For parents who ever wondered whether their kids were stoned or just moody, strung out or just high strung, Zuko could be the answer.
The 6-year-old Belgian Malinois and his two canine cohorts could be the last weapon for parents in the war on drugs in their own home. For a fee, the trained and certified dogs will be dispatched to sniff out a kid's hidden stash, or to find evidence that drugs were recently in the house.
It's a new service called Dogs Finding Drugs operated by Anne Wills, the owner of a Maryland non-profit, who said she wanted to give parents an extra resource, when trying to talk to their kids about drugs just isn't working.
"They're based off of four main scents – heroin, marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines," Wills said. "They can detect those odors and they can detect anything that has the components of those things in it too."
Wills charges about $200 an hour for the service, which can also be performed at businesses and schools. A sweep of an average-sized house, she said, takes about an hour, though parents can opt just to have the children's rooms and cars searched.
Despite the price tag that may be prohibitively hefty for some families, "we don't want to turn anybody down."
"If money's a problem," she said, "we'll work with the family."
Wills said that in the few hours after news of her just-launched service hit local media, she had booked a half a dozen clients -- all parents -- and had a list of prospective clients to call back. To keep up with demand, Wills expects to expand her team of canines, with two trained dogs on reserve, plus her own dog, which is currently being trained.
"There's a tremendous market. The drugs are so rampant in the schools. Anywhere the kids go they are exposed to it," she said.
She warned parents not to put it past kids to know better than to stash their hoard in the typical go-to hiding places like drawers, books and closets.
"Your child is going to get very creative," she said. "They may hide the stuff in your own bedroom, just so you wouldn't look for it."
Some teens, she said, have taken to hiding their drugs in jars of peanut butter or coffee cans -- scents that may throw off their parents, but not a dog that's been trained to identify individual scents.
When the dogs hit on evidence of drugs, the handlers tell the parents where to look and leave it up to them to find what they're kids have been hiding. Dogs Finding Drugs does not confiscate the drugs nor do they notify authorities, though Wills said she encourages the parents do so.
"We're not law enforcement," she said. "We let them [the parents] go open up the drawer, take the drugs out and then they decide what the course of action will be."
Elizabeth Robertson, the National Institute on Drug Abuse's chief of prevention research, said sending a dog in rather than just talking to a child "creates distrust and puts up a barrier between a parent and child."
And if parents have tried talking and know their children are doing drugs anyway, then "what's the purpose of bringing a dog in the house?" she asked.
"Once their exhibiting the behavior it's up to the parent to get professional help," Robertson said. "Bringing a dog into the house is not going to convince a kid to stop doing drugs."
Professional Questions Legitimacy of Private Drug Sniffing Search
The Dogs Finding Drugs dogs boast certifications from the National Tactical Police Dog Association (NTPDA) and live with their trained handlers.
The animals may be a godsend to parents desperate for a fool-proof way to find out if their kids have a drug problem, but don't want the police involved. But critics question whether a private citizen should undertake a venture like this.
"There's a lot ifs," said Mike Bullock, vice president of the American Working Dog Association, which works with police K-9 teams all over the country.
Bullock, who's worked in the field for 26 years, said he's seen a variety of private search companies come and go with varying degrees of success. The ones that last, he said, hold licenses from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and typically have government contracts.
He questioned Wills' qualifications for running a professional drug search service. He said he has not heard of the NTPDA, the association Wills uses for certification.
"My question is, does she have a DEA license?" he asked. "You've got to be very careful."
Dogs Finding Drugs doesn't hold a DEA license and Wills said she does not need one.
"We are not per se training the dogs from scratch. What we do is get the dogs and the handlers," she said. "They're already certified. We'll do maintenance training, practicing training to keep them sharp."
"We made sure," she said, "we're100 percent official."
For two years, Wills has run Dogs Finding Dogs, a non-profit 501(c)(3) that employs trained search and rescue dogs to help pet owners find their missing animals. She said she had always planned on expanding her existing non-profit to include drug-sniffing dogs.
Wills stumbled into the dog business after taking her shepherd/Labrador retriever mix Heidi to a training facility for obedience and finding that her pooch had a great sense for tracking.
As Wills became more involved with Heidi's training, she absorbed the facility's on-the-side business of helping find lost pets, eventually founding Dogs Finding Dogs.
She now gets more than 300 clients a year and has Heidi in training to become another drug-sniffing dog for Dogs Finding Drugs. Her new venture also offers explosives and firearms detection for parents, schools and businesses, using different dogs trained specifically for that type of search.
Wills, a mother of two grown children, said her work goes beyond the initial drug-sweep.
When drugs are found, she said, her team doesn't just pack it in and head off. Instead, they have partnered with Mike Gimbel, the former director of substance abuse for Baltimore County who now runs a consulting and educational company for those seeking addiction treatment.
"I want to help the parents," she said. "It really cuts you open when you see what these children and families go through."