Amy Halm stands at ease with Widowmaker

 There are all kinds of services that people across the nation provide for dogs, but Amy Halm’s two canines provide a service to people – making hers the only business of its kind in Arizona.

The Ahwatukee resident’s two Malinois are drug dogs, not unlike those used by law enforcement to sniff out suspected contraband in vehicles, buildings and other hiding places.

Only Halm and her business, Desert Drug Dog, are all about finding suspected stashes in private homes, schools, businesses and vehicles before they come to the attention of police.

“So, here's what I like to tell people,” explained the onetime public relations and corporate communications manager:

“Don't add a legal problem to your drug problem. Since these dogs are basically the same dogs without a badge as the police are using, if a police dog finds your marijuana, you're going to have to call a lawyer. If my dog finds your marijuana, you're going to call a counselor.”

And so, Halm gets called by worried parents – and spouses – to sweep bedrooms, garages and other places around a home.

Suspicious employers have used her dogs to nose around a warehouse or other workspaces.

Drug treatment centers have her on a monthly schedule to make sure resident-patients aren’t cheating on their regime.

Even owners of newly purchased used vehicles call on Halm if they plan to cross the border – like a guy who once asked:

“I bought a new RV and I want to go to Rocky Point, but I'm a little bit nervous about the people I bought it from. Can your dog search an RV?”

Not only do her dogs search it from hitching post to license plate, but Halm provides a written report in case they have missed a spot and a border agent doesn’t. Her dogs, she said, have a detection accuracy in the 90s, but they aren’t foolproof.

Malinois, a French breed sometimes classified as a Belgium Shepherd, are uniquely qualified for the detection.

They’re commonly used by law enforcement and the military for sniffing out explosives and accelerants in arson investigations and, of course, narcotics. They’re used to track suspects on the run and have been employed in search and rescue operations as well.

The U.S. Secret Service uses them to guard the grounds of the White House.

Halm’s dogs – Lucy and the ominously named Widowmaker – are particularly well-trained.

They not only have been trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, meth and heroin but also fentanyl – an increasingly common and highly lethal drug that can kill a dog.

“Not a lot of dogs, I don't think, are trained on that yet because there hasn't been a safe way to do it,” Halm explained. “But mine are. They recognize it really fast.”

Out of precaution, however, Halm carries Narcan – a nasal spray that quickly reverses the deadly effects of opioids like fentanyl – in case her dogs accidentally “OD.”

With a name like Widowmaker, you might picture a dog that could easily have a leg or forearm clenched between its jaws, but Halm said:

 “If you saw her would burst out laughing because she is the cutest dog – everyone thinks she's a puppy. She's 4, but she just has a baby face and I'm pretty sure she wouldn't hurt a flea unless it hurt her first. But she's harmless.”

Halm gave her that name because “she's very serious about her work.”

She bought her from a sheriff’s deputy who had gone with a friend to check out a litter of Belgian Malinois puppies.

“There were all these puppies running around this big yard and he was carrying a little rag and all of a sudden, this dog launched from like 20 feet, grabbed the rag and spun him around. His friend said, “Get that one.”

Not that Lucy is a slouch

One day, Halm and Lucy were searching a large factory when the dog suddenly knocked the lid off a large 2x2-foot tray full of separations that had little compartments.

A baggie full of unmarked capsules spilled out.

“The guy says, ‘Well, how do you know they’re not alfalfa supplements?’

“And I said, ‘Because we don’t train on alfalfa supplements. This is probably something you don't want on your factory floor. Ask your risk manager.”

Halm took a somewhat circuitous route to her business, which she runs out of her home.

“This is an accidental business,” she said. “

Raised on a dairy farm in Illinois, she moved to Arizona 27 years ago and was communications manager for Motorola for 10 years before jumping over to the Maricopa County hospital system as its public information manager – a position she calls “the best job I ever had.”

She left in 2006 to start Desert Drug Dog and that’s where the accidental part of the business comes in.

She had a dog that died and adopted a retired police dog, named Dargo, that she had certified as a therapy dog and took to John C. Lincoln Hospital once a week to visit patients.

One day, a neighbor asked her if Dargo could find drugs.

Dargo had been retired early from police work “because he was too nervous really to be a good police dog. He was a great detection dog, but not a good dog if you're shooting guns.”

 She went to her neighbors in an upscale gated community and gave Dargo his search command in the garage.

“He turned into a different dog and he just started working the room and we were all kind of gasping. And all of a sudden, he came to this screeching halt, put his nose straight up and his butt down. About five feet up off the ground above there was a Tupperware container full of pot. I mean like no one was more surprised than me.”

Dargo passed away three years ago. By then, Halm had gone through rigorous training with a company called Canine Defense, which provides all her dogs, and passed an arduous certification process run by the state Department of Public Safety.

She used her public relations skills to market the canine’s abilities and grow her business.

Besides Lucy and Widowmaker, Halm uses two part-time dogs on weekends that are owned by other handlers who have other jobs during the week.

When the dogs are not on the job, Halm has her hands full keeping them occupied.

“They're so athletic and they're so active. They do not make good pets,” Halm advised. “Even though they're beautiful and sweet and fun to work with, they're just too active. They're like a Jack Russell: they're just nonstop.”

“We have very structured play with these dogs,” she explained. “Everything we do with them reinforces something we need them to do. So maybe it looks like playing ball, but in between the ball toss, we're giving them commands. Everything we do reinforces obedience commands and the play is sort of inter woven into that.”

And they don’t play together. When one is going through her paces in the backyard, the other has to stay in her large crate. “Whoever I get out first, the other one is like totally mad,” Halm said.

 On the job, the dogs yield results that are sometimes heartbreaking for Halm’s clients, who suspect a son or daughter – or husband or wife – is hiding a habit.

“With families, many times they just don't know what they're dealing with. They may just suspect something or they may have money gone missing and prescription drugs that disappear and they're scared to death.

“I do a lot of referrals because as I've been in this job for so long and I know counselors, I know police officers, I know addiction treatment centers.

“If you tell me, ‘I have a friend who has a kid that needs inpatient treatment but they have no money,’ I have a place for them. If you come and say, ‘my husband who's an executive at such and such a company needs treatment but we want it to be very confidential and money is no issue,’ I've got a place for you.

“I know so many people now and I can help people navigate this immense and bewildering system.”

Because the dogs can react to a target odor that will linger long after a substance is gone, Halm sometimes tells the client, “Maybe you would like to drug test your son or your daughter or maybe suggest counseling if it's a spouse or just open that conversation and if you don't know how, here's some resources to help you.”

Her biggest category of customers are drug treatment centers, some with more than 100 beds.

Given Arizona’s high concentration of residential centers, Halm said that calling her is no different from a restaurant routinely scheduling a pest control visit.

“They have us coming in on a regular basis and a random basis,” Halm said. “There're two things that they pay us for. One is detection, which is the obvious one, but the other one is very much a deterrent because their patients stay between 30 and 90 days and so they see the dogs” and think twice about hiding any contraband.

“It’s a co-dependence thing,” Halm explained. “Sometimes family members just feel so bad they'll do anything to help them even if it's not helping them.”

She also has a number of public and charter schools on her list of regulars.

“They pay a lot for the deterrent and because they just don't want anything to happen to their kids or their staff. And these days, some students not only not make good decisions, they don't even know what they're dealing with when it comes to things and telling what's dusted with fentanyl and what isn't.”

Perhaps inevitably, people on the other side of the law contact her too, trying to enlist her services so they can determine a good place to hide contraband.

“I've had calls from people who say, ‘We got high last night and we don't know where we hid our pot. We don't want our kids to find it.’

“I'm not even making this up! And then I'll have calls saying, ‘I want to buy a drug dog. How much are they?’ I tell them, ‘I don't think you're qualified.’”

Her private customers are varied, often turning to her because they see stark changes in their children’s or spouse’s behavior or even looks.

And her clients come from all walks of life – even psychologists and counselors.

And that, Halm said, indicates why she’s likely to stay in business for a very long time.

“This is such a pervasive problem,” she said. “I have seen everything – from being in a homeless shelter to being in Paradise Valley in a home that was all marble.

“We've searched Ferrari's, we've searched Bentley's. It's just amazing.”

Information: desertdrugdog.com, 602-908-2042.

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