They are taught to tackle criminals, but police dogs are big softies at heart. SHEANNE MULHOLLAND meets the officers of the Hampshire Police Dog Support Unit - and their charges.
‘Being a dog handler is more than just a job,’ says Sergeant Brendan Close, ‘Because at the end of the day, you still have to look after the dog.
‘You have to take your work home with you – it’s a 24 hour commitment.’
Having just finished agility training with his four-year-old Belgian Shepherd, Merlin, Srg Close, of Hampshire Constabulary’s Dog Support Unit, takes off his police cap.
‘But it’s by far the best job I’ve ever had,’ he continues.
‘If you’re a dog lover there’s nothing better than spending all of your time with your dog.
‘It’s perfect. But it’s extremely hard work.’
As well as taking Merlin home with him after his shift, Sgt Close has to walk his General Patrol Dog four times a day, often completing training exercises along the way – all done for the reward of a tennis ball.
And the pair are on call throughout the night should any emergency incidents happen that require support from the dog unit.
They can be deployed to public order incidents, to find missing people or criminals, to chaise and detain a criminal on the run with a bite to the arm, or to locate missing stolen property or any item with human scent.
Recently Merlin was deployed to an arson scene where he found lighter fluid buried underground near the incident which led to the arrest of a suspect through DNA detection.
‘The dogs are worth their weight in gold,’ Sgt Close continues. ‘They can handle a situation in a way that people can’t.
‘Even their presence can be enough to put people off criminal behaviour, especially in public order incidents when we can be up against a violent crowd.
‘But the dogs really come into their own when we have to search large crime scenes.
‘If the conditions are right they will find the culprits more often than not and they can find property on a scene more than 14 hours after it has been dumped.’
Merlin is one of 26 GP Dogs in Hampshire whose main skills are to track, search and bite.
There are also 15 Drug Dogs and five Explosion Dogs within the force’s Dog Support Unit, all of which are based in Netley.
The unit teamed up with the dog unit at Thames Valley Police around 18 months ago to form the Joint Operations Unit, meaning there are now 85 dogs, 54 police constables, five sergeants and one inspector that be deployed throughout Hampshire and Thames Valley.
The unit provides 24-hour cover every day of the year throughout both counties and collaborates for training purposes.
Each dog and his handler goes through up to 13 weeks of training before the pair can patrol the streets, and around six to 12 months later they will be sent to public order events such as raves or football matches.
And after years of working side-by-side, the bond between man and dog is almost unbreakable, as PC Elliot Campbell explains.
Having worked with his six-year-old Victim Recovery Dog, Druid, since the dog was just 18 months old, he says: ‘We’re a team, me and Druid, just like every officer is with their dog.
‘I spend more time with him that my wife – it’s a huge commitment but he’s part of the family.
‘He defiantly knows when he’s off work. He’s a totally different dog at home, he’s so relaxed.
‘He slobs about like an old man in his slippers.’
When the dogs are at home, they are not allowed into the house and are kept outside in kennels.
‘It’s much more natural for a dog to live outside,’ PC Campbell adds. ‘That’s how they live in the wild.
‘Druid does get to come inside sometimes though, but only on a rare occasion, for a treat.
‘We have to keep it that was so that he gets excited about coming to work and gets his enjoyment from that.’
The Dog Support Unit has worked on a number of cases in the area, including Pompey v Southampton matches in particular the infamous riot of 2004 where the dogs were used for crowd control.
More recently one of the dogs located a missing woman in a woodland area on Portsdown Hill.
The dog found the woman unconscious and lying in the overgrowth, having attempted suicide by wrapping cling-film around her head.
His handler ripped all the cling-film off and the woman was taken to hospital where she survived.
The dogs have also been used recently to locate hidden weapons and drugs concealed in compartments built into the bodywork of vehicles and to find a group of illegal immigrants who smuggled themselves into the country in the back of a truck then broke out of the vehicle while it was on the motorway.
‘There is no better buzz than tacking a criminal in the dark, and there is no better feeling than when your dog finds what he is looking for,’ Srg Close adds.
‘The work they do for the force is invaluable, we couldn’t do half of what we do without them.
‘If the dog could drive I’d be out of a job – I’m just there to hold the lead most of the time.’
General Patrol (GP) Dogs
All PCs and Sergeants on in the Dog Support Unit carry a GP Dog.
There are 26 GP Dogs in Hampshire, 19 of which are German Shepherds, five are Belgian Shepherds and two are Dutch Herders.
GP Dogs search buildings and open areas for people or track where people have gone, which can be following criminals or locating missing people.
They can also chase and detain a criminal, so if a suspect is running from a crime scene, the dog will run after them and hold them to the ground with a bite to the arm.
The dog will then wait for a single command from his handler before releasing his bite.
They can also search for items with human scent on them, such as hidden property which has been stolen and concealed by criminals to be collected later.
Dual-skilled General Patrol Dogs
Some GP Dogs also have ‘bolt on’ skills added to their core track, search and bike skills, and will take on a second role within the force.
For example, within the 26 GP Dogs, there are four Victim Recovery Dogs (VRD) which are specially trained to search for people, bodies or body parts in all stages of decay.
VRDs can even find bodies underground through teamwork with their handler.
The officer will punch a number of holes into a section of ground and run the dog over the top of them. If the dog smells anything below he will stand over that whole and indicate to his handler.
And there are six GP Dogs that are also trained to work alongside the firearms team.
These dogs need to be good search dogs as they often need to locate a person with a firearm and they need to be good with people during a negotiation situation.
There are 15 Drug Dogs in Hampshire, all of which are either Spaniels or Labradors.
The main role of a Drug Dog is to search for drugs, but they are also trained to search for firearms (guns), ammunition, and paper money.
Drug Dogs are deployed to a property in a ‘sniper’ sense to locate any of these items, and any one dog can pick up four of five different scents.
These dogs are called Pro-Active Drug Dogs and Hampshire has six in its force.
There are a further ten Drug Dogs in Hampshire, which are called Passive Drug Dogs (PDD).
PDDs are non-aggressive and are used in airports, nightclubs, train stations, festivals, raves, or any other large scale event to screen a line of people.
To indicate when they have found something suspicious they will sit next to someone who is carrying something.
It is highly unusual for a Drug Dog to be trained in both Pro-Active and Passive roles, as there are key differences in the way they are trained and deployed, but there is one special dog in Hampshire that is trained in both roles.
It is also in the forces advantage not to have duel-trained dogs as it means there are more resources available for each incident.
Explosion Dogs are specially trained to find a huge array of explosive material.
There are five of these highly trained dogs in Hampshire, all of which are either Spaniels or Labradors.
Their work is defensive and they will be sent into an area where explosives are thought to be held or planted to clear the area of threat.
The dog’s handler will work with the Explosion Dog to locate the material and deal with it effectively.