WATCH - Clever and courageous police dogs training for vital role
PUBLISHED: 19:00 05 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:29 06 March 2019
Norfolk & Suffolk Police
Police dogs might think they are just playing games - but their handlers know just how vital their role is.
Pc Steve Vaughan, a member of Norfolk and Suffolk Police Dog Unit, works with three-year-old male dog Nipper. He said: “Police dog handling is far more than a job. It is a lifestyle which we live and breathe.
“We take ‘ordinary’ dogs and make them seem extraordinary by harnessing their natural abilities. In the dog’s mind, they are just playing games in lots of different places, but the consequence of these games saves lives and helps safeguard the public all the time.”
Extra protection for brave dogs
These brave dogs can face deadly risks in their work, and now a new law - Finn’s Law - is set to give them extra protection.
The law, named after a canine in Stevenage who was stabbed and wounded while on duty, has been passed by MPs to prevent attackers of service animals making self-defence claims.
In a debate in the House of Commons, South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge highlighted the bravery of German Shepherd Aman - who similarly put his life on the line to protect handler Pc Steve Jay in 2011. Sadly, Aman died in 2018 after a battle with a degenerative condition.
Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore said: “I fully support Finn’s Law, which aims to protect service animals – including police dogs – who play such an important role in assisting our police officers and keeping our communities safe.
“Dogs are a hugely important part of policing in Suffolk. They do a fantastic job searching for missing people, suspects, explosives, drugs, cash and firearms. They are routinely used for events with large crowds and it is important that we do all we can to protect them.”
Covering a wide area and range of tasks
Suffolk and Norfolk have a combined dog section, which currently has 24 licenced handlers, working throughout the two counties, with a shift system to provide the best availability.
Each handler has a Home Office licenced “general purpose dog”, which is either a German Shepherd or a Belgian Malinois. After a year or two, most are also allocated specialist search dogs, known as “sniffer dogs”, which are usually spaniels and Labradors.
The dog unit’s own Twitter feed demonstrates just what a wide area they cover, with recent posts highlighting incidents everywhere from Sudbury, Lowestoft, and Haughley to Bury St Edmunds and King’s Lynn.
The range of tasks carried out also varies massively - from tracking suspects who have fled on foot from burglaries or abandoned cars to finding vulnerable missing people before they can come to further harm.
Pc Vaughan also said: “We have had sizeable interceptions of drugs from houses, cars that have been stopped by colleagues and even post offices!”
He added: “All handlers form a unique relationship with their dogs. Yes, they live at home, but, unlike pets, they then get taken to work too, so our contact time is immense. We depend on each other, to keep each other safe, in a wide variety of circumstances.”
When not at work, the dogs live with their handlers, and are walked and exercised throughout the day, often interacting as a normal dog with immediate family members. Pc Vaughan’s dog, Nipper, likes carrying sticks.
Training handlers and dogs
General purpose dogs normally start their training at around 12 to 18 months old. “We often go to people’s houses to assess dogs,” Pc Vaughan said. “I look for a dog that is self-confident, not dependant on its owner for reassurance, has a good play drive and ideally, happy to use its nose to locate a toy. I don’t want to see aggression.
“The specialist dogs are generally people-friendly but do need to show an above average desire to find a toy and play. We will then build on that.
“All the dogs have talents and characteristics that are useful in their work... mainly a good nose, sharp ears (and teeth) and four legs! If my sense of smell was thousands of times better, my hearing more acute and my legs a whole lot faster, I probably wouldn’t need the dog!”
The basic training for a new handler consists of a 13-week course. Handlers are trained to have the knowledge and confidence to work their dogs in all kinds of situations, while dogs have to learn a wide range of exercises including tracking, searching for people and property, agility, obedience and many more tasks.
All teams are assessed by an independent qualified instructor before they are deployed.
A drugs dog can be trained on all the relevant substances and to search appropriately in six weeks and an explosive detection dog in eight weeks.
The dogs typically retire at about seven to eight, although exact ages can vary.
Life after retirement
Pc Vaughan had one dog, a German Shepherd called Shadow, who retired at nine, while specialist dogs can go on until they are older, as the physical demands on them are less. They may go on until they are ten to 12.
When the dogs retire, they are often kept as pets by their handlers, or sometimes adopted by members of the public who are considered suitable.
Norfolk and Suffolk Police are currently looking at the possibility of creating a charity to support the dogs in their old age, to ensure their faithful service is rewarded with the highest standard of care.