Guard dogs from illegal pot houses crowd city shelter
The canine soldiers in Sacramento's booming marijuana wars snarl and yap inside their kennels at the Front Street Animal Shelter.
They are "guard dogs," seized from illegal pot operations, and they are filling up the already overburdened shelter.
Within the past week, at least 10 dogs guarding properties that police have identified as marijuana "grow houses" have been transferred to Front Street. Eight are German shepherds or shepherd mixes, which authorities said seem to be a favored breed among illegal pot growers.
This year, the city began collecting data on dogs brought to the shelter from suspected unlicensed pot houses, said chief animal control officer Jace Huggins. During the first six months, animal control officers have picked up about 70 dogs that police said were tied to those operations, he said.
"Unfortunately, it's almost a weekly occurrence for us these days," Huggins said.
Although the city has no comparative figures, "I really do think we're seeing more than we have in the past," he said. Huggins speculated that California's legalization of recreational and medical marijuana may have emboldened criminals to launch illegal residential grow houses in an effort to "make some easy money."
Illegal grow house operators use large, strong dogs to protect their wares, Huggins said. The animals are not treated as pets.
"Most of these houses are not lived in," he said. "The product is grown in them, and the dogs are used as security. They live outside and get the bare minimum of food and water, and they usually are not socialized. They can be very aggressive."
Staffers at Front Street evaluate each of the animals for behavioral issues and their potential for adoption success, said shelter manager Gina Knepp.
"Some of them are beautiful animals and good dogs," she said. But because of their backgrounds and temperaments, they may never make it out of the shelter alive.
Janna Haynes, a spokeswoman for the county's Bradshaw Animal Shelter, said that facility receives far fewer guard dogs from criminal pot operations than the city is reporting.
"Occasionally we get dogs in here associated with a drug situation," she said. "We did get three this past weekend.
"However, we've found the majority of these dogs to be somewhat sociable and good candidates for our behavior rehab program," she said. "We have a lot of dogs that come in less than perfectly adoptable that emerge as great pets after some work."
Last week, the city shelter, already jammed with an overabundance of homeless dogs and cats, took charge of seven large canines that police said were guarding marijuana houses in south Sacramento.
The Sacramento Police Department served search warrants on two homes in the area, neither of which appeared to be occupied, said spokesman Sgt. Vance Chandler. Four German shepherds were guarding one of the houses. At the other, a Mastiff and two mixed breed dogs patrolled the property.
Because the city shelter was at capacity, animal control officers left the dogs at the homes and visited them daily to make sure they were properly fed and watered, said Huggins. They since have been transferred to Front Street. Authorities seized three more shepherds in similar circumstances on Tuesday.
Despite the shelter's efforts, no one has come forward to claim the dogs. No arrests have been made in the cases, said Chandler.
On Tuesday afternoon, the "guard dogs" and many others awaited their fate at Front Street. At least 14 German shepherds were scattered among the pit bull terriers, chihuahuas and others that occupied row after row of kennels, barking and gazing at visitors.
Shepherds now are among the most common breed of dog that winds up at the shelter, said Knepp. During the first six months of 2017, the shelter took in 229 of the dogs. Through June 23 of this year, 331 had been impounded.
"Certainly, I won't attribute all of it to marijuana grow houses," she said. "But one has to wonder how much of that might be true."
Sacramento County animal control officer Mechelle Crites said that facility’s population of German shepherds also has soared recently.
"Our intake of shepherds definitely is higher in the last year or so,” she said. “I can’t say why that is the case. “It’s kind of like a wave. We had the pit bull wave. Now it’s a shepherd wave.
"It could be word of mouth that they make better guard dogs than pit bulls. Pit bulls can be unreliable as guard dogs. They can be real sissies."
German shepherds are widely coveted as "protection animals" because of their intelligence and strength, according to animal experts. The booming marijuana trade has spawned businesses that train shepherds specifically as "cannabis security dogs."
"We understand the unique security needs surrounding the cannabis industry, and work closely with our clientele to provide them protection dogs that fit those needs," reads an online advertisement for one company, Forged K9, which features pictures of shepherds. "From protecting a large cannabis grow operation to transporting produce or dispensary security, our dogs become your eyes and ears, as well as a trusted and beloved member of your family."
It is highly doubtful that the "pot dogs" now lingering at Front Street were viewed as family, said Huggins.
"Unfortunately, most of them just are not very people friendly because of the lives that they've led," he said. "Through no fault of their own, many of them just are not capable of being pets."