Atos runs from tire to tire, sniffing rows of used cars at Port Everglades before they're shipped to Latin America. The 5-year-old German shepherd isn't looking for drugs. He's looking for money.
He's one of 50 currency dogs that helped U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seize more than $40 million in cash leaving the United States last fiscal year. The dogs are trained to smell ink and paper used to print U.S. currency.
The currency dogs have long helped federal agents sniff out drug money leaving South Florida in luggage and cargo, but local police now have started buying and training pups for their own investigations.
Cero, a German shepherd, started working at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in December. He is the agency's first currency dog. Deputies trained Cero themselves, and PBSO now is training two Labrador retrievers to do the same.
"They find money in places we don't," said PBSO Col. James Stormes. Cero already has helped investigators find tainted money in cases still under investigation, he said.
Police use of currency dogs is a growing trend, Stormes said, and deputies wanted to try them out after hearing about their success with other local law enforcement agencies.
Last month, a currency dog alerted his handler to $1.1 million in the carry-on luggage of a passenger boarding an international flight at Miami International Airport, according to the South Florida High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area office.
It's illegal to take more than $10,000 in undeclared cash out of the United States. Nearly every day the dogs catch someone trying to leave Miami and Fort Lauderdale with that much money or more, federal officials said.
The dogs even detect cash that gets past the x-ray machines.
In December, a currency dog found about $50,000 in a package destined for Haiti. Investigators searched the sender's Broward County home and found nearly $256,000 stashed in boxes and bags.
In February 2011, a dog sniffed out about $65,000 in Delray Beach when authorities executed an arrest warrant.
"The dogs can save us the trouble of dismantling a whole house," said Tim Wagner, director of the local High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area office, which paid for two of the Palm Beach County currency dogs. Each dog cost the Sheriff's Office about $4,000. Two of them will be available for work with local police departments.
The Broward Sheriff's Office bought its first currency dogs about two years ago. Cooper, a black Labrador retriever trained in Canada, caught a drug suspect trying to leaveFort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airportwith about $100,000 strapped to her body, said the dog's handler, Sgt. Jeff Cirminiello.
Cooper and two other currency dogs have helped detectives find cash evidence to build narcotics and money-laundering cases, Cirminiello said.
The return on their investment in the dogs is great, he said, because dogs get paid with praise and treats. After finding a major stash, Cirminiello rewards Cooper with his favorite rubber chew toy.
"He'll find $100,000, but all he wants is a $5 Kong [toy]," Cirminiello said.Copyright © 2012, South Florida Sun-Sentinel