"It's disgraceful. Having a dog there sniffing at you. Can you see how empty it is in here?"
In the fall out from the Barry Legg Bill, all kinds of security paranoia is setting in. This now means sniffer-dogs to detect drugs at club doors. Narco Dogs is one of as many as 18 organisations supplying club doors with sniffer dogs. And while the dog might look cuddly, don't be fooled. You smoked a spliff nine hours ago? You ain't coming in. Writer: Susanna Glaser Photographer: Dee Johnson
IT'S Friday night. You're standing in the queue at your fave club. And you can't understand why it's moving so bleedin' slowly. It's not until you're by the entrance that the reason for the delay makes you physically ill with fear. Looking straight at you is a huge dog, a sniffer dog, flanked by two mean-looking bouncers. "Next," orders one of them. That's you. You try hard to swallow as the mutt moves closer, circling you, smelling you, before it sits down in front of you. You're marked. You're pulled aside, as you remember with a rush of cold sweat the spliff you shared with your mate back home. Although you haven't got anything on you, that's it, you're out and banned for life. Some kind of horrific nightmare? If only. With the advent of Barry Legg's Public Entertainments And Misuse Of Drugs Act (which imposes draconian measures on nightclubs), a proliferation of un-regulated private sniffer-dog firms are cashing in on the paranoia fall-out. One such firm, Narco Dogs, has already been used by 20 clubs (at a hefty £300-500 a throw), including Racquets, in Redditch, near Birmingham. And this is no moody, trouble-zone club operating on the fringes of the law. This is one of those shiny, brochure-bright clubs, so middle of the road it wouldn't faze the vicar.
NARCO Dogs, who've graced the portals of Racquets for over a month, is run by ex-DJ and club manager Al Massie, his partner Nicky Price and first-time dog-handler Sandra Wood. Their sniffer dog, Lex, is "purely passive". That is, he's trained to be docile, not to bark, growl or bite, even when provoked. Yet he can recognise every illicit substance from cannabis through to heroin. And his nose is so sensitive he can smell them on your clothing, or your hands, even if you haven't brought anything illicit to the club in question. No wonder Racquet's owner, Wayne Hipkiss, states: "He's worth every penny." Not everybody agrees, of course. Kicking off your night out with a dog sniffing your private parts doesn't exactly put you in the party mood. Karen, 24, a regular at Racquets bristles with indignation. "It's disgraceful. Having a dog there sniffing at you. Can you see how empty it is in here? Nobody wants to come anymore, it's ruining the atmosphere." Her mate Julie, 25, meanwhile is terrified of dogs: "I'm even scared of Yorkshire Terriers!" Norman, 28, says it's made everybody feel "uneasy". If this is how clubbers are going to react, it hardly makes business sense. As Henry Blunt, of Welsh supernight Time Flies says, " If you lose your customers, you lose your business." And Andy Spiro, owner of Manchester Sankey's Soap (home of Bugged Out) agrees: "Clubs should be welcoming and not like entering a military zone. If I saw a club with sniffer dogs, I'd think it had a problem, that it was a moody club." But Racquets's Wayne Hipkiss, along with many other club owners, doesn't know where to turn. "The local authorities, the government and the police, they're all passing the buck to nightclub owners," he frets. "I know it'll slow business down, no question about that, but I'd rather have it slow than no business at all!" People may scoff. Racquets is only a minor mainstream club, a veritable pin-prick on the vast clubland map of Britain. But with Michael Howard's legacy of zero-tolerance still biting hard there are going to be many companies like Narco Dogs making money out of club country's increased paranoia.
NARCO Dogs have already had 300 enquiries in six months of trading while Al estimates there are at least 18 other people offering a similar service. Their common selling point is that at least if you've got a sniffer dog on your door, the police can't say you weren't doing everything in your power to keep drug dealers at bay. An argument not to be sniffed at if it were only that simple. Just as there is no national licensing for bouncers, there is no legislation governing sniffer dogs. In other words, that sniffer dog slobbering at your crotch may just be Mr Owner's pet Rottweiler. And don't get duped by the innocent look on that poodle. As Major Peter Downing of the Ministry Of Defence Animal Centre (who do not supply clubs with dogs) says, "You could see a dog at the door of a club. And it may or may not be trained. People may use it solely as a deterrent. But even if it's trained there's always a risk, a dog has a mind of its own." The worrying development is rushing ahead, while official brakes remain unstable. The Home Office has yet to issue guidelines as to how the Barry Legg law should be applied (they're due at the end of the Summer). And the Police aren't yet properly aware of the terrifying trend. As Inspector Neil Wain, Staff Officer of the Association Of Chief Police Officers says, "If it's got to a stage where people are deploying sniffer dogs, I would be concerned. I'd want to thrash out with the owner a way of dealing with things without using dogs." But instead of waiting patiently, clubs that use sniffer dogs are effectively taking the law into their own hands. And hundreds of happiness-seeking clubbers are compelled to comply with the search n' sniff policy. Wayne freely admits he hasn't even notified his local force, even though he's compiling a file of those turned away from his club including photographs of the 'offenders'. "We don't ask, we just click it," he says. "We don't give them a chance to say no." And it's not the 'real' criminals who're going to get whacked. It's occasional users, people who may be technically breaking the law but who cause nobody else any harm. At a club in Weston-Super-Mare a Cardiff company caught someone who'd smoked a spliff nine hours earlier. And that is not tackling the root of the drug problem. Mark Rodol of the Ministry Of Sound confirms this. "The problem with clubs is not someone taking an ecstasy pill or having a spliff. It's organised drug dealing, often put together by the security teams themselves. The dog stopping someone with one pill in their pants frankly doesn't do anyone any favours at all." And as the MoD's Major Downing points out, there's no reason why a dog shouldn't be deployed at entrance A while unscrupulous security firms ensure their illicit trade through entrance B.
BECAUSE a club is seen as 'private property' in the eyes of the law, entry requirements can be as scary as the owners want. It doesn't matter even if you're allergic to dogs, or terrified of them. The simple retort is, if you don't like it, don't come in. As John Wadham, of human rights organisation Liberty says, "It's not a recognised human right to go into clubs. Anybody can impose any restrictions." That the demand for 'narco-dogs' will rise in the near future seems confirmed, though it'll primarily be the main-chain clubs who'll bite first. But established superclubs and 'underground' venues, while currently clear of canines, may be inclined to listen if local Police decided dogs were a requirement. Regulars at London's Ministry Of Sound can rest assured for the moment, however, with Rodol suggesting, tongue firmly in cheek, "The only dog we'd be interested in would be a bright pink poodle, or a transvestite dog. Something that fits in with clubland!"
How To Tell It's A Bona Fide Fido
* A 'passive' sniffer dog is always kept on a leash.
* It doesn't bark, growl or seem angry in any way. Sniffing out drugs is a fun game for the real sniffer-dog.
* It 'indicates' an offender by sitting in front of him/her. There should be no physical contact between you and the dog.
* There is no national standard for dog-trainers, but you could look out for official crests like that of the National Association Of Security Dog Users which at least indicates a voluntary body has checked it over.
What Your Rights Are On The Door
* If a dog 'indicates' you are guilty of possessing an illicit substance you can refuse to be searched. They can only refuse you admission to the club.
* If they want to take a photograph or strip search you after you've emptied your pockets and revealed nothing, don't feel committed. You can always refuse. But again, they can refuse you admission.
* Vote with your feet. If you don't like the door policy at a club, let the manager know (in writing) and round up your mates to boycott it. As a business, the club may be economically encouraged to change its ways.
back: issue august 1997