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Leigh – Humans of Avon and Somerset

No one thinks of us as female dog handlers – we are just dog handlers, that’s the beauty of it.

Leigh, Dog Handler

Originally, I wasn’t destined to be a police officer. In 1990, I was finishing my hairdressing and beauty course at college, and I was also participating in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Within my award, I was completing a part of it at Filton Police station, where a police officer gave us a talk and mentioned dog handlers. The role really interested me, and I applied for the police almost immediately, a completely different career tangent to what I was expecting. What I also didn’t expect, is how being a woman would initially affect my new aim of being a police dog handler.   

After joining Avon and Somerset Police in June 1990 I was posted to “The Bridewell”, or Central as it was called back then, and I completed my two years’ probation there. From the moment I started I earmarked dog handling as my goal, and I made sure that when I could eventually apply that I fit the criteria, ensuring that I completed response training and working in Neighbourhood Policing as well. When the time was right, I approached the Inspector to ask about applying, who very nicely told me that I couldn’t apply to be a dog handler because I was a woman. I didn’t realise this would be a hinderance, so naturally I enquired why. I was met with a now very outdated attitude of women not being suitable for dog handling. 

There weren’t any female dog handlers in Avon and Somerset at the time, and it was much the same in other forces. That fact didn’t deter me from applying for the role, and neither did the rigorous application process. I was told by other handlers that the process would be the hardest thing I have ever done physically, so I made sure to prepare. With a great support system, I joined a rugby club and took up running alongside specific preparations for the role. I passed the assessment and landed my dream job – a tough process and one of the hardest physical challenges of my life.   

After a few years finally experiencing the role in policing I had set out to do, I won the National Dog Action of the Year award in 1999. This was a prestigious achievement, reflecting that myself and Police Dog Adam, were considered the best ‘operational’ team in the whole country. He was a very special dog, and this was a fantastic achievement for us both. I was the first female in the country to win the award, and it was the first time Avon and Somerset Police won the award as well. I was even invited onto This Morning to be interviewed by Lorraine Kelly. Couple that with being the first female dog handler in our organisation, I am very proud of achieving that. I like challenging myself. If you don’t keep pushing yourself forward, you’ll become stale and stand still. I’m very forward facing, always proud of my achievements, but I also like to think what’s next.  

Women in police uniform posing with a Police Dog who is draped in a black recognition blanket

As you can imagine, I’ve had quite a few dogs in my time with the organisation. Currently, I have a retired German Shepherd and two working Springer Spaniels. They really are part of your family – I spend eight or nine hours with my dog on shift, and then take them home to walk, feed and relax with them. I sometimes end up talking to them when it’s just us in the police car at 3:00am on a late shift. 

I’ve been based at various locations as the organisation has adapted over the years. From Bower Ashton to Yeovil and Bridgwater, to our main base at the Wilfred Fuller Centre in Clevedon. I’ve been a dog handler for 29 years now, and I’m also surveillance trained which is an exciting part of policing. I’m on a specialist team which is called the Dog Support Team, and we have dogs trained for different specialisms. I currently have an explosives dog called Holly and a drugs dog called Dax, and I work with them daily.  

I am also very proud the work I do with our local colleges, in Bridgwater and Taunton. My work began with colleges when I was asked to deliver a public service talk and give a demonstration as a dog handler, as well as talk about topics like being a woman in policing. The more talks and demonstrations I’ve done has made me think about my future when I retire from policing. Around two years ago, I gained a teaching qualification, funding it myself and attending night classes to gain it. It was a big achievement of mine and I’m very proud of it because it’s a bit different to my usual line of work. In my time I’ve done public speaking and talking for the police, so it was nice to work for an official qualification to consolidate my skills and bring the whole package together. It was also quite a full circle moment, to be the person that first inspired me back at the start – a dog handler talking to teenagers about a career in policing. 

These career and life skills have supported me in my most recent challenge, temporarily working with the organisation’s Leadership Academy in delivering the ‘Launch Pad’ and ‘Accelerator’ courses, to both newly promoted and established supervisors. My years of policing skills and experiences have been invaluable in this role, which is poles apart from dog handling, however one that I find interesting, challenging and rewarding.   

It’s a whole new world in dog handling now, for the better. It’s more open and honest to those who want to join, and I’m so grateful and pleased that I can be at this point in my career and know when it’s my time to retire, the team is in safe hands.  

To me, it doesn’t matter how many females we have, it’s the fact we are here, and we get treated exactly the same as everyone else. No one thinks of us as female dog handlers – we are just dog handlers, that’s the beauty of it. The attitudes of the past nearly drove me out at times, but I hung in there and I’m so glad I did. We’ve got great leadership and a fantastic team – there’s no better time to be a dog handler.  

Women in bright blue shirt and black suit smiles in front of green field