By Darcy MacDonald
They are the most loyal partners a police officer can have and all they want in return is food, shelter, and most of all, praise.
The 109 canine officers in the RCMP play a vital role. They aid their fellow officers in everything from tracking missing persons to detecting stolen property or drugs.
Cpl. Don Smith has been an RCMP dog handler for the past 20 years, with previous stints in B.C. and Newfoundland before coming to P.E.I. Smith is now paired with his fifth service dog, a 4 1/2-year-old Belgian Malinois named Zak, the only police dog on the Island. All dogs in the service are male.
"We get our dogs from a variety of different sources, from recognized breeders to donations," Smith explains. "Maybe a family has a dog that is getting to be a little bit too much to handle or maybe they've moved, or whatever."
Smith says age, physical condition and the level of need for the RCMP are all considered before a dog is purchased or accepted as a donation. There is also a pup- rearing component to the service which matches aspiring dog handlers with canine prospects. Most police dogs come from breeders in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Smith notes that in recent years, the Czech Republic has become known as a producer of good quality dogs.
Although the traditional German Shepherd breed is still used, the Belgian Malinois are becoming popular as canine officers. Smith says there are 28 Belgian Malinois in the service across Canada. They are similar to, but smaller than a German Shepherd, have a high energy level, are excellent trackers and are aggressive almost to a fault. Smith points out they don't have the physical problems, such as arthritis, that German Shepherds have during advanced years. Most dogs in the service work until the age of about nine.
"They didn't go to them (the Malinois) to replace the Shepherds, they looked to them because our market for good working dogs was getting smaller and smaller," Smith says, adding that Belgian Malinois are now used by police around the world.
Most candidates for the RCMP canine program must have good hips and elbows as well as aggressive characteristics. They begin training around 16-18 months of age.
"They're pretty mature at that age," Smith says.
The RCMP veteran says the time to complete the basic training at Innisfail, Alta., can take at least 18 weeks for an inexperienced dog and new handler. While an experienced handler can prepare a new dog in about two months, an experienced tandem of both dog and officer can take as little as three weeks to get acquainted with each other. Dogs are also trained for Parks Canada, Canada Customs and other organizations at the training centre in Innisfail. The dogs are taught in three levels.
In level 1, tracking skills are refined, obedience is stressed, confidence is allowed to develop and the dog's aggression level is cultivated. A dog in level 1 of training would be exposed to tracking in rural areas and things like cattle and wildlife while on a leash.
In level 2, the dog is met with more distractions, such as being in the suburbs where there are more people and traffic. The dog is allowed to perform running attacks, become more aggressive and begin to search for drugs or explosives. A dog specializes in either drugs or explosives. It is not trained to deal with both.
Level 3 consists of honing skills the dog has already learned. The dogs learn more obedience and respond to commands well enough that a leash is not needed.
Six months after basic training is completed, RCMP dogs undergo an evaluation to ensure their abilities are at the level where they should be, and are tested on a yearly basis afterward. Smith says he and Zak sometimes train up to five times a week in order to stay sharp. Other officers from the Maypoint RCMP detachment, where Smith and Zak are based, help with the training sessions by laying out tracking assignments and assisting with attack work, for example.
"Of the dogs that go through the training system, only about 15 per cent make it," Smith notes. He says there are two main reasons for failure: the dog's tracking ability is not good enough, or his aggression level is too low.
Smith's partner, Zak, is trained to detect drugs such as marijuana, hash, hash oil and cocaine. Smith estimates he uses him 150 to 200 times a year.
"The majority of those calls are tracking calls, scenes of break and enters, that type of thing," he says.
Being the only dog of his kind on the Island, Zak's tracking abilities often assist Parks Canada, the provincial Department of Fisheries and correctional facilities.
"Basically what happens is, the dog is worked on a leash," Smith says of how Zak goes about finding drugs. "He's trained and conditioned to indicate and pursue a particular smell."
Once a dog picks up the scent, he will isolate it to an area as close to the source as possible, then sit down calmly and wait for his reward. Zak's reward is a small rubber ball to play with. Drug sources used in training dogs can be as big as a softball to as small as a quarter of a gram. Smith notes that dogs used to be trained to "aggress the hide" (object that has the scent on it), but aren't anymore. For instance, if a dog picked up the scent of drugs inside a car seat, they would tear it apart in an attempt to get at the source.
Smith says it is important that he and Zak maintain a strong bond because trust between dog and handler is paramount. He estimates that in 95 per cent of all situations he is faced with, Zak is his only back-up. Smith says he likes the fact that he and Zak can work without a lot of supervision.
"I was in the force for about four years when I decided to pursue a specific career, and that was the one I chose," Smith explains. "It's a different kind of work, because you're constantly involved with different things."