WATCH YOUR DOG. TRUST YOUR DOG – Written by a police dog handler

These were the words ringing in my ears as I took to the streets as a new Police dog handler. The dog I had had from the age of 3 months was now a large 14 month old ready for anything after we had completed and passed our 13 week initial course in general duties.

It didn’t get any better than this as I put the dog in the marked van and drove out of the nick for the first time to start our tour of duty with a silly grin on my face.

All the hard work had paid off, tripping over the dog and treading on his feet and being bitten for my troubles whilst doing heel work. Tangling the tracking line and burning my hands on it whilst tracking, loosing my voice while giving distance commands, being fined for putting the chain round the dogs neck the wrong way and generally being cold, wet, tired, dirty and at times more than a little frustrated wondering why can’t dogs speak English it would make it so easy!
Yes, it had paid off big time. Ever since I saw an episode of ‘Z. Cars’ when police dog ‘Blackie’ had been killed I had wanted to do this. And here I was living the dream.

Our first few days were uneventful. I was quite thankful as It gave me and the dog time to adjust from a strict training regime to a normal working one. It was mid November and we were working the late shift 2pm to 10pm. Our first real call was to a missing patient from a local mental Hospital. The Hospital was in a fairly rural area hence the need for the dog. It was already dark and cold and as we commenced the search the rain started to come down. I had already made enquiries with the staff and ascertained that the missing person had been seen by another patient walking down a path that lead out into the countryside. I followed the path to a gate where I tacked the dog up with his tracking harness and line. The track, if there was one would have been about two hours old which for a novice dog was quite old.

The dog however quickly picked up a track. This was the first real track the dog and I had ever had. I was amazed at the speed and power of the dog as it lunged forward on the track literally ripping the 40 ft line through my hands. The difference between training and real life! Something I never tired of in the 18 years of my dog service. The track went on for about 500 yards then came to an abrupt stop. I marked the point where I lost the track and tried casting the dog again and again but to no avail.

We were on a single dirt track, to my left was a small hedge and nothing but open fields to my right. The wind was blowing from right to left.
This is where I made my first mistake and learnt my first and most important lesson. I subconsciously decided that the missing person was to my right. Even though the dog, who was now back on his lead was facing to the left and had no interest in the right. I pushed him again and again to the right, in to the wind, but he wasn’t having any of it, he just kept turning to the left. I think now, looking back, what confused me was the dogs lack of zeal. He just stood there. If there was someone to my left I would have expected him to indicate in some way. Again the difference between training and real life. Plus I think the hedge not only made a barrier on the track but also in my mind. As well as my own inexperience.

I had wandered down the track for some time now hoping to pick up the track again. But as time went on it got colder. I became more and more worried for the patient. The rain had stopped but there was a real risk of hyperthermia. I decided to ask for help. It was sent in the form of a helicopter!. I slowly walked back to the point I had marked on the track where I had lost the track and feeling slightly dejected waited.
I resorted to the use of my torch. I could see very little (You may ask why I didn’t use my torch before, well some people don’t want to be found and the use of my torch would give my position away).

I now heard the sound of the helicopter and I waited for it’s imminent arrival. I then, for some reason decided to let the dog off the lead so he could ‘take a leak’. Without any rush or excitement he pushed his way through the hedge, I was torn between watching him and the sight of the ‘Night Sun’ that was now shining brightly from the helicopter which was quickly approaching my position.
I then turned to my dog who I saw in the glow of the ‘Night Sun’ was sitting by a white shape some 25 yards in to the field on my left. I quickly sent a message over the air “Patient Found”…… well I wanted the credit to go to my dog!!
I ran to the dog and sure enough he was sat next to the female patent. She was soaking wet and very very cold. I summoned assistance and in a very short time she was in A&E receiving treatment.

This was the most important lesson I ever had and I am thankful I learnt it early on and no one suffered while I was learning it. This lesson served me and my dogs well. The Four dogs I went on to handle saved three peoples lives, arrested many many criminals and recovered 100,000’s of pounds of property. Training the dog is the easy part. Training the handler though! that’s hard.