Becoming a police dog handler is a lifestyle choice, it’s rewarding, energetic and a 24/7 occupation.
Some 52 handlers, made up of 48 constables and four sergeants, all live and breathe their chosen career path.
The dogs live with their handlers and many become part of the family and lead a normal dog’s life outside of their work. Embedding themselves within the family home, most sleep outside in purpose-built kennels as the working dogs have to deal with the harsh British weather so their coat has to be extra thick.
These intelligent animals are trained so well they know the difference between home and work.
Once at work they are focused on the job; effortlessly switching into the skills learnt during their initial training which can last from 4 to 13 weeks. Although their training never really ends, just like most of us in our workplace they are regularly learning new things and gaining new experiences.
The dogs have annual licensing, which means they are tested to Home Office standards to ensure they are capable and safe to do their jobs. If they fail, (which doesn't happen often) they are given extra training or have action plans for improvement.
Working from the Tri Force Operations Hub at Bridgwater are 13 general purpose dogs, which are usually German Shepherds but we also have two Belgian Shepherds (Malinois). There are also eight drugs dogs who search for weapons, cash and drugs, they are mainly Springer Spaniels and Labradors but we also have Harry who is a lovely Staffie cross breed.
We have a number of explosives search dogs (again Springers and Labradors) in the Tri force team who support operations across Wiltshire and Gloucestershire as well as Avon and Somerset.
Many of our dog handlers have two dogs; one general purpose and one trained as either a drugs or explosives search dog.
The team try to ensure there are a number of puppies ready to be trained to take over from dogs due to retire. The puppies are easier to train than an older dog and their training can be reduced to just 6 weeks.
So how does their day pan out? Denis McCoy, Dog Sergeant (Tri Force Specialist Operations) has managed the team for 15 years. He handles Lebo, a Belgian Shepherd.
He said: “Before they attend work the dogs have to be exercised and groomed. Most days a general purpose dog and their handler will be called to search areas to locate a missing person or to track an offender who has fled a scene of crime. “A drugs dog may attend a warrant to search for hidden drugs and an explosives dog could be on the hunt for suspicious packages before a VIP or politician visits a location.”
Denis continued: “Often the dogs are a deterrent, with offenders thinking twice about their actions when the dog team arrive at the scene.”
The role of a police dog handler is a difficult one to gain, as officers.
They often remain in post until they retire because they love their job so much. Anyone lucky enough to find a vacancy needs to be an experienced police officer and to undergo a tough two day assessment.
PC Louise Grabham and PC Jon Norton are handlers to Ollie and Rufus, two Springers who were donated to the force by members of the public and ‘passed out’ as drugs dogs last November.
“Rufus and Ollie are doing very well and although they are still in a transition period they have had some great results. There is a lot for them to take in, they have to get used to long and fast car journeys as well as the noise of a siren and be ready for work at the end of it,” said Jon, who has been a handler for six years following nearly nine years as a response officer in Bristol.
“You form such a bond with the dogs, they are our crew mates and we would never put them in situations we wouldn’t be prepared to put ourselves into” said Jon.
“I always wanted to be a dog handler, right from the start of my career in the force; it’s a privilege to work here."
“Rufus had his first drugs find back in November when a suspected dealer had hidden their drugs under a concrete paving slab. Rufus sniffed out nearly £600 worth of crack cocaine and heroin. It’s rewarding to see the hard training pay off.”
Ollie too has had some great successes; his first find was in a vehicle where he sniffed out drugs that were hidden in a secret section of a glove compartment.
Louise said: “I love my job, most of the action happens at night time so I mainly cover lates and nightshifts. I enjoy being active and in the thick of it.” Louise has been in the force for a total of 23 years, first as a response officer then as a detective in child protection before joining the dog section six years ago.
“We are known for being a muddy mess, you can smell us before you see us” she laughs. “There are times when I’ve ended up waist deep in a black, sludgy, smelly swamp. I wouldn’t change it, I love coming to work.”
“Although, Ollie’s inquisitive nature added to the festive fun last Christmas. He opened most of the presents under our Christmas tree. We had fun and games trying to match the gift tags to the presents to work out who they were from,” she smiles giving Ollie a hug.
Ollie and Rufus go from strength to strength and are continuing to gain operational experience. It’s clear that the dogs enjoy their jobs too, they give us a demonstration of their skills in finding drugs and, as they do so, they make little yelping noises and their tails are wagging furiously.
If you would like to go on a ride-a-long with the dogs and their handlers please follow this link and fill in the form.
You can keep up-to-date with our police dogs by following the twitter page @ASPoliceDogs.