Caleb is a high-energy Dutch shepherd who loves his work — sniffing out drugs. That makes him a favorite for parents who pay for the pooch's services. But he's also a threat to teens who are hiding a drug habit.
Caleb is one of three certified drugdogs for Boca Raton-based private Special Narcotic Investigative Force, or SNIF for short. Andy Novotak, a former police officer for the Florida East Coast Railway, started the company in 1985 and still runs it.
He works for people who want to make sure family members or employees aren't using drugs, but who don't want to involve police.
Traditionally, clients are sober houses, strip clubs and private high schools. Yet he's got a growing segment among suspicious parents who want to know if their teens are hiding a stash.
"Parents call us when they suspect their kids may be doing something," he said. "The dog sniffs the rooms and finds their hiding places. It's a confidential thing. They don't have to involve the police."
If a dog discovers contraband, Novotak instructs his clients to dispose of the drugs so they're not holding illegal drugs, he said. But if his dog turns up a large quantity, Novotak said, he calls police.
Still, it's risky business to operate a company based on finding illegal substances, said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"It's like getting a little, but further than you want to get," O'Donnell said. "You're essentially hunting for evidence of crime. You're ferreting that out and putting yourself in the position of law enforcement personnel. How do you know what happens to the drugs when somebody else takes possession?"
About a year ago, Novotak and Garo, aGerman shepherd, searched a house west of Boca Raton. Garo showed there was a sign that drugs had been in the teen's bedroom -- but nothing was found.
On the way out, Novotak offered to search the garage and the dog found the teen's marijuana — stuffed inside a door panel of his mother's Volvo.
"These kids are pretty clever these days," Novotak said.
Several parents who've hired SNIF declined to discuss their experience, concerned about their family's privacy.
Novotak charges $150 an hour and currently travels across Florida, working about three cases for parents a month. He also hires hisdogs out to help search for missing pets.
Dressed in black, Novotak cuts a daunting figure when he works with Caleb, whose bottom teeth were replaced with titanium teeth following a training accident.
Jim Tichy, owner of The Lodge at Delray Beach, a sober house, said his clients are surprised when they see Caleb coming in to sniff for drugs.
"It's an extra cost but it's well worth it," Tichy said. "I don't have any incidents in my houses because I do such things."
For Caleb, finding drugs is a game, Novotak said, and he doesn't want the game to stop.
"These dogs, that's all they want to do is work," he said. "He's almost a little too much for me. He'll be pacing the floors at night when I'm trying to go to bed."
American Heritage School of Boca/Delray hired SNIF for years to search its high school students' lockers, backpacks and cars. The dogs were a successful deterrent, Headmaster Bob Stone said.
"His dogs were trained professionally, were never aggressive and they were able to do what he trained them to do," Stone said.
During Novotak's two or three unannounced visits per year, the school went on lockdown, with students told to stay put, Stone said. The dog came in and sniffed. If he was drawn to a car or locker, a student was told to open it or face expulsion.
"It's not a lot for you to open your door if you haven't done anything," Stone said. "At our school you don't have any rights. Our rules are very black and white, for the safety of the school."
Some drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, was found in the school over the years, Novotak said, but no drugs.
"It was more of a symbolic thing," Stone said. "We've had situations where the kids didn't think we were very serious about [a zero-tolerance drug policy]…All the sudden these dogs, big German shepherds, came in and they understood we meant business."
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