Bak approaches his police work with the zeal of a six-year-old German shepherd.  

That’s because he is a six-year-old German shepherd.  

Bak is one of the Portland Police Bureau’s two narcotics detection dogs. He’s only midway through his working years, but he’s about to be prematurely retired.  

The issue isn’t job performance. It’s marijuana.  

Bak, a drug detection dog, is facing early retirement. In an era of legal pot, he's overqualified.

Bak, a drug detection dog, is facing early retirement. In an era of legal pot, he’s overqualified.

Kate Davidson/OPB

Bak is what’s known as a traditional “four-odor” drug dog.  That means he’s trained to find cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. The fact that some amounts of recreational pot will soon be legal complicates his job.  

“In the new era that we’re entering with marijuana being legalized in Colorado and Washington, and now Oregon, there are a new generation of dogs which are three-odor dogs that are not being trained to find the odor of marijuana,” said Officer Alex Fyfe, Bak’s partner of four years. “And so his future is probably going to be retirement, as I’m slated to get a new partner.”

One who could care less about pot.  

Portland isn’t the only place wrestling with this ripple effect of legalization. There are more than 60 drug-sniffing dogs in Oregon, according to Daren Kendrick, president of the Oregon Police Canine Association. He said they cost up to $10,000 each.  

So for a while now, police departments, sheriff’s offices, and other law enforcement agencies have all been wondering: What do you do with your drug dogs, when a drug they sniff becomes legal?  

Letting them age out of the force is one option. Reassignment is another. Police departments in Roseburg and Newberg-Dundee are sending their dogs to county jails, where pot will remain illegal.    

The basic problem is that detection dogs can’t tell you what kind of drug they smell. They can’t tell you how much. Trying to train the pot-detection out of a drug dog wouldn’t necessarily be fair to the animal or convincing to a court, said Alex Fyfe, who is a master trainer. He’s also vice president of the Oregon Police Canine Association.  

To get a sense of why all this matters during police work, it helps to see Bak in action. He recently took a training run through an empty, drug-laced house in Tualatin. There was meth hidden in the floor and heroin tucked in the chimney.  Not to mention the crack cocaine in the light switch.

Bak bounded upstairs.  

Once we go through this door,” said Alex Fyfe, “it’s gonna be like a hotel hallway. There’s a bunch of doors, and there is odor under one of the doors that the dog can find. So if he were to alert to that door, we could then get a search warrant for the room.”

That’s because right now, when a reliably trained detection dog signals that he smells drugs, his alert is considered probable cause to procure a search warrant.  

After Bak detects meth upstairs, he gets to play. Hunt and play is the rhythm of his day.

After Bak detects meth upstairs, he gets to play. Hunt and play is the rhythm of his day.

Kate Davidson/OPB

After Measure 91 takes effect in July, things get messier.  

With the new pot law, a judge might say Bak’s alert isn’t probable cause to issue a search warrant, since what he smells could be pot. Right now, if Bak alerts to a car that’s been stopped, police can search it without a warrant. That’s known as the mobile vehicle exception. That gets messier too.  

Simplifying the legal process, said Alex Fyfe, is why Bak will have to retire. He’ll also have to tolerate the new three-odor dog joining their family.

That’s the personal wrinkle. Drug dogs live with their handlers. Bak and Fyfe are more than partners. They’re together 24/7.  

“He’s a big part of my life,” said Fyfe. “We spend every day together. “This energy that he has here, I have to find an outlet for that if he’s going to remain part of my family. I have three kids and they really enjoy him and my wife enjoys him. And he’s a phenomenal dog.”

Alex Fyfe thinks it will be difficult for Bak to adapt to not going to work every day.  

“Cause that’s all he knows — is get up, and go to work with dad,” he said.  

It could be even harder for Bak to watch another dog take his place every day. “You can’t start my police car at home without him losing his mind,” said Fyfe. “He starts yelling and screaming and whining and carrying on and jumping at the kennel. He knows that that’s his car and he’s supposed to be in it.”

Fyfe worries he’ll have to find Bak another home. But the officer doesn’t want to think about that yet.  

Nikko also works for the Portland Police Bureau. Here the Belgian Malinois is scratching to get at the cocaine he smells in the floor.

Nikko also works for the Portland Police Bureau. Here the Belgian Malinois is scratching to get at the cocaine he smells in the floor.

Kate Davidson/OPB

Portland is keeping one four-odor dog on the force, for now. He’s a nine-year-old Belgian Malinois named Nikko.  

Police handlers say four-odor dogs can still play a role once recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon. They can track criminals exporting pot illegally, for example. Or they could assist in targeted investigations once a search warrant is already in place. 

Meanwhile, two new three-odor dogs, named Lola and Redy, are coming to town for tryouts. They’re scheduled to meet Alex Fyfe, and Bak, next week.