicles, have alerted on lockers, alerted on backpacks and other things,” Harness said. “On a regular basis.”

For a district with more than 60 campuses and roughly 62,000 students, that equates to thousands of searches a year using a narcotics dog. Information regarding the actual number of searches or alerts the district has made this year was not readily available.

According to a December 2017 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana use by adolescents nationwide reportedly increased slightly among eighth- 10th and 12th grade students in 2017.

The study released by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring The Future measures the use of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and other illicit substances by eighth-,10th- and 12th graders from 380 middle and high schools across the country, about 45,000 students.

Marijuana was the one of only a few substances to increase in use. Drinking alcohol, cigarette smoking and other types of illicit drug use declined in 2017, according to the study.

To educate students on the dangers of illicit drug use, the K-9 units do a lot of community outreach, such as presentations at schools with kids and parents, Harness said.

“We talk to parents about talking about drugs,” he said. “Or issues that we see in the school environment and school safety issues.”


Armstrong said that when the dogs and their partner aren’t making a presentation at a campus, they’re running cars and checking lockers.

On any given day, a Conroe ISD police K-9 unit can “run” up on average between 40 to 60 cars on a campus parking lot or 3,000 lockers inside a school building, Armstrong added.

The typical day for a K-9 unit begins with the officer checking on the physical wellness of the dog, including warming them up through exercise, he said.

“Then you’ll pick a random area and say, ‘We’re going to run this section of cars in the parking lot,’” he said. “It’s completely random. You just drive by and I’m going to check this one. And then you run your dog by that set of cars.”

When a K-9 unit decides to check the inside of a school building, they’re thorough, Armstrong said.

“Typically, when we do lockers, we like to do all the lockers inside of the building,” he said. “We’ll run all the lockers in a room, which is actually extremely long and hard deployment for these dogs.”


In 2010, the Conroe ISD Police Department began using Belgian Malinois dogs instead of German Shepherds or Labradors, which the agency had used early on.

Hari was the district’s last German Shepherd and died in December 2013.

According to the American Kennel Club, the German Shepherd dog breed dates back to the 1890s and were prized for their intelligence, loyalty and utility.

Armstrong said those are all great qualities to have in a working dog, adding that the Belgian Malinois breed has all the same qualities as does a German Shepherd but is more compact and a lot faster. The Belgian Malinois is also less prone to injury and health issues, he said.

“When you got a really big dog, their work is hard anyway,” Armstrong said. “Nature really didn’t design them to be in the back of the car, always shifting their weight.”

The life expectancy for a German Shepherd is between seven to 10 years compared to a Belgian Malinois, which has an average lifespan of 14 to 16 years, according to the AKC.

The Conroe ISD police Cpl. Mike Meeks said medical issues, age or and sometimes death during an operation are all reasons a police dog will be retired from service. None of the Conroe ISD K-9s have died in the line of duty, he added.

Meeks is also a K-9 handler but his dog, 5-year-old Clara, specializes in explosive ordinance disposal.

But no matter the breed of the agency’s K-9 unit, the work is going to be tough.


The dogs begin training at an early age.

Born in the Netherlands and brought to Texas, Fila began training with the district’s police department at 18 months old.

Armstrong took a month-long class to become a K-9 handler at Cobra Canine, where he met Fila. They bonded, he said.

“As far as training, we’re never finished training,” he said. “We train every week. We train every day. That’s how the dog works. It’s just an everyday thing. Kind of like a professional athlete.”

Handlers will imprint on the dogs the smell of what they are trying to get them to detect. In Fila’s case, it’s drugs.

Then handlers will try to get them to associate a reward with the drug smell, Armstrong said. Once the two become associated, the dog will head to the strongest source of the smell, he said.

Clara, Meek’s partner, can detect 19,000 chemical makeups, Meeks said.

“She can sniff out anything from firecrackers to gunpowder,” Meeks said. “Anything that has an explosive on it. She can also find bullet casings after a gun’s been fired. She can find a weapon that was recently fired and (has) no ammunition with it, because there is residue that’s still on the gun.”

Harness said Clara’s expertise in detecting explosives also is used as a preventative measure in schools, checking vehicles and lockers on a campus, specifically to check for gunpowder residue.

The K-9s at the district’s police department are three out of about a dozen K-9 dog officers throughout Montgomery County.

Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Scott Spencer said the agency has a total of six K-9 dog officers, including dogs for tracking, patrol, narcotics detection and explosives detection.

Capt. Daniel Zientek, of the Montgomery County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, said the precinct has two police dogs, including an electronics detection dog to support its computer crimes division-the only dog of its kind in the county.


Agencies with K-9 units in Montgomery County include the city of Conroe Police Department and some of the other precincts, which have anywhere from zero to two dogs.

The Conroe ISD Police Department has been called on to assist other agencies in the area, who either might not have a K-9 or require extra detection assistance, Harness said.

“If they (another agency) have a bad guy throwing out a gun in a field, we have done that several times when they can’t find the gun,” Harness said. “They have asked us to deploy our explosive sniffing canine.”

Meeks and K-9 officer Clara went to Super Bowl LI, which took place at the NRG Stadium in Houston. They were one unit out of dozens of others from all over the nation who attended the annual event that draws millions of people.

Armstrong said the district’s K-9s have a contract with other school districts, as well. The K-9 dogs are used in Shepherd, Humble and Coldspring independent school districts. Recently, the K-9 unit found marijuana on one of the campuses, he said.


Meeks and Armstrong, like many K-9 dog handling officers across country, both said they accept that they are putting themselves in danger every day. Armstrong noted that he and Fila could get ambushed or that Meeks and Clara could be blown up.

Meeks said K-9 handler officers spend more time with their dogs than with their own families simply because the handler is responsible for the animal 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“You’re going to grow an attachment to the dog,” Meeks said, adding that it’s part of the job. “And bonding with the dog - if you don’t bond with the dog then the dog is not going to work for you.”

Meeks added that while Clara is a meaningful aspect of his life, he puts the lives of humans first.

“If me and Cpl. Armstrong were to enter the building and he can’t detect explosives like my dog can, he’s got a family, he’s got a wife,” Meeks said. “Clara does not. She has a family but she doesn’t have somebody that she has got to go take care of.”

Armstrong said while the dogs aren’t considered pets during their careers, if something happened to Fila, he would obviously be affected.

“Oh yeah, it’s going to be extremely hard on me,” Armstrong said of Fila suffering a possible injury or dying. “I’m probably not going to come into work the next day.”

The dogs are a crucial component to law enforcement, Armstrong added.

“If we didn’t have these dogs, we wouldn’t be nearly as effective,” he said. “It makes us so much more effective. The K-9 teams-there’s just things that they can do that a single officer couldn’t do by himself.”

Meeks agreed.

“No. 1., it’s going to cut down manpower,” Meeks explained. “And I’ll just speak on the (explosive detection) half. As far as endangering lives, (the dogs) will only endanger two lives for me to search this building. If it was just officers, you’d probably have to put three to four officers in here just to search it.”

But with a K-9, it’s just “me and Clara” who take on the danger, he added.

“To me there’s a saying in the bomb dog world, ‘You’re six feet away from being a hero or a zero,’” Meeks said. “If you find (the bomb), you’re a hero. If you don’t find it, the two of us could be blown up, or allow other people to come into the building and get blown up.”