By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Police dogs have become an integral part of law enforcement as of recent times. They’re an invaluable asset with their unique set of skills, proving to be irreplaceable.
However, these skillful officers all start off as adorable pups waiting to be taught how to sniff, seek, and retrieve.
Speaking of the types of areas the dogs are trained in amongst the tri-forces and the Police, Dr. Sampath Jayathilake, who has worked closely with the air force kennels, broke it down as follows.
Police dogs are largely trained in narcotics, detection, and tracking. There are army dogs which specialise in demining – an area of explosive detection – and the Navy too has some dogs with training in similar areas, the majority being sniffer dogs.
Dr. Ashoka Dangolla, a senior lecturer in veterinary clinical studies at the University of Peradeniya, speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch explained the infancy stages of these pups and how they are selected to be a part of the K9 corps.
Dr. Dangolla provided that police dogs need to be of specific breeds; for ease of training, they must have a good pedigree. This allows them to predict their levels of competence and help them train and also take better care of them.
“The Police bought certain breeds of dogs from abroad, and I have assisted in examining their pedigree. What we must realise is that these are not naturally conceived, they are specifically bred to serve a certain purpose and so their needs tend to differ, and they require specialised care,” he said.
Once the dog is brought back to Sri Lanka, it takes them about a month or a month and a half to acclimatise, during which time they are left alone to assimilate to their surroundings. The dogs often adjust without too many issues. However, Dr. Dangolla stated that there was one instance where one of the pups was unable to bare the heat and died.
He further added that this process of bringing dogs from abroad was done in the past, but that now there were dog branches within the forces, particularly the Air Force and Army, where they breed the pups locally and only rely on foreign dogs to improve the gene pool and pedigree.
Canine consultant and dog psychologist Melissa Stephen of DogTime also referred to the challenges faced when a dog is brought from abroad, saying: “Being an owner of a dog brought down from abroad, I can say it’s not an easy transition. I moved here with my dog ‘Major’ from Australia when he was four years old and from first-hand experience, I can tell you it takes time to adjust to our climate.
“Some breeds cope better than others. I wouldn’t recommend bringing down breeds that were meant for colder climates. However, if you’re looking to buy a puppy/dog then I highly recommend rescuing our street pooches and/or rescuing abandoned pure breed dogs. Adopt, don’t shop.”
Speaking also about the type of dogs that are ideal for this type of work, Dr. Dangolla stated that currently in Sri Lanka, the Police primarily employ German shepherds, owing to their considerable IQ; both kinds of retrievers; labradors, as they are good seekers and retrievers, and also spaniels as they are smaller dogs. He also added that the forces currently use Belgian malinois as well, as they are lean dogs that can jump high without a running start and are great trackers who can chase effectively. The use of rottweilers is also picking up, particularly due to their good tracking skills.
He said that dobermans used to be a popular choice, however due to their common cardiac issues, they’ve been dropped by the forces. Added to that, they are also a disappearing dog breed. Dalmatians were useful as well, however they are prone to bladder stones and are therefore a liability in this line of work.
Stephen spoke of the easiest breeds to train in her experience, saying: “I believe that any ‘working breed’ category dog is easiest to train, as they were all bred for the purpose of working hand in hand with humans . But all dogs are trainable if you start young and are consistent with their exercise routines, incorporating long walks training on a daily basis and socialisation throughout their life.”
According to Dr. Dangolla, training begins when the dog is past its stages as a pup, usually past the nine to 17-month mark, stating: “When we bring in pups, we let them reach that age.”
If you wish to donate a pup, note that the forces accept dogs around that age.
Dr. Jayathilake provided that does in the Air Force were trained in Katunayake, where there is a fully-equipped facility with a full-time vet as well. If additional support is needed, for example, if there is an outbreak, the dogs will be taken to SkyPet Animal Hospital which is also open to the public. “The dogs you see in the airport are our dogs. The Air Force also has a breeding section located in Diyathalawa.”
Training the trainers
Specialised training is required of the trainers, and Dr. Dangolla stated that the trainers in the police kennel headquarters, and in Sri Lanka overall, were excellently trained.
They receive their basic training from their respective disciplines; the police handlers train a specific way and the individual forces train in their own way.
Specialised training suggests more extensive skills like medical management which is imperative for personal handlers, and such training is provided by the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Peradeniya. Sri Lanka also has some renowned trainers in the island, and is home to the oldest kennel club in Asia.
Dr. Jayathilake added that the Air Force’s dog handlers’ basic and specialised training is done at base in Katunayake.
Following training, the most important thing to establish is the relationship between the handler and the dog.
Speaking about the functions of a K9 human unit, Dr. Dangolla said: “The bond between the handler and their dog must be very strong, they must become like brothers. These dogs are artificially bred for a purpose and therefore depend 100% on their handlers to navigate life.”
Dogs tend to deal with issues like diarrhoea, vomiting, and indigestion often and in such instances, the handler must be familiar enough with the dog to recognise its tells and catch the symptoms before it gets worse.
However, Dr. Dangolla added that the handler must be well-versed not only with regards to its medical needs but also emotional ones, saying: “They can sometimes be moody and not cooperate with training. In such instances also the handler must be close enough to his partner that he knows how to proceed. Best performance is ensured when the dog and its handler are a tight-knit unit.”
The story of Browny
WPC 7266 Lanka Wickramage of the Slave Island Police Kennels shared with us her experience training as a handler and bonding with her K9 partner “Browny”.
Lanka, who had worked in the Police at Slave Island for nearly a decade before she decided to apply for a transfer to the kennels department, said that after getting called for an interview following her application, she underwent the specialised training.
“The basic training is for about six months. We had lectures and physical training, and for the first month we are trained without a dog. We attend lectures, medical training at the Police Hospital, and other skills, after which we are introduced to the dog candidates,” she said.
She stated that the best dog to be paired with was decided following some basic interactions, and the compatibility between handler and dog is tested over some time before they are officially appointed, saying: “We have to befriend the pup and then they will do some compatibility tests like have the dog seek us by scent and respond to our voice, etc.”
Browny, Wickramage’s gorgeous cocker spaniel, is a female pooch and she was paired with Wickramage mainly because she responded well to female voices. “She took to me instantly and she was only one-and-a-half years old at the time, and I just sort of knew we were going to grow together,” said Wickramage.
There are three areas in which the police dogs are trained – explosives, narcotics, and tracking – and Browny was best-suited for explosives. As such, Wickramage too received her training in that area. Speaking of the training, she said that if the dog was unable to pass the training in six months, they are then given extensive training and kept a little longer in the programme to enable them to pass.
Before the recent terror attacks in the country, Wickramage said that she and Browny were requested primarily for prep work and searches in venues where important figures would gather, particularly venues where the Prime Minister or the President were set to appear.
The way her dog indicates its finds is by laying down near the spot and not budging until it’s investigated, following which, if the findings prove to be useful or accurate, Browny is rewarded and praised in public. Wickramage said: “You have to tell her how much of a good girl she’s been. We have to encourage her when she does well and when she trusts her instincts.”
Wickramage spoke of how the dogs in the kennel are considered aged at around eight years, as this is when their senses dull and the dogs are too tired to perform their duties. The dogs will be taken for evaluation once they hit that age and if they are declared unfit, will be auctioned off at a police auction open to the general public. She said that these dogs have undergone impeccable obedience training and are great companions, so the public should look into getting themselves a veteran K9 companion.
In light of the recent attacks in the country, these trained canines have supported in dealing with threats. They are a valuable resource and due to the development of kennel divisions around the island, are serving our country well.
Speaking about the essential nature of the work that the service dogs do for Sri Lanka, Melissa Stephen of DogTime said: “We have to thank our fur heroes for keeping us safe and doing a job we could never do as well as they. Certain breeds have been bred specifically to do such jobs and they do it well.
“I think it’s important that we have as many working dogs as possible. As long as they are raised and trained for the job in humane conditions, I fully support any type of working dog. I think the world would have a lot less problems if we possessed the qualities of our four-legged friends. We have a lot to learn from them.”
Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, Melissa reminded us: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”