How does a puppy become a police dog? How does a police dog become a hero? Rachel Rose goes behind the scenes with Canadian K-9 teams to find out more.
How does a puppy become a police dog? How does a police dog become a hero? Rachel Rose goes behind the scenes with Canadian K9 teams to find out.
I CROUCH, SHIVERING, behind the shed. I’m about to be attacked by a huge black police dog named Cade, and I’m not sure I can control my panic. Six metres away from me, Cade is lunging, barking furiously, throwing his full 36 kilograms against the taut line of his handler, Constable Darrell Moores. Cade wants to get me so badly, he’s frothing at the mouth, snapping the air with his teeth.
I asked to be here. I wanted to experience what it felt like for suspects to be attacked by these turbocharged police dogs. I knew I could write it better if I had lived it. This was all part of my plan, but in the moment, my plan seemed insane. Why had I opened my big mouth a few minutes ago and said to Moores, “What do I have to do around here to get permission to take a bite?”
“Nothing on my watch,” Moores replied. “You want to take a bite now?”
As a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Moores was part of ERT, the federal Emergency Response Team, before he joined the Police Dog Services (PDS). Prior to that he was in the military. Moores got his start in the Armed Forces at 17 years old, with a tour of duty in Yugoslavia. He’s a big man, six foot two, rugged and restless, as eager as his dog Cade for the next adventure.
“Take a bite now?” I’d been thinking there would be months of preparation and paperwork. Just like that, Moores calls my bluff.
“Sure,” he says, grabbing the bite sleeve, which was made of coarse jute to prevent puncture wounds.
“Ready to go?” Moores asks. “Ready,” I manage.
“Okay. Head over there, by that shed. When I call you to come out, just resist a little bit. Whatever you do, stay on your feet and protect your face.”
We are up in the mountains north of Squamish, B.C., me and Cade and Moores and about eight or nine other police dog handlers, all men. A couple of the cops are watching. I can’t back down. I have to give this my best attempt if I want to keep hanging out with them and their dogs. My heart jackhammers in my chest.
Whatever happens, it will soon be over. I told myself this as I went into labour for the first time. I say it again now, gripping the steel bar inside the padded arm I’m wearing, gritting my
teeth. “Police! Hey, bad guy, come out!” shouts Moores. I know it’s just practice, but it feels terribly real.
“I’m not coming out!” I shout back, hoping my voice isn’t shaking.
“Come out, bad guy, or I’m sending my dog!”
I take a deep breath, square up my stance. “No! I’m not coming out!”
“Hag ’em up!” Moores shouts. “Hag!” And then Cade flies at me like a black demon and grabs my arm, shaking me in his jaws like a giant chew toy.
What I haven’t anticipated is the force of his strike. I make the mistake of bracing, fighting Cade as he shakes me, rather than moving along with him.
Quarries are what they call the suckers like me who volunteer to get chewed on. Most of them are cops who want to be police dog handlers. They apprentice on their own time and their own dime, week after week, year after year, in hopes they can someday have a dog of their own in the force. But quarry is also a word for prey, for those who are hunted, and I am learning all the definitions of the word at this precise moment. Variations of “hag” are found in Nordic languages, usually in reference to chopping or cutting.
Moores watches me carefully. After what seems like an eternity but is probably only a minute, he calls Cade off. The dog reluctantly lets me go, leaping to bite the reward of a Kong chew on a rope that Moores offers as a substitute for my arm.
“Good dog!” Moores praises Cade, swinging him around in the air by the rope chew. “What a good dog!” Moores says again, as he leashes him up.
Cade regards me with his bright black eyes.
“You okay?” Moores asks, and I nod, not trusting myself to speak. He checks me over carefully.
“I saw your face when he was coming and you looked so scared I almost called him off. You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’m great! That was better than three espressos!”
He laughs. “You should have seen your face!”
“I was afraid I’d wet my pants,” I confess to him.
“You wouldn’t be the first,” Moores rumbles down at me.
MOORES WATCHES ME CAREFULLY. AFTER WHAT SEEMS LIKE AN ETERNITY,
HE CALLS THE DOG OFF.
I laugh out loud. Moores decides I’m fine.
“So, ready for another go?”
Oh God, no. “Sure am,” I say.
“HEY, ROSE, READY to try some tracking?” calls Moores after I’m done playing quarry. Cade trots along beside me, his thick tail wagging as we leave the trail and plunge into the brush. He’s no longer in attack mode; he’s been told to search, but not for me. I’m not afraid of him at this moment—just vigilant.
In Canada, police dogs are trained to do everything from search and rescue to defending their human counterparts to detecting bombs and drugs. K-9 teams face different challenges depending on whether they’re tracking in remote northern areas or densely populated urban environments, but in every case, they must be fit, fearless and prepared for anything.
Today, as we track, the cops talk about hunting bad guys.
At 11 years old, I was the target of a serial sex offender who left a trail of other child victims in his wake. I never found justice. The experience left me distrustful of all who were supposed to serve and protect. No one protected me. Even after all these years, the force of my anger surprises me.
So here I am, having made a commitment to spend long days and nights with those who are the first to arrive at crime scenes, the first to deal with victims. I wanted to be made tough just by being in their presence—to find resilience. I figure I’ll spend a few sessions riding along with police dog teams around my city of Vancouver. I have no idea what’s in store. I have no idea that I’m beginning a project that will obsess me for the next four years.
As Cade trots beside me, I allow my fingers to graze his black ruff. I am not supposed to do this—police dogs are not pets. But I brush Cade, so lightly it could almost be an accident. He swings his big head to look at me, black eyes utterly fearless, pure alpha, and I swear he grins back at me, light glinting off his canines.
I FLY TO CALGARY in May 2014, a few months after my meeting with Cade and Moores, then ride the bus for an
CADE SWINGS HIS BIG HEAD TO LOOK
AT ME, PURE ALPHA, AND I SWEAR HE GRINS BACK, CANINES GLINTING.
hour and a half to Red Deer, Alta. The next morning, I meet senior police dog trainer Tom Smith in the lobby of the Sandman Hotel at 6:30 a.m. so he can drive us to the kennels. Smith is a man of medium build, with salt-andpepper hair. Most of the time he’s soft-spoken and easygoing. It’s only when he’s telling me some of his past experiences as a K-9 cop that a hardness enters his eyes.
Several months earlier, I spent a week with Smith as he validated police dog teams in the Lower Mainland, near Vancouver. Each team that graduates from the RCMP kennels program is required to be validated annually to ensure they continue to meet or even exceed standards. Smith tells me that if he can’t pass a team, they have a maximum of 15 remedial training days. If they are still unsuccessful, trainers have to then make a decision as to which part of the team is at fault—the dog or the handler.
For the rest of this particular week, I will be in Innisfail, south of Red Deer, in the company of Smith, the dogs and the other RCMP police dog handlers.
Innisfail derives from a poetic Gaelic term meaning Isle of Destiny, and this is where every RCMP police dog in Canada (and many that end up as K-9s in the United States) is bred, born and raised. RCMP police dogs used to come from anywhere and everywhere. Some of those dogs worked out wonderfully, but in other cases, the results were uneven. Because of this unreliability, dog trainers and veterinarians took over the responsibility of breeding all the dogs, ensuring complete control over the bloodlines and every aspect of puppy and young dog training. The science behind the RCMP breeding program is carefully monitored at all levels.
These purebred German shepherd pups will meet their destiny at Innisfail. Only about one in three will succeed. The tests to become a police dog are challenging and begin when the dogs are just seven weeks old.
Innisfail is also where cops who want to become police dog handlers come to meet their destiny. By the time these police officers make it to the town, they have already proven both their dedication and their skill.
INNISFAIL IS WHERE EVERY RCMP POLICE DOG (AND MANY K-9S IN THE U.S.)
IS BRED, BORN AND RAISED.
Most of the time, dog handlers are cops who have already put in up to five or six years of voluntary, daily, unpaid training and dog care on top of their regular duties as police officers. They volunteer as quarries, and raise and imprint police pups in their homes, passing them on to experienced handlers when the dogs are old enough.
They do all this in hopes of one day being chosen to go to Innisfail themselves. Most of them never will. According to Smith, there are 150 names on the list at any given time and only four to eight are chosen every year.
WE HEAD TO INNISFAIL with a full truck—four new police-dog handlers and their dogs. Once we arrive at the kennels, Smith puts me in the very capable hands of another police dog trainer, Eric Stebenne, for the week.
This is what I learn while out with the dog teams: no matter what kind of shape you are in, nothing prepares you for tracking. The handlers have to keep up with their dogs the whole time. They have to make the decision to crawl after their dogs under barbed-wire fences or to heave their animals over the fences and then follow. But whatever their dogs do, they must do, too, or risk having their long lines become hopelessly, hazardously tangled. When they lose a scent, the team has to loop back, running in concentrically growing circles until they find their trail again.
After three tracks, I can barely stumble back to the truck, and I’m so far behind that I hear, rather than see, that moment where the dog finds the quarry and attacks, growling and barking.
“I don’t know how you guys do it,” I gasp, leaning against the truck. One of the guys laughs and takes off his belt, which holds a gun, a flashlight, a radio and a whole bunch of other gear. He straps it around my hips and steps back. I can barely stand erect with the extra 11 kilograms pulling me down.
“Do you really run with all this? I guess I have to shut up now,” I say, and the guys laugh.
We are out in stunning countryside, with an endless sky and fields and plains so open it feels like you could run forever. The long days pass in a blur. As I run along, I learn how to read
THIS IS WHAT I LEARN: NO MATTER WHAT KIND OF SHAPE YOU’RE IN, NOTHING
PREPARES YOU FOR TRACKING.
police dogs’ body language, how to tell when a dog is aimlessly searching and what he looks like when he hits the scent and becomes totally focused. I learn how to keep going and keep going.
I SPEND SOME afternoons hanging out at the kennels. I am in the capable hands of the two Louises who are core staff: Louise Paquet and Louise Falk. The breeding program couldn’t operate without these kennel attendants; they know dogs like nobody’s business and have dedicated their lives to raising police dogs.
It goes without saying that Louise Paquet loves dogs, but she tells me about it anyway. “My oldest boy found this mutt. We named him Jesus Murphy. I have Thea and Deena at home, too. Deena belongs to the RCMP.”
Deena is one of the RCMP’s breeding mothers. Like the other mothers, she lives with families when she is not in the kennels with a new litter. Five days before a brood dog is due to give birth, she leaves her foster family and comes back into the kennels, where she stays under the watchful eye of the Louises and the other staff until the pups are weaned.
It’s a big job the Louises have. Along with the other kennel staff, they do the early socializing of every litter of puppies and take care of all the adult dogs, as well. The puppies start their training on their first day of life, when the kennel staff begin getting them used to human touch.
At 15 days, the pups are started on a socialization regimen that involves removing them from their nest and getting the pads of their paws used to feeling a variety of surfaces underfoot.
When I walk the rows of kennels where the adult dogs are caged, they run to the fence, barking furiously, jumping on the wire that separates us. They scratch and whine, begging to be released, to go out and do something.
Their kennels are two small rooms with bare cement floors, open to the outside, easy to hose down and to clean, but neither cozy nor stimulating. However, these animals aren’t pets; they are soldiers. They live in barracks as devoid of colour or comfort as any army post.
THE PUPS START TRAINING ON THE FIRST DAY OF THEIR LIVES, WHEN STAFF
GET THEM USED TO HUMAN TOUCH.
Luckily, police dogs don’t usually spend long at the kennels. They might go to this holding station while their handlers are recovering from an injury, or while they are waiting to be rematched with a new officer. But the work these dogs do is valuable, and they are in demand. Most of the handlers go to great lengths to avoid leaving their dogs at the kennels. They like to keep their animals close, and are so connected that it feels strange to be without their trusty sidekick.
Anyone who marries into a police dog family knows, or quickly learns, that it’s a package deal: the bonus is the big German shepherd who will almost always be part of the family until the day he dies.
“COME SEE THE puppies,” says Louise Paquet, taking me to the nursery. We scrub up like surgeons, and I promise not to touch any of the babies. It’s a hard promise to keep. They are asleep, squished against each other. Every now and then one crawls away from his siblings, searching blindly for his mother and for milk. Pups in the first litter I see still have their eyes sealed shut, but the next is full of babies with stormblue eyes. They look at me, solemn, before cuddling back to sleep.
Paquet passes me off to Louise Falk, who is doing a puppy demonstration for a TV show. Falk comes running out of the kennels, wearing a dark uniform and a bright big smile. She has six black-and-brown tumble-bumble puppies hot on her heels.
Falk runs fast enough that the pups have to really hustle to keep up. They tag along into the puppy-training arena, where she leads them through the gate and shuts it behind her. Already, at only seven weeks old, the pups know how to follow her through various obstacles. That doesn’t mean they are happy about working. As soon as they are separated from Falk by the wire fence, they start a series of sharp, whining protests that don’t let up. She leads them around the ring from the outside, and they follow eagerly through the obstacles. Even though they are still babies, tripping over their big paws, they work a puppy course that is a replica of what the big dogs
AT THE NURSERY, WE SCRUB UP LIKE SURGEONS, AND I PROMISE NOT TO TOUCH
ANY OF THE BABIES. IT’S HARD.
must master, complete with tunnels and steps, mazes and bridges and wobbly balance boards.
The pups do very well, protesting all the while—Yip, yip, yip! Yip, yip, yip!— but then one little fellow goes into a maze and can’t find his way out. He goes ballistic, yodelling and yipping, as the other pups whimper, running after Falk but looking over their shoulders at their slow sibling. Falk gives him a minute to figure it out. When he doesn’t, she circles her whole pack back and guides the lost pup back to the pack. He quiets at once.
AT INNISFAIL, I also get to see the puppies tested. The handlers warn me beforehand not to interfere in any way. There are four trainers to administer the test. One handles the pups and three observe and score. These tests are critical in determining whether these roly-poly pups will become someone’s pet or elite members of the police dog force.
The first test the pups take is at seven weeks. This litter is a group of six fuzzballs.
First, each pup is separated from its siblings and brought in a crate to the entrance of a strange room. Will they enter the room boldly and fearlessly, or will they hang back, whimpering? The first pup on deck is a black female, strong and solid on her oversized paws. She trots into the room, curious but unafraid. Already, she moves like a winner, and passes the following round of tests beautifully.
The next test is to see again how she responds to stress.
She is flipped on her back and held down for 30 seconds to see whether she will fight to regain her footing or just give up. This girl’s a fighter. She scrabbles and whines and licks the trainer’s hand frantically, not surrendering. Then the handler picks her up and holds her off the ground, making no eye contact. Does she struggle or does she give up? The RCMP wants a dog that is not submissive, and this little girl struggles valiantly, paws churning the air as she fights for purchase.
When the pup is released, she’s scored on how she recovers. Immediately, she jumps up, shakes herself off
THE FINAL TWO PUPS DON’T MAKE THE CUT AT ALL. HOW CAN ONE TEST AT SEVEN
WEEKS DETERMINE THEIR FUTURE?
and trots over to the trainer. She licks his hand and hops on his arm. Although she didn’t appreciate the exercise, she doesn’t hold a grudge. “Let’s go!” she seems to be saying to him. “What’s next?”
The tests continue: the trainer blows up a paper bag and pops it, testing the pup’s fear response to unexpected noises. She looks up but doesn’t lose her cool, and when he crumples the bag and throws it, she follows and fetches. How a dog fetches and chases, how much hunting drive she has, is the best barometer of how she will do as a tracking animal, and police dogs at the RCMP are prized above all for their ability to track.
This puppy’s only seven weeks old, but her drive is intense and relentless. She has every sign of becoming a police dog.
“Females tend to score better at first,” the trainer tells me. “They mature faster and test better, but then around adolescence that advantage drops off.”
Out of the six pups, two pass with flying colours and two pass with reservations, while the final two don’t make the cut at all. This just doesn’t seem fair. How can one test at seven weeks determine their whole future?
Whether I like it or not, these tests have proven remarkably accurate in predicting which pups will become successful police dogs. The pups that don’t pass will be adopted by members of the public. Those puppies that do pass will soon be sent to live and work with officers across Canada who have completed the puppytraining course and who want to become police dog handlers. These officers prove their dedication by volunteering to raise, train and love these puppies for a year. After that, they have to say goodbye and let go, sending the dogs back to Innisfail to be matched with their new handlers.