By Shawn O’Brate
Keeping Fremont County drug-free is a full-time job, but not everyone does it for a paycheck. For Ricky, finding pounds of marijuana or stashed methamphetamine begs for just one reward – a neon green tennis ball, just for him.
Ricky, a yellow labrador and golden retriever mix, has been with the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department for nearly three years now and yet, not very many people know or experience him unless they’re on the wrong end of a drug bust.
The drug-sniffing K-9 can smell methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy and has done exactly that multiple times during his two and a half years as a Fremont County Sheriff’s officer. He can even be trained to sniff out more serious and dangerous drugs like fentanyl and acid.
“Usually it’s marijuana,” Officer Travis Bench, Ricky’s handler, said about their busts. But, even a little bit of the Devil’s lettuce is enough for the K-9 unit and it showed during a traffic stop that ended with a search warrant finding 14 pounds of marijuana, 30 hits of acid and small amounts of cocaine in the driver’s hotel room. All of that thanks to the nose of a dog that could very well be spending his days sniffing out puppy chow and milkbones.
Another of Ricky’s bigger finds was out in Jeffrey City where he found “several pounds of marijuana and shrooms,” a good addition to the more common ounces of meth and heroin that he finds during stops and searches. All of these searches have tightroped a dangerous line that has caused locals to fear for Ricky’s life, which is one of the many reasons why the K-9 officer is soon to receive a bulletproof vest upwards of $1,500 thanks to a concerned citizen.
While that sounds like Ricky is always in the line of fire, Ricky’s day can widely vary depending on the seasons, as Officer Bench explained. “There’s certain times of the year we’re busier than usual … Summers are usually pretty busy,” he said. Even though this summer has been a little less hectic than normal, Ricky’s used quite a bit during the fall season thanks to the local schools.
“We’re used at the schools on a regular basis,” Officer Bench explained. “Sometimes it’s because they’re having problems or they’re getting word of there being problems, so it works as a deterrent and if we find [anything] then we are happy.”
The difference between the average dog being happy and Ricky being happy is the way Ricky shows his excitement at finding something illegal, almost as if the most adorable animal is smiling at your upcoming court date. When Ricky finds one of the drugs he’s certified to search for, he’ll show what Officer Bench and the police force consider “passive alerting” where he doesn’t scratch and claw at the location of the narcotics.
“Sometimes they’ll bark, sometimes they’ll grab, they’ll scratch [but] a lot of agencies are moving away from that because that can damage the car then you potentially have lawsuits,” Officer Bench stated.
Instead, Ricky is a “passive alert” dog and will sit, change his breathing and posture and then stare at Officer Bench until he gets rewarded, either verbally or with a toy like his favorite tennis ball.
But, until those days come when the Department of Criminal Investigations or a cold stop end in rewarding Ricky, there have to be workouts to keep him training and up to speed on his doggy duties. Officer Bench and other agencies around the country have resorted to “pseudo narcotics” for that, allowing Ricky to practice and stay fresh for when the call of duty rings over Bench’s shoulder radio.
All-in-all, every day is different for the golden K-9 and his handler. But, they always have each other both on the clock and off the clock. Once Ricky’s time on the force is over, he’ll retire to his home with Officer Bench and his family while knowing that he helped keep the streets of Fremont County safe and free of drugs.
And even if he doesn’t look at it that way, he could always brag to the other dogs in the house that he can sense the party down the street better than they can.