Biting back: Police dogs’ role in the fight against crime
They help snare suspects, track down missing people and sniff out illegal drugs and firearms.
They are also a force to be reckoned with, standing firm in the face of danger and remaining fiercely loyal to their handlers.
With their brains, brawn and razor-sharp teeth, police dogs have become a vital element in the front-line fight against crime.
And their courage and commitment to their jobs has finally been recognised with the recent introduction of Finn’s Law, which will prevent those who attack or injure these canine officers from claiming self-defence.
The law is named after Finn, a police dog who was stabbed whilst pursuing a suspect with his handler PC David Wardell.
Finn sustained serious stab wounds to the chest and head, but only criminal damage charges could be brought against his attacker.
The law comes as one of the Staffordshire force’s dogs, PD Audi, recovers from being stabbed in the side of his head while on duty in the county.
A 29-year-old man - believed to be the first in the country - has been charged with causing unnecessary suffering to a police dog under the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019.
PC John Maunders, head dog trainer for Staffordshire Police, says the change of law was long over due.
“It’s massive. For years police dogs have only been viewed as property so if you injured a police dog you would be charged with criminal damage. Now the charge will be the same as if they assaulted a police officer,” he explained.
He says while serious injuries are rare some criminals don’t think twice about lashing out at them.
“People will kick and punch them so they do get cuts and bruises,” says PC Maunders, who has been involved in the training of around 200 dogs during his 14 years with the section.
Staffordshire Police currently has 30 top-class canine recruits including 20 general purpose dogs who are usually German Shepherds that are used in a variety of ways.
These range from helping to control crowds when football matches and public events threaten to spiral out of control, and chasing and apprehending criminals.
They also provide officers with a “less-lethal” option for restraining or capturing offenders during firearms incidents.
The force’s newest recruit is 18-month-old PD Reacher, a German Shepherd, who has been on the beat for five weeks.
Each police dog must complete 13 weeks of initial general purpose training with their handler before being assessed by the Home Office. They will continue to receive regular training and annual assessments throughout their partnership.
PD Reacher’s handler is PC Kim Coates who has been part of the dog section for five years. Handlers must work a two-year probationary period before they can apply to join the unit and entry can be extremely competitive.
He may be new to the game but PD Reacher is showing great promise and there are high hopes for him for the future.
“He’s done very well in his training and we expect him to do well in the real world. You don’t always know exactly how they are going to get on so you have to expose them to different things and prepare them as much as you can,” says PC Maunders.
Not all recruits will have what it takes to join the ranks and during their training dogs are monitored and observed to ensure they have the right qualities.
They also check their reactions to gunfire to ensure they aren’t going get spooked on the frontline.
“We look at their demeanor and how confident they are. Dogs are like people. Not everybody wants to be a police officer and not everybody is hard-wired to be a police officer,” says PC Maunders.
Training is all reward based and capitalises on a dog’s eagerness to get their paws on their favourite ball or rope-chew toy.
“The key is to find out what motivates the dog. We want a dog that will work for their ball or toy as a reward,” says PC Maunders.
But first all police dogs must undergo basic obedience training to ensure they will obey the commands of their handler without hesitation.
This includes a “safety recall” which is where the officer can call their dog back at any time.
When dogs are trained to search for offenders or missing people, their toy is used as an incentive. “The aim to get them fixated on it so they will work to get it back. They need to have a prey drive - the instinct to chase something,” says PC Maunders.
They might track someone by following scent on the ground or search for someone in a building by following the scent in the air.
After being given the command to find a missing person they will set off on the chase. If successful, they will sit and bark until their handler arrives before being given their toy as a reward.
If they are apprehending a suspect, who puts their hands in the air as a sign of surrender, they will also give them signal.
But if the offender starts to run or begins attacking the dog, they will spring into action, clamping down their teeth on their arm and will not let go until told to by their handler.
In all cases their reward a successful pursuit is being reunited with their toy as well as heaps of praise.
During a search in a building, the suspect will be warned of the dog’s presence and given a final chance to give themselves up.
“We always say ‘show your yourself now or we will send a dog in’. They can’t say later that they didn’t know the dog was there. The dog should sit and bark which gives the handler the indication they have found someone.
“The dog should react just by barking but if they start showing signs of aggression towards the dog or the handler, the dog will react to that,” says handler and instructor PC Mark Sharrock, who joined the dog section in 2002.
The team says there are around 15 to 20 bites a year and most occur when a dog has been forced to defend itself.
“A retired dog of mine bit someone on the thigh and caused an arterial bleed but it only happened because he was being attacked,” says PC Sharrock.
As well as general purpose dogs, the force also has 10 specialist dogs that are used to hunt down illegal drugs, currency, firearms and explosives.
They include three-year-old sprocker spaniel Finn, who searches for drugs, cash and firearms and his training programme has led him to associate his toy with the smell of whatever it is they are required to sniff out.
PC Coates has been PD Finn’s handler since February after the retirement of PD Ozzie who had served for over six years as a search dog.
She says working with the dogs gives her plenty of job satisfaction as well as the knowledge they are providing an important public service.
“It’s like going to work with your best friend every day. You get to be outside and be active. When you find a missing person or a drugs stash - it’s the best feeling in the world,” adds PC Coates.
Last month PD Finn and PD Reacher played a role in the seizure of around 80 rocks of what is believed to be crack cocaine and heroin from a suspect from the Birmingham area.
PC Coates says a dog’s nose is a valuable too during searches. This was proven when one of her charges sniffed out £3,000 of class A drugs that had been hidden within a lawnmower grass box.
“Dogs will look in places we would never think of looking,” says PC Coates, who adds that drugs have also been hidden inside children’s toys and baby car seats.
She believes the role of dogs in policing is “vital” because of “the amount of man hours they save and the jobs they do”. “It takes officers days to search a room, it takes a dog minutes,” she says.
Last year the force recruited it’s first Staffordshire bull terrier - two-year-old PD Cooper. He lived on the streets as a stray before being rescued by the RSPCA and has already helped hunt down more than £250,000 of heroin and cocaine since he started.
The dog section is also looking to the future and will soon be welcoming two very young trainees.
Two eight-week-old German Shepherd puppies, one dog and one bitch, will be joining the ranks.
PC Maunders, who will take responsibility for training the bitch, said: “Once they get to nine weeks, they are ready to learn a lot of basic commands.
‘Sit,’ ‘stay’ and ‘down’ can be taught quite quickly at this age. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it gets harder as they get older.
“As we’re taking responsibility for training these pups right from the beginning, we can monitor their progress and hopefully, keep them on the right track.”
PC Maunders says the role dogs play in policing is invaluable because they carry out certain tasks more effectively than a human officer ever could.
“One dog can do the job of a large number of officers. They can search areas so much better and in a shorter amount of time than officers could,” he adds.
And he says the dogs themselves get a lot out of police work- although for them it’s really all a game.
“They are keen to please and keen to complete the task to earn a reward. We’ve convinced them to come to work but they are coming to work to play,” adds PC Maunders.