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Sussex canine crime fighters

The Argus: Police dog handler PC Steve Williams and Blyss Buy this photo Police dog handler PC Steve Williams and Blyss

Police officers may be as likely to be seen with a handheld device as a truncheon these days, but there is one area of policing which remains stubbornly old-fashioned. Whether faced with knife wielding madmen, brawling football hooligans or devastating explosives, police dogs carry out their duty with speed, poise and ruthless efficiency. But transforming a domestic pet into a crime-fighting machine is no mean feat. Reporter Ben James went along to one of the Sussex Police’s training days to find out more

My heart is pounding and sweat is dripping from my brow.

I’m struggling to catch my breath as I run full speed across a dew-sodden field.

I know it’s coming but I have no idea when. I take a look over my right shoulder and catch a blur of brown and black.

Then bang.

I’m down on the ground – face first in the dirt.

On the end of my right arm is a ferocious Malinois dragging me around like a 6ft 4in rag doll.

I try to get to my feet but I’m at the mercy of the snarling beast, its jaws locked around my heavily padded right arm.

Fifteen seconds later with me well and truly beaten, Blyss is called to heel and releases her grip leaving me dazed and confused.

The chase – if you can call it that – is the culmination of an intense day’s training for the Sussex Police Dog Unit.

In charge of that training is PC Steve Williams.

He said: “I’ve been in the force for 30 years now and I have been a dog handler for 16.

“I love my job. When your dog finds that crucial bit of evidence which can turn a case – that’s the reward.”

Specialist search

At present the force has 42 working dogs, not including the Gatwick Airport search team.

Thirty of those are classed as general purpose dogs and are commonly either Alsatians or Malinois. They are used for everything from tracking criminals and finding missing persons to taking down armed suspects and controlling football crowds.

A further nine are specialist search dogs, usually either spaniels or Labradors, and are trained to find explosives, cash, drugs and weapons.

Three others, again Alsatians or Malinois, are classed as conflict management dogs and are often used as a non-lethal alternative in firearms incidents.

When I visit their East Sussex training camp, Steve is putting eight of the force’s general purpose dogs – and their handlers – through their paces.

“It’s as much for them as the dog,” he tells me, “they need to know how to train and work the dog so they can best do their job.

“Alsatians are generally the favoured breed for the job. They are brave, intelligent, willing and obedient.

“Dogs like Rottweilers have the bite but they can be very stubborn. If they don’t fancy doing something then they won’t.”

Living the job

Sussex Police get the majority of their dogs from other forces’ breeding programmes.

As puppies they are sent to live with volunteer families who help give them a normal upbringing.

The next step is a 13-week intensive training course.

From there they live, work, rest and play with their handler.

“It’s not a job – it’s a lifestyle,” Steve adds. “There needs to be that bond and trust between the dog and the owner. We need to trust in their ability to catch the bad guys and find that crucial piece of evidence.”

One skill in which trust is vital is tracking. Whether it’s finding a suspect or locating a missing person, the dogs must be able to discard irrelevant distractions and home in on a scent.

Faced with a search for a runaway criminal across miles of empty fields in the dead of night – it would seem like a good time for us mere humans to head back to the station for a cup of tea.

But not for these dogs.

Their sense of smell, Steve tells me, is 1,000 times stronger than ours. If you combine that with the five million skin cells we shed each hour, not to mention sweat, blood, odour and clothing fragments, then it’s game on.

Half an hour before we enter one of the biggest fields at the training centre, PC Will Durant has zigzagged across the area leaving nothing but his 30-minute old scent as a clue.

Deafening

At the end of what must be close to a 600 metre-long winding track is Alsatian Red’s favourite toy.

Without hesitation the five-year-old leads his handler, PC Neil Black, across the wet grass.

Nose to the ground and bushy tail wagging skywards, he follows the identical path walked by PC Durant before finding his toy.

“As well as human scent they are trained to pick up things like chemicals released when grass is trampled on and the smells from crushed worms and beetles,” Steve said.

“Nearly everything we do is to toy reward. They know that when they catch the criminal or track the scent they will get to play with their ball or whatever. It’s also important to reinforce that behaviour with encouragement from the handler.”

After spending a few hours with the dogs, you soon get used to their deafening barks. But one sound that takes a little longer to adjust to is half a dozen burly policemen squealing their delight.

When their dog completes a set task the sound of “who’s a clever girl then” and “well done darling” echoes around the fields.

“That’s one thing you quickly learn,” Steve tells me. “For this job you have to give up some of your sensible outward persona.

“When you’re out on a job and find the burglar you always get funny looks when you start dancing around in the street with your dog telling them how clever they are.”

But of course these dogs are used for more than just tracking.

Every now and then they are needed to sink their 42 teeth into the bad guy’s arm using 600-700 pounds per square inch of pressure.

But this is no savage, frenzied attack. It is a trained, controlled and calculated response. The younger dogs start off training on a large toy to get their teeth into before they are moved on to the padded sleeve.

“We train for them to go for the right arm because 90% of the population is right-handed,” Steve explained. “If they have a weapon then that’s the hand it will be in.”

The criminal – me on this occasion – runs across an open field with the snarling and drooling canines ready to pounce.

But they don’t move an inch until the order is given.

Loyal

When it is, they bolt, reaching speeds of over 30mph (Usain Bolt struggles to hit 25mph), before leaping through the air and grasping the right arm with effortless accuracy.

Such is the force and speed of the dog that it often knocks the criminal off their feet.

The handler then approaches, checks that the suspect is no longer a threat and calls the dog off.

But that’s not all. If the criminal gives up at the final second, the dogs are trained to come to a screeching halt and stand toe to paw barking furiously until their handler can arrest the suspect.

Perhaps even more impressive is when the dogs are sent to take down a running criminal only to be called back by their handler mid chase.

People with dogs that chase rabbits or tennis balls will realise just how impressive that is.

“The only time they are allowed to attack without command,” PC Durant tells me, “is when the suspect attacks us, the handler.

“They are very loyal and very defensive of us. I was out in Rottingdean with my dog when we caught up with a man who had just assaulted his wife. I told him to stop but he wouldn’t so we went up to him.

“He went for me and before he knew it he was being dragged around on the floor.”

But these dogs are far more than teeth and muscle.

Crime scene

The final skill we go through today is searching properties.

When faced with a potential crime scene and no idea what to look for, these dogs are invaluable. From an early age they are taught to seek out anything with a recent human scent and notify their handlers.

Unlike an everyday canine response, they don’t pick it up or paw at it. They are taught to lie down and bark or point at it with their nose in order to not tamper with evidence or damage forensics.

Steve said: “The dogs are the experts and we have to trust in them to do what they do.

“I believe very strongly in the ability of our dogs and what they can do for the force. They are crucial.”

Modern policing is almost unrecognisable from law enforcement of the past.

But for all the iPads, thermal imaging, DNA matching and apps, the use of police dogs is one method of crime fighting that hasn’t – and won’t – change.

For the law-abiding citizens among us, that is something to be thankful for.

But for those who insist on continually breaking the rules – they should be afraid.

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