By Laure-Anne Viselé, July 2010
Police dog trials
This article tells you all about the 4 July Police Dog trial at RODA (police dog club near Rotterdam, RODA stands for ‘Recht Op Doel Af’). This article is the short version of my complete piece on police dogs.
Police dog trials
The event followed dogs trying to pass three police dog certifications: PH1 (Politiehonden Level 1), PH2 or Object (guard dog) certifications.
Some background information
Where is the police?
Before you ask: No, the handlers are not policemen (as I thought too), but ordinary people like you and me who then sell the trained dog to law enforcement if they pass the trials.
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. In fact, they are often used by the USPDs.
On the outskirst of Rotterdam alone, there are already six police dog clubs.
Specialities in police dog work
The Police dog work carried out by RODA can be divided into two specialisations:
- Public order enforcement: Involving “chasing and holding suspects, or detaining suspects by the threat of being released” (Wikipedia); and
- Detection work (or “explosive-sniffing”, or “explosievenhonden” in Dutch): Where the dogs “detect illicit substances such as drugs or explosives” (Wikipedia).
Do they make for good pets?
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.
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. But most significantly, the police dog must let go immediately on command.
What is the lifecycle of a trained police dog?
It typically takes about 2 years to get a dog ready for the trial (PH1). Once a dog is PH1-certified, it can officially be sold to a law enforcement agency like the police (the advanced 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
Many police dogs are Malinois or Malinois mixes. This is because they are athletic, driven, bold, quick, and very handler-focussed.
In fact, the Dutch police has nearly completely switched over from German shepherds to Malinois.
Impressive exercises seen during the trial
But enough of the chit-chat. Now onto the trials themselves.
The dog must stay close to a bicycle and grab a would-be thief by the sleeve he bends down to steal the bike. As soon as the thief retreats, the dog lets go, all without instructions. There are variations of this exercise using a handbag or other object.
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
The dog must stay by the side of its handler while a (blank) bullet is being shot closeby. This ensures that the dog can work undistracted under fire.
Tracking a hidden fugitive
A fugitive hides in the woods and the dog must find and neutralise him (arm or leg grab). The dog must do this quietly, is not allowed to bark in this exercise. This is essential for covert police operations.
The dog must jump over obstacles, and wait on the other side (without instructions to do so). The obstacles are:
- A tall wooden fence (1 m 80), on the other side of which the dog must climb down an inclined plank.
- A smaller wooden fence (1 m), which the dog is not allowed to touch).
- A long ditch, over which the dog must jump, then wait (without instructions), then jump back again towards its handler.
The dog must swim across a canal, wait on the other side, and swim back across when called by its handler. The ‘wait’ is spontaneously offered and does not require a command.
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-dog team. On the handler’s signal, the dog runs like a bullet towards the fugitive, 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. Thankfully, the dogs were disciplined enough to just grab-bite the allowed body parts (and not on 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, the dog lets loose immediately, and stands guard close to the criminal.
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 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.
Chasing a fugitive on a bicycle
The idea of this exercise is 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.
The speed and control of these dogs during this exercise was astounding.
Assisting handler in a fight
The final exercise I saw involved a very convincing struggle between the suspect and the dog’s handler.
The struggle starts without warning, and the dog must react quickly (and without a command). As soon as the suspect stands back, the dog lets go.
The dog would start/stop again as many times as the struggle started and stopped.
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.
The ‘attention’ behaviour (where the dog frequently gazes at his owner, “checking in”) I kept spotting spoke volumes about the strong dog-handler bond in the contestant teams.
A central principle of police dog training is the dog’s relative independence from its handler in sticky situations. Many situations trigger the dog to use its skills without command.
As far as I could see, most of the contestants with flying colours, and 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.
And thank you to Iris, dog sports fanatic and successful police dog trainer, for filling me in on the details.
Thank you also to RODA, who made me feel welcome and offered me drinks on that scorching day!
- You’re under arrest (unabridged version) – Photo report about police dog trail
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- Hot dogs – Quick poll about hotly debated dog issues (e.g. leash/no leash, treat/no treat, etc.)
- Dogs, my philosophical position – Canis bonus position statement on debated dog issues
- Thinking of getting a dog? Reality check – Article about responsibilities and chores of dog ownership
- Ethics and dog journalism – Article about ethical aspects of dog writing