Article about police dog trials.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, July 2010
On 4 July 2010, I was asked to cover a Police Dog trial held in the South of Holland. With the help of Competition Secretary Rien Visser, I got to find out about this sophisticated training sport.
If you’re in a hurry, check the short version of this article.
Police dog trials
The trials were hosted by the RODA Politiehondenvereniging (roughly translated into RODA Police Dog club, RODA stands for ‘Recht Op Doel Af’) in Berschenhoek, in the suburbs of Rotterdam.
This week-end event showcased dogs and handlers attempting to pass their PH1 (Politiehonden Level 1), PH2 or Object (guard dog) certifications. The Sunday (the day I attended) was devoted to PH2 and Object trials.
Police dog trials take place three times a year in the Netherlands. See the Koninklijke Nederlandse Politiehonden Vereniging for the calendar showing the next trials.
Some background information
Police dog training falls under the category of protection sports. Protection sports are defined as “all dog sports that test a dog’s ability to protect himself and his handler.”, and “… test the complete temperament of the dog, not just his protectiveness. The dog must be safe for his handler and for the public. He must be able to control himself upon command.” (Wikipedia)
There are many branches of protection sports, including schutzhund and, as is the subject of this article: police dog training.
A police dog is defined by the Wikipedia as: “a dog that is trained specifically to assist police and other law-enforcement personnel in their work.” Interestingly enough, “In many jurisdictions the intentional injuring or killing of a police dog is a felony, subjecting the perpetrator to harsher penalties than those in the statutes embodied in local animal cruelty laws” (Wikipedia).
Where is the police?
Before my visit, I thought that all police dog handlers and trainers were police officers. Actually, the set-up is quite a bit different: private handlers first train the dog towards the PH1 certification, and only then can the dog get sold to a law enforcement institution, to be specialist-trained for its future duties.
A popular sport in the Netherlands
There is a proud tradition of police dog training in the Netherlands, and Dutch-trained dogs are highly prized the world over, often getting exported for work with the US police, for example.
When I enquired about the number of police dog clubs in South Holland, he misheard me and estimated about six. I asked him to confirm, as that seemed to me to be a rather large number for South Holland. He was astonished at my estimate, as he replied that six was the number for the suburbs of Rotterdam alone! A popular sport it is, then.
A physical sport
To stand a remote chance of making it to PH1, you need to take your dog to the training club at least three times a week for about two years, which can be physically taxing. Some exercises are particularly vigorous for the handler, like the pretence fight with a ‘criminal’ in a padded suit . You may also have to run, cycle, and pretty much replicate everything a policeman does in the course of his duty.
Perhaps the most physical aspect of all is to play the role of the ‘attacker’. Padded suit or not, it takes a cool head and nerves of steel. I had so much respect for the two ‘attackers’ on the trial day, as it was scorching hot and they were under layer upon layer of protective padding.
So, in short, not a sport for wusses.
Specialities in police dog work
Police dog work can be divided into several specialisations:
- Public order enforcement: Involving “chasing and holding suspects, or detaining suspects by the threat of being released” (Wikipedia);
- Detection work (or “explosive-sniffing”, or “explosievenhonden” in Dutch): Where the dogs “detect illicit substances such as drugs or explosives” (Wikipedia);
- Search and rescue operations (or SAR. “redding” in Dutch): Where the dogs must “locate suspects and find missing persons or objects” (Wikipedia); and
- Cadavers detection: Which involves the scent-detection of dead bodies, mainly used in disaster recovery operations.
The RODA club itself trains mainly in public order enforcement and detection. Rien Visser actually told me that one of the dogs he had started to train for protection was completely unsuitable, but that it is now working successfully as a detection dog.
Interestingly, Rien explained that detection training can be a lot more taxing on the dog than defense work, as detection work requires the constant use of energy, in contrast with the more stop-start nature of defense work.
Do they make for good pets?
I put the following question to Rien: There is a consensus that the public should not pet service dogs, as this distracts them from their duties. Does the same principle apply to police dogs?
Rien explained that there was no standard line on this: some dogs may respond defensively to unrequited petting, while others may be very relaxed while not officially on-guard. The reaction greatly depends on the personality of the dog, that of the handler, and the policy of the law enforcement institution using the dog. Some handlers want their police dog to be visibly revved up, discouraging any would-be troublemakers. Others prefer a more poised animal who only gets aroused on command. But more importantly, who in their right mind would pet such an imposing-looking dog?
Rien also pointed out that the behaviour of a trained police dog is a lot under much closer control than that of the average family pet, making them safer to have around from that perspective. He told me about the irony of his neighbours warning people off his dog, while their miniature breed has bitten people on more than one occasion.
Additionally, police dogs are not meant to inflict bites in random places, but are only allowed to grab-hold specific parts of the suspect’s body (legs or arms). Similarly, bite-retreat-bite cycles are frowned upon in police dog work, preferring instead a single, strong hold. Perhaps most significantly, the police dog must let go immediately on command. This is potentially the single most important skill of a police dog.
I pushed the point and asked Rien about the danger that certain gestures used in defense training (like a suspect holding a stick above his head) could trigger an attack in closely resembling circumstances in a family setting (a child holding a stick to throw it). Rien explained that you can put the ‘work mode’, or ‘alertness’, on cue, so that when the dog is off duty, it knows not to be reactive to the same stimuli. To be 100% safe, you could always disallow the use of sticks in a family setting.
What is the lifecycle of a trained police dog?
Rien explained that it typically takes at least 2 years to get a dog ready for the trial (PH1). You also have to wait until the dog is physically more mature before tackling the more taxing exercises. Some handlers opt to train further to the more coveted PH2 certificate. Once the dog is PH1-certified, you would typically sell it to Her Majesty’s Police or another law enforcement agency (the PH2 certificate is not required).
Many dogs who get trained for police work do not stay in the home of their original trainer. Instead, they are sent to offer their specialist skills to serve the community.
A typical dog retires around nine years of age.
Best breeds for police work
Nearly every single dog seemed to be a Malinois (short-haired Belgian shepherd) or a Malinois cross. I was particularly struck by the most beautiful black Malinois (see pictures).
I asked Rien about this, and he confirmed that they were the dominant breed in the sport. He explained that you did not need a pedigree to take part in RODA trials (mixes are allowed), but that some clubs in the Netherlands do insist on a pure-bred dog.
Rien went on to explain that some mixes are even preferred, at times, as Belgian shepherds have a somewhat narrow snout, which is not as powerful as, say, a German Shepherd’s.
Other breeds also take part in the sports, such as Groenendaals, Rottweillers, Dobermanns, German shepherds or bouviers, or Dutch shepherds, but Malinois are preferred for the following reasons:
Despite the fact that nearly all German police dogs are German shepherds (I noted that this is likely to be a German PR trick!), GSD’s (German shepherd dogs) can be tricker to train in police work, said Rien. They can be more cautious, and reluctant to try again after a scare. In his experience, they are not as keen to work as a Malinois who would often blindly follow an order for the sheer excitement of working. In fact, Rien observed, the Dutch police has nearly completely switched over from GSDs to Malinois.
I told Rien that, although I had no evidence for this and this was not supported by genetic facts (the four Belgian shepherds breeds are virtually similar in everything but coat), I saw a distinct difference in behaviour between a Malinois and, say, a Groenendaal or a Tervuren. Rien concurred and explained that, in his opinion, Malinois were bolder than their counterparts
Impressive exercises seen during the trial
But enough of the chit-chat. Now onto the trials themselves.
I arrived in the middle of the guarding exercise, in which the dog has to stay close to a bicycle and neutralise the would-be thief by holding his sleeve or leg as he bends down towards the bike. As soon as the thief retreats and stands straight again, the dog is meant to let go and resume its initial position guarding the bike, all without instructions.
The first level of this exercise (PH1), involves the same routine with a handbag or other small object instead of a bike.
Tracking an object
In an area of 15m by 15m, the dog must find a very small object thrown by the examiner to a location unbeknownst to the dog.
Working in the line of fire
In this exercise, a dog must stay unperturbed by the side of its handler while a blank bullet is being shot closeby. The idea is to ensure that the dog is able to work undistracted, even if it is surrounded by explosions, fireworks and firing weapons.
Tracking a hidden fugitive
Another exercise consisted in tracking and apprehending an armed fugitive through the woods. The dogs is meant to neutralise the (running) attacker by grabbing his or her leg.
An important element of this exercise is that, when the dog is tracking the fugitive, it is not allowed to bark. This is essential for operations requiring that the police works remains undetected.
The dogs have to jump over a series of obstacles, and wait on the other side (without instructions to do so). One of the obstacles is impressively high (1 m 80). I asked Rien whether dogs in this sport regularly suffered hip damage as a result of this jump. He told me that there were preventative measures such as moderating the frequency of the jumps, and only starting this exercise from a certain age.
The second jump consists of a 1 meter-high fence (which the dog is not allowed to touch).
The final jump is a long ditch, over which the dog must jump, then wait, then jump back again towards its handler.
The dog has to swim across a canal, wait on the other side, and only swim back across when called by its handler. Again, the ‘wait’ is spontaneously offered and does not require a command. This exercise is absolutely essential here in the Netherlands, where the landscape is constantly criss-crossed by canals and rivers.
Chase and neutralise
The chase was one of the most dramatic exercises, and great to watch.
A fugitive (wearing a padded suit) runs away from the handler-and-dog team. On the handler’s signal, the dog runs like a bullet towards the fugitive at incredibly high speed, then pounces on him and grabs his leg or arm.
The poor man standing in the padded suit has no idea where the dog comes from, nor where it is going to hit. I often saw the padded man being thrown on the ground and, thankfully, the dogs were disciplined enough to just grab-bite the allowed body parts (and not on, say, the face or hands).
Once the fugitive’s body language indicates surrender (arms crossed in front of his chest, standing upright), or when the handler instructs the dog to let go, the dog lets loose immediately, and stands guard close to the criminal. The beauty of this is that if the suspect made an attempt to escape or resist arrest, the dog immediately grabs him again without a command.
When the suspect is still, the dog stands close guard and threatens him with barks, snarls, and growls, until the handler approaches the scene and apprehends the suspect. Part of this exercise involves hiding the handler from the dog’s sight to ensure the dog can carry out its duty without active supervision.
Once the handler apprehends the suspect(s), he or she walks on, closely followed by the dog who watches out for any escape attempts.
Should the criminal attempt to flee, the dog would grab him at the legs until he was still again.
Chasing a fugitive on a bicycle
The idea of this exercise was three-fold:
- Jumping over a first criminal (lying down) without being distracted from the main chase;
- Chasing, grabbing and stopping a fugitive on a bicycle at high speed; and
- Interrupting the chase/grab as soon as recalled.
For the dog’s safety, the centre of the bike’s tyre was filled solid (instead of bearing the usual spokes).
The speed and control of these dogs during this exercise was astounding.
Assisting handler in a fight
The final exercise I witnessed involved a very convincing struggle between the suspect and the dog’s handler.
The struggle starts suddenly, after the suspect appeared docile for a while. The dog must react quickly, and without a command, to grab the felon (on the legs mainly) to help his handler in the fight. As soon as the suspect stops struggling and stands back, the dog must let go.
The dog’s behaviour would start/stop again as many times as the struggle started and stopped.
I need more information on this
I still had a couple of questions to ask, but Rien had to take care of organisational duties. I have also posted these questions on the KNPH forum, and I am curious of what comes out of it. If you know the answers, do get in touch.
- What is the exact difference between politiehonden (Dutch police dog) en schutzhund (German protection dog)? (kindly answered by mail by a police dog owner. I took the liberty of summarizing and translating from Dutch). “I have not been involved in Shutzhund, so I can’t tell you the exact difference, but I have also done the IPO with my dog. In comparison, the Police Training work is a lot closer to real-life, a lot more practical. For protection work, for example, the ‘attacker’ is always in a similar-looking cage before the exercise in the IPO. But with police dog training, the dog must also work in diverse conditions, like in the woods for example.”
- How much does a PH1-certified dog cost (roughly)? (kindly answered by mail by a police dog owner. I took the liberty of summarizing and translating from Dutch). “It is really difficult to give an estimate of how much a PH1-certified police dog would cost. The market is very changeable, so at times there is more demand than supply, while at other times it’s the other way round. It’s also to do with the certification: the overall points total, but also what went less well and what went better. Finally, you also have to take into account the medical background of the dog, and its age.”
Police dog training and women
Some police dog clubs in the Netherlands do not allow women handlers (Note: RODA does allow women). The official reason is physical strength , but I was told by an anonymous source that it stems from the perception that women “have a tendency to complain” (which made me smile to myself), and do not readily volunteer to play the attacker.
Actually, one woman did take part in the trials (out of five contestants), and she and her gorgeous black Malinois mix seemed to be doing very well.
Traditional training methods
The methods I saw at the trial seemed to belong mainly to the traditional school of dog training (making use of punishment as well as rewards, as opposed to the modern school which nearly exclusively uses reward). I asked Rien about this, and he confirmed that most police dog clubs were following traditional methods. He reassured me that brutality was absolutely forbidden (you would get banned for kicking your dog, or hitting it in the face, for example). Rien explained that some clubs are experimenting with clicker training, but that was far from the majority.
The bravoury exercise
One of the exercise involves the attacker hitting the dog with a stick. I was utterly shocked when I first heard it described, but when I saw the dog’s (lack of) reaction to it, I understood the point. This is a bravoury test to ensure that the dog won’t break down in a confrontation. endangering itself and its handler. The dogs I saw perform that exercise were so concentrated on keeping a hold of the attacker that they seemed completely oblivious of the blow.
What about the rejects?
As with all high-performance working dog, I presume a lot of the dogs fall through the cracks as they do not satisfy the many highly demanding criteria. As with greyhounds coursing, I can’t help but wonder what happens to these ‘excess’ dogs should they be unsuitable for resale.
(kindly answered by mail by a police dog owner. I took the liberty of summarizing and translating from Dutch). “It is customary within the KNPV to sell the dog as soon as it got its certificate.” and “Don’t’ be concerned that these dogs will live the same fate as retired or unsuitable greyhounds. Dogs that are unfit for the KNPV-level police dog training can also be sold as guard dogs. The guard dog programme is a lot less demanding than the KNPV programme. Some dogs also get sold abroad, where there are less demands for the same kind of training. What also happens quite often, is the that dog gets sold for tracking work, often to the police. If a dog is really unfit for any kind of police, tracking or protection work, he gets sold as a pet.”
In the wrong hands
Given the effectiveness of a trained police dog for the physical control of an opponent, I presume they are also used for criminal ends. I wonder what, if any, checks are in place to control ownership, and whether they frequently get violated?
As part of my post-edit research, I browsed through the KNPV forum for real-life testimonials of these dogs at work, and I was awe-struck by what these guys can achieve. Check out the forum for some really interesting stories of hero dogs.
As far as the trials were concerned, one of the best executed behaviours I saw was the ‘attention’ behaviour, whereby the dog regularly “checks in” with its owner. I constantly saw this with every participating team, and without any prompting. When at rest, the dog’s gaze never left their trainer’s. My dog’s attention prowesses are dwarfed by this level of discipline.
A central principle of police dog training is the dog’s relative independence from its handler in sticky situations. Indeed, many of the behaviours that a dog is meant to perform in a crisis are not on cue (like guarding an object or letting go of an attacker when he stops running/struggling).
I was most impressed by a Malinois female, who stayed incredibly calm, relaxed and self-controlled throughout the whole trial. Don’t get me wrong: the other dogs’ performance was incredible, but the bond between that female and her handler was rock-solid, and it looked like nothing or noone could get to that dog. Lucky is the police force that ends up with one of the dogs I saw perform today.
Koninklijke Nederlandse Politiehond Vereniging Forum (unaffiliated to the KNPV): Check this out if you want to read real-life stories of how these Dutch-trained police dogs get used by real police agents all over the world.
List of protection sports (Wikipedia)
Police dogs (Wikipedia)
I would like to thank Bastin from ‘Honden en Puppies‘ for giving me this interesting assignment.
A particularly heartfelt thank you to Rien Visser, the competition secretary, for showing me around and answering my (many!) questions.
Thank you also to RODA, who made me feel welcome and offered me drinks on that scorching day!
Last updated July 2010
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