HARWICH – The Harwich Police Department has a new member, and he’s here to teach kids in the Monomoy School District not to vape. If he gets a few treats in the process, that’s all the better.
Fritz isn’t your average member of the force. Unlike his bipedal fellow officers, Fritz is an 18-month-old German shorthaired pointer and it’s his job, quite literally, to sniff out e-cigarettes and vaporizers on school property.
“With recent Massachusetts legislation, traditional police ‘drug dogs’ are no longer being trained to detect marijuana,” said School Resource Officer Thomas Clarke.
In Massachusetts, people 21 and older can purchase recreational marijuana, and those 18 and older can buy vape products. Neither are allowed on school property, though thanks to clever vape devices, often available online, which mimic items like highlighter pens, sweatshirt hood strings, and even USB devices, too many kids have been vaping in school.
“The school administration team and I did some digging and found that many school resource officers across the country have been using ‘vape dogs’ and have experienced great results with the program,” Clarke said. “Aside from education, we needed a more effective way to try and keep those dangerous substances out of our schools.”
Fritz first joined the force back in June after he was picked up in Pennsylvania. The first few weeks of his service centered around bonding with Clarke. Next came the scent detection training academy with the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department, which began with odor imprinting. This means that Fritz was introduced to specific odors and received positive rewards when properly detected. This is where the aforementioned treats come in.
Contrary to humans, dogs have around 300 million scent receptors, making them ideal for sniffing out illegal substances, nicotine, bombs, and even people during rescue missions. Fritz’s training focused on vaporizers and the chemicals used in them. When Fritz detected a specific scent and properly marked it by giving what’s known as a passive alert, he earned himself a treat.
When the vape dog program was developed last spring, prior to the pandemic, it was hoped that Fritz would be able to get right to work when the 2020-2021 school year began. Unfortunately, as COVID-19 continues to pose problems both locally and nationally, Fritz is still adjusting to the new normal.
“With just a few weeks in, we haven’t had many reports of vaping or suspicious activity to investigate,” said Clarke. “The school has tight restrictions on bathroom use and the opportunity to socialize is extremely limited.”
This could explain why vaping incidents haven’t been as widespread as they were in previous years when students would congregate in bathrooms. That said, Fritz’s presence has definitely been noticed.
“We have found that Fritz has become quite an attraction and a conversation starter within the school,” Clarke said. “A bunch of kids have already come up to me to pat the dog and ask a ton of questions.”
Clarke said he especially enjoys these interactions because more than a few of the students have been those who would otherwise be too shy to approach a police officer.
“The social benefit of this program has been a real silver lining with the current COVID guidelines,” Clarke said. “Kids, now more than ever, feel the need to reach out and touch something. In this case, it’s the police dog.”
Clarke said Fritz has helped several students with anxiety, helping them calm down and return to class, versus needing to be taken to the hospital.
“Aside from trying to deter vaping and marijuana use at school, Fritz is also there to act as a friendly presence and to help kids feel more comfortable and relaxed,” Clarke said. “They’re much more likely to approach and interact with police officers that have a friendly dog by their side and have a much easier time talking about difficult or uncomfortable topics when they can pat the dog while talking.”
But Fritz’s greater mission is to stop kids from using vaporizers in the first place. Last year during a Monomoy Regional High School parent university on vaping, Kim Slade, a substance abuse prevention manager and vaping expert with the Barnstable County Department of Human Services, said that between 2017 and 2019, the department had seen a 135 percent increase in student vaporizer use.
“Nicotine is probably one of the most addictive substances that you can be exposed to, so it’s really concerning that we’re seeing this change in our trends,” Slade said during the forum.
The school’s risk behavior survey revealed that MRHS students trended slightly higher than the national average when it came to vape use, at a level of almost one in four, compared to the national report stating one in five.
Vaporizer pods and the refill bottles that often come with the various vaporizers sold at area convenience stores, smoke shops, or online, can contain as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. The liquid is also infused with diacetyl, a chemical flavoring that has the potential to cause lung disease. Often, students will inhale the better part of a pod prior to entering the school building, or during a bathroom break.
The problem is that it takes roughly two weeks for an addiction to nicotine to take root, and inhaling that much of the drug – to which cancer-causing agents such as formaldehyde are also added – causes nicotine sickness, with symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, chest pains, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, chills, and weight loss.
“The dog provides a great tool in terms of combating this vaping health crisis we’re currently experiencing with teens,” Clarke said. “I’ve spoken with many SROs and they have found that the mere presence of the dog acts as a real deterrent. Students are very reluctant to bring the vapes to school as a result.”
While Fritz will primarily be at the high school, he has visited student classrooms and recesses at Harwich and Chatham Elementary Schools, as well. Clarke said Fritz’s presence has helped make the uncertainty and concern regarding a return to school during a pandemic much less worrisome. Clarke has particularly enjoyed watching the student reaction.
“He could go the whole school year without finding any drugs or vaping products and I would still consider the program a huge success in terms of social-emotional support, which is much needed these days,” Clarke said.
To help defray the costs of Fritz’s care, the HPD is hosting a fundraiser in which Fritz fans can purchase official merchandise bearing a pawprint and the words “Harwich Police Monomoy K9” on the front, and a photo of Fritz on the back. Items include short- and long-sleeved T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts.
Clarke does hopes that kids get the message that vaping isn’t healthy.
“I’m hoping kids will understand how important it is to stay away from vaping and drugs,” Clarke said. “And even if just a few students develop a close relationship with the dog, and know what the dog stands for, maybe that will be an extra motivator for them to do the right thing and stay clean.”
To purchase Fritz merch, visit 3jakes.printavo.com/merch/harwich-pd-fritz/.