Police Dogs - A Nose For Trouble

Police Dogs – A Nose For Trouble

by Ruth Lawrence

Have you ever wondered about the valuable work a police dog does? Ruth Lawrence experiences a police dog training day and gains an understanding of these remarkable animals.

I’ve always wondered how police dogs retain their natural instincts while remaining highly obedient to their handler, and I was given the opportunity to find out when I spent the day at a Surrey and Sussex Police training day in woodland near Cowfold.

PC Will Hewson introduced me to Troy, his 5½ year old German Shepherd who leapt out of the car, ready for the day’s challenge. Troy went to live with Will and his family at six months old after Will had been puppy walking him. It’s a real partnership; they complete a one day a month assessment and a week once a year to retain their Home Office Licence which keeps them fit to work as an operational pair.

The initial training for a police dog lasts thirteen weeks and covers obedience, agility and specialist police tasks; Shepherds are general purpose dogs and Troy has received specialist training for firearms support.

The first task was to track a ‘criminal’, one of the officers suitably attired with a ‘covert sleeve’ designed to fit under clothing and protect the arm from a bite. Once the track was set, the suspect hidden and various items dropped in the search area, Troy and Will set off . Keeping a discreet distance, I followed with the assessor, running down tracks as Troy caught scent on the trail. I’d always imagined that police dogs gave chase unleashed with the officer following but in reality, it works very differently. Troy was always kept on a long leash that allowed him to run ahead but remain connected to Will and the pair worked closely together with Will asking him to search specific areas where property was more likely to have been jettisoned. Once Troy located an object, he lay down, allowing Will to retrieve it and he was given a particular toy as a treat, which he associates with success and reward.

The partnership aspect of the training became more apparent when Will and Troy were chasing the criminal; footprints disturb vegetation, which Will could see and once Troy was set in the general area, his nose led him on a strong scent path to locate the offender, who was hiding in dense cover. Once Troy found the man, he barked until Will began speaking; usually, once the suspect realises there’s a dog, they will emerge and give themselves up, which is what happened in this scenario. However, if the suspect has the prospect of a long prison sentence waiting, they will sometimes try and fight the dog if they have a weapon and this is where the dog’s courage and instinct to protect its handler is tested. One of the officers related an incident where a dog was attacked with a sword by a cornered suspect; there’s no doubt this work is highly dangerous and the dog must still carry out its duty regardless of potential injury.

The origins of dogs working in law enforcement go back a long way; money was kept in villages for the parish constable’s bloodhounds that were used for hunting down suspects. In Scotland, bloodhounds were known as ‘Slough dogs’, which is where the word ‘sleuth’ derived. 19th century London employed night watchmen with dogs to protect themselves from criminals and one of the first attempts to use dogs in policing was in 1889 by Sir Charles Warren in his unsuccessful effort to hunt down Jack the Ripper. The first organised police dog programme was introduced in Ghent, Belgium in 1899 and it was German police who eventually selected the German Shepherd as the ideal breed for police work.

In the UK, the North Eastern Railway Police were among the first to use police dogs in 1908 to combat theft from the docks in Hull and soon railway police were experimenting with the suitability of other breeds such as Labrador Retrievers and Doberman Pinschers. There are now over 2,500 police dogs in this country with the German Shepherd being the most popular breed for general purpose work. Will explained to me how the police harness the natural abilities of particular breeds to suit specific tasks. The Shepherd is used for tracking missing people, criminals and hidden property. Their large size makes them more intimidating which also makes them perfect for crowd control, event support and chase and detain work. A dog’s nose is fifty times more sensitive than a human and spaniels are particularly adept at sniffing out cash, drugs and firearms from which they detect oils rather than human scent. Labradors are commonly used as victim recovery dogs, which may mean locating bodies, body parts or even bodily fluids such as blood or semen. Smaller dogs such as the spaniels are perfect for getting into restricted spaces such as car interiors and they are more energetic and have more stamina than the larger breeds.

A dog possesses up to 300 million olfactory receptors compared to our six million and the part of its brain devoted to analysing smells is proportionally 40 times greater than our own. Watching the way Troy located dropped items while racing through undergrowth still wet with dew made it clear why dogs are now indispensable to the police. Shepherds are able to detect air scent rather than having to keep their nose to the ground and so they can cast about for human scent that is carried by the wind. A chase may last for several hours and cover a wide area; Troy’s longest successful track was a mile and a half and one of the police dog trainers, Pete Greenfield told me that he’d once chased some criminals for five miles with his dog before cornering them behind a pub.

I wondered how Troy fitted in to family life and Will explained how the puppy initially becomes socialised with the family before his training commences. A police dog lives outside in a kennel rather than indoors like a pet. This is so that they will retain their downy inner coat which keeps them warm during their work which is mainly outdoors. Indoor dogs lose this layer of their coat, only keeping the coarser outer layer, which does not retain as much heat. Police dogs are usually kept in work until around 8 years old although search dogs can work until about 10. Ninety percent of them remain with their handler’s family after retirement while others will be re-homed or go on to work for the military, which prefer smaller, more compact dogs.

It was time for another dog to be assessed and PC Dan Hopgood was tasked with asking his dog, Ghia to locate tools and the thief who had just broken into a shed and made off across an open field. Once she had sniffed around the area of the break in, she quickly picked up the scent and followed it at the end of her lead, soon locating a dropped pair of secateurs in the grass. She very swiftly found the criminal up a tree and kept him there by barking until he descended and gave himself up. Job complete, her harness and long lead, which she associates with tracking, were replaced by a short lead and she was given her reward object. The principle of tracking property is that scent remains fresh from touch for hours or sometimes days. Pete Greenfield from the Surrey Dog Training School recalled his dog finding stolen money four weeks after it had been hidden as it was not in the open and less vulnerable to rain and wind dispersing the scent. Recovering dropped property can lead to the criminal; a lorry driver was hit on the head and all the mobile phones in his care stolen, yet DNA found on a plastic glove recovered by the dog led to the thief and a stash of phones.

Police dogs and their handlers, as well as having their skills regularly assessed, can enter Regional and National trials which is split into three sections of tracking, searching and agility/heel work. It’s a formalised version of a training day and is marked out of a thousand points. Troy finished high up in the Northern Ireland trials after having competed in just two trials.

A good dog can pass on its qualities to its progeny; in Sussex and Surrey, police dogs are mainly bred from the police breeding programme. Ghia was bred from one of Surrey’s ‘breed bitches’ and Troy is half brother to Sergeant Gareth Jackson’s dog Sparky. Breed bitches have to have worked successfully and have a high ‘hip score’ (dogs need to have good hips and Shepherds are particularly prone to problems in this area).

Although the only dogs at the training day were Shepherds, I was told about the vitally important work of the explosive detection dogs or EDD’s for short, which are usually Spaniels or Labradors. Proactive EDD search for explosives at a location, for instance when an important person is visiting and the area needs to be checked. A passive EDD will search people, for instance at an event or airport. Labradors are particularly good at airports as they are friendly dogs so people are at ease with them in public places while dogs who work in firearms support may carry cameras with which they search a building as the images go back to an external monitor.

The final exercise of the day for the dogs was an imitation of a crowd scene, such as might be found during a riot, football game or march. This required a very different set of skills and to an onlooker, it seemed incredibly challenging as the dog is under a lot of stress from the adrenaline filled crowd. The aggressors advanced towards the officer, goading the dog, who was responding by barking and leaping on a short leash. There was plenty of shouting and arm waving directed at the dog and when one person advanced further towards the officer, the dog was directed to jump up and fasten his jaws around the right arm in order to stop further aggression. This soon had the desired effect and once the aggressor was removed, and the crowd calmed, the dog had to show he could walk calmly amongst the same people who, moments before, had been surrounding him in a highly charged scenario. I was amazed at how swiftly the dog returned to normal at the direction of his handler and it demonstrated the incredible trust the dog places in him and the immediate bond between the pair.

It was mid afternoon when the assessment was over; the day had been a success, the dogs had proved once again how valuable they are, not only to the police, but to us all, as guardians, protectors and colleagues in their lives of loyalty.