Behind the scenes at Lancashire Constabulary’s Dog Unit
- Credit: Glynn Ward
Lancashire’s Dog Unit is a vital part of the county’s police force. Olivia Assheton went to meet the dogs and their handlers and came away thinking CSI could also stand for Canine Special Intelligence.
Avid viewers of cop shows will understand that a dollop of dog's dribble on evidence could really mess up the forensics of a subsequent police investigation.
It's attending team training at Hutton, though, that this is really brought home. PC April Butcher works her Dutch Herder following a human scent trail, laid some hours before. He quickly finds a hidden mobile phone and wallet.
And once he's located them, Frankie lies down and barks loudly to indicate the location of the stolen goods. He is never in contact with the items - it's PC Butcher who runs the several hundred yards with the protective plastic gloves to safely retrieve the evidence. The dog's loud barking, rather than any physical contact, is also the preferred method of crowd control.
Probably started by a donation of a litter of puppies by Lord Derby in 1948, today the unit's dogs are recruited via a number of sources and, if they pass the rigorous initial training, live at home with their handlers, with most staying as a family pet when they retire.
There are currently three full time trainers at police headquarters in Hutton, putting through around 40 dogs and handlers a year, with about 18 teams currently active across Lancashire. Nationally recognised, the trainers have also helped form dog/handler partnerships for Isle of Man's police officers and trained Durham's teams to locate crucial forensic evidence.
Instructor Anna Woods says: 'We initially look for young dogs that are sociable, driven and motivated, as that will mean they can be trained to a high standard. There is then a four week initial assessment, but we will typically only retain about 30 per cent of this intake. Even if they have lovely temperaments, we have to make sure they have potential for future progress - and many will fail a rigorous veterinary assessment.'
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The handlers and allocated dogs then undergo a 13 week intensive course together and, after that, there is a continual training and assessment of the bonded teams to ensure they continue to be controlled and efficient.
While Spaniels and Labradors are the favoured breeds for locating specific items (different drugs and currencies for example) search dogs are generally German Shepherds, Malinois and Dutch Herders like Frankie.
'When selecting the handlers, the priority is to take on really good coppers who can work on their own, with an understanding of relevant crimes like burglary and an ability to be really instinctive in their investigative work,' Anna says.
No matter what the dog's motivation, positive reinforcement in training is key and delivered with a great deal of kindness and affection and there's a lot of verbal and physical praise. One dog might be particularly fond of a particular toy, another a treat, but everything is tailored to the individual dog and what works best for them.
For example, a sniffer dog will find something such as cash (which is supplied to the police, specially cut up by the Royal Mint to ensure the ink scents are authentic) and then enjoy a play session with a toy.
Throughout the training period, the bond strengthens and the pair will normally progress from 'standard' to 'advanced' level, working in the field where they can experience real-life surfaces, situations and scenarios.
In service, the dogs are invaluable for sniffing out drugs, firearms, cash, crucial evidence and even explosives. They also pursue suspects and locate vulnerable missing persons.
The dogs can follow a human scent for up to two hours after it has been laid, depending on ground conditions, and this is tested to the max during their training. A very few teams will be trained as tactical firearms support dogs and one or two may undergo different training for a highly specialised role in locating explosives.
In civilian life, dogs live with their trainers and families, but have the support of a dedicated kennel staff at the Hutton headquarters for holidays and breaks. They work the same shifts as their trainers - and have holidays too - but because of the stressful nature of the job, even healthy dogs will retire fairly early, around the age of 10 or 11 and usually with their trainer's family. Additional help with vet's bills and other expenses is provided by Lancashire's Police Dog Benevolent Fund.