Ray McCarty acknowledges that people are not always glad to see him.
Being a professional handler of a private drug detection dog doesn’t always put you in the happiest situations.
But at least one father was happy to have him and his dog Phoenix there.
This father hired McCarty and Phoenix, a black Belgian malinois breed, to simply stand outside as the new boyfriend of his daughter pulled up for a date.
“The young boyfriend pulled up in his car, and the dad asked him if I would mind if I took just a quick walk around his car to make sure it was safe for his daughter to get in, and the kid just drove off, and there wasn’t a date that night,” McCarty said. “I don’t know what happened afterward because I left, but I’m sure the daughter was a little upset. But it worked. The dad’s suspicions were right, and I doubt he ever came back.”
McCarty, who lives in the Englewood area in Independence, started the business about four years ago when he got the idea from his daughter Larissa, who had come home from Van Horn High School one day and talked about how the school had gone on a lockdown that day.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what was going on? Was there a gun? What happened?’” McCarty said. “And she said, ’No, the police dogs were searching the hallways for drugs.’ And I just started thinking, ‘Wow, what an awesome idea it would be to have a drug dog that’s not law enforcement, where they don’t have to go on lockdown?’ So I started it.”
He bought Phoenix, who will turn 4 in May, from a friend in St. Louis when she was 3 months old and started training her and training himself to be a handler when she was 4 months old.
Since he was working other jobs, including as a part-time police officer for the village of Oakview off North Oak Trafficway in the Northland, it took him about nine months to complete her and his training.
McCarty said Phoenix took to the training immediately but it proved harder for him.
“I didn’t realize there was so much to being a handler. I thought I could get a drug dog and be in business,” he said. “Then I found out it’s 80 percent handler and about 20 percent dog. And there are things you can do to mess your dog up, and I had no idea about any of that stuff.”
Now he is a full-time drug dog handler and his Metro K9 Narcotic Detection Services business (816-309-9196; kcdrugdog.com; www.facebook.com/kcdrugdog/) has been hired hundreds of times since by parents, businesses, addiction treatment services, area schools and college fraternities.
Most of his business currently comes from concerned parents. Some have canceled the visit several times. One parent kept canceling numerous times, and then the child was later arrested for selling meth and the drugs, he later found out from the parent, had been hidden in the child’s bedroom at the time.
“If I go through a family’s home, I’m never greeted with a smile,” McCarty said. “The second we walk through the threshold someone usually breaks down crying because it just became very real that they have a stranger with a dog in their home.”
McCarty emphasizes that his business is purely confidential and is not affiliated with law enforcement, though he has been contracted by a few police departments at times. He once had ABC’s “Nightline” show call him to go on his next private home search but he refused because it would have violated the client’s confidentiality.
“It’s nice to be able to tell people, to make them feel better – people who are already apprehensive about me coming in – that I’m not affiliated with any law enforcement officials,” he said. “And that would scare some people, because if we find something in the kid’s bedroom, I don’t want the parents to think that I’m on the phone with my buddy from the PD as soon as we leave. It’s all about confidentiality.”
In a recent demonstration at McCoy Park, Phoenix quickly found the drug smell in one of three boxes placed on a playground. When she detects a smell, she backs off and sits straight up at attention. Once the scent is detected, she receives her reward, a tennis ball.
“Some dogs are trained with food reward but she didn’t have to because her ball drive is so insane,” McCarty said.
Phoenix first learned how to detect marijuana at 4 months old and then added the smells for cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin at 6 months old. She can also detect derivatives of those drugs, like crack, which is cocaine-based, and ecstasy, which is meth-based.
“To my knowledge she’s never false alerted,” McCarty said. “But again, I don’t see every find. But I have a feeling I probably would have received a call time to time if she alerted and they didn’t find anything. She will alert on residual odors, and that’s fine with me because I want to be able to tell my customer that there was something here. It’s up to them what they do with that.”
McCarty also said that she is not easily distracted too. One time she ignored food littered inside of a car that had been stopped by police and found the drugs despite that.
“She is so focused,” McCarty said. “ … She is an extremely food-driven dog. If you drop something at home, there’s nothing but a black blur and you don’t see her again. And this car was covered in food, sub sandwiches, Cheetos, and she didn’t even acknowledge any of it. She knew what to do. And that wasn’t something I really had to train her to do. It’s just her drive is so one-directional. When she’s working that’s all she cares about.”
McCarty hopes to expand his business more into schools and addiction recovery services. He attended an addiction recovery conference last week in Blue Springs.
“Their goal is to get people free of this addiction, and when people are going to these rehabs they say it’s easier to find drugs at the rehab than it is on the street,” McCarty said. “A friend of mine told me that a friend of his told him she had to check herself out of rehab because it was too easy to get dope in there. The dog comes through once, twice, three times a month, whatever, and that will just stop. And it’s going to make it safer for the residents.”
Schools, he said, could benefit from his services as a deterrent.
“What we do is a deterrent,” he said. “It’s not really to get anybody in trouble. I don’t want to see anybody get in trouble, but it’s getting people to understand that this type of deterrent is out there. If you start bringing a dog around once in awhile, once or twice a month, then the illegal activity is probably going to stop. … Schools, they’re in denial of the drug problems.”
He is also trying to get real estate companies to use his services to sweep through homes before they are turned over to new buyers. He said one company regretted not using his service after the new homeowners discovered a cache of pot in the ceiling of their new home and became angry with the real estate company.
McCarty also said Phoenix could be useful in enforcing drug-free policies at businesses, possibly getting insurance companies to lower their rates because of the assurance of the elimination of drugs.
He is looking to expand his business to gun detection, and is now training a chocolate Labrador to do that.
Phoenix, meanwhile, will be content to do her job. She is friendly, McCarty says, to passers-by but not overly so. She has one purpose.
“When you have people come up in public, I feel bad, because I say, ‘You can pet her all you want but just don’t be offended if she doesn’t make eye contact with you or she ignores you,’” McCarty said. “… She just wants to work and make me happy – and get her ball.”