A dog’s life in the force
Some top cops will literally jump through hoops to get the job done.
German shepherds bound over obstacles and play tug-of-war with fake sausages at the region’s police dog base in Ellerslie.
But it’s not all fun and games – this is one of the most dangerous jobs in the whole police force.
Senior Sergeant Peter Pedersen is the officer in charge of the base – ‘‘The Dogfather’’, a sign on his door proclaims.
He’s always had a keen interest in canine behaviour and combining that with frontline police work is ‘‘the ideal vocation’’, he says.
He oversees 27 dog handlers and five coordinating sergeants, covering an area stretching from Mangawhai to just south of Port Waikato.
They can be called out to anywhere in the region at any time but also provide assistance to the dog squads in Coromandel and Northland if needed.
Puppies are bred at the national police dog centre in Upper Hutt and are taught to track people by scent and to take down an offender if needed.
Others are trained for search and rescue work or to sniff out bodies, drugs or explosives.
Training each puppy costs about $35,000 and they join the force at 18 months old.
They’re then matched with a handler, who works with them during the day and takes them home at night.
‘‘You see them more than you see your own family members,’’ Mr Pedersen says. ‘‘You build an affinity with them. I would defy anyone here to say they don’t love their dog, because they do.’’
Auckland’s top dog is 5-year-old Hawk. She’s the only female police dog in the region and took home first place at the Australasian police dog champs this year.
Her handler, Senior Constable Bill Birrell, was first inspired to join the dog squad at the age of 16, when a police chase involving a dog handler ended with a car crashing into his front fence.
‘‘All that excitement, I thought, ‘this is a bit of me’,’’ he says.
Hanging out with dogs all day might sound like fun but Mr Birrell is careful not to glamorise his job.
On any given day he and Hawk could be called out to a burglary, car theft, rape or murder.
Hawk is also trained for callouts involving the armed offenders squad, which means dealing with violent criminals, often under the influence of various substances.
Mr Birrell says methamphetamine, or P, has made his job far more dangerous than it used to be.
‘‘Hawk’s got a good technique but you ramp that up with drugs or alcohol or mental instability and it’s an entirely different kettle of fish.’’
He wouldn’t trade his job for anything but it does involve moments of ‘‘sheer terror’’, he says.
Injuries are a fact of life and 21 dogs have been killed in the line of duty since the started in 1956.
‘‘I think all of us have been in situations where, if it wasn’t for our dog, hospital was a very real possibility, if not worse,’’ Mr Birrell says.
‘‘Three times it’s happened to me where I thought ‘this is going to be really bad’. Thankfully it hasn’t but that was because my dog was able to come to my aid.’’ Dogs are usually retired by the age of 8 and most go to live with their handlers or other members of the police.
In charge: Senior Sergeant Peter Pedersen, otherwise known as ‘‘The Dogfather’’, heads up the Auckland police dog unit.
Top dog: Hawk is fresh from a win at the Australasian police dog championships.
High alert: The canine team can be called out at any time. Nationally, police dogs attend about 40,000 incidents a year.
Skill set: Mr Birrell says good police dogs have to be confident in any environment. ‘‘It’s that drive and the willingness to respond to their handler.’’