Spotlight on... police dog handlers

Vol 47, No 7 | NZPA | Fri August 1st, 2014

Sergeant Alan Campbell talks to Kelly Quill about the specialised, and exciting, world of the police dog handler.

A dog’s nose is many times more sensitive than a human’s and police work wouldn’t be the same without it. A police dog’s ability to track people who don’t want to be found and to sniff out hidden narcotics have been proven time and again and the handlers who work as a team with their dogs have what they consider one of the best jobs in policing.

Alan Campbell and his son Rob at the NZ Police Dog Training Centre. Photo: KELLY QUILLAlan Campbell and his son Rob at the NZ Police Dog Training Centre. Photo: KELLY QUILL

They’re called in to track suspects or assist with search warrants, and when that’s done they take off to the next job.

After 34 years in the dog section – as a patrol and detector dog handler, a puppy development officer, and now as an instructor – Sergeant Alan Campbell says he wouldn’t change his career for the world. “I’m very passionate about my job; it’s what gets me up in the morning.”

There’s the thrill of the chase, the hunt, and – hopefully – the catch. “When everything goes well, it’s the best job in the world,” he says, recalling a particular week in 1993 where everything just seemed to come together. Over the course of a seven-day roster of 11pm to 6am shifts, Alan and his dog at the time, Kia, caught 31 offenders from 40 callouts. It was a tally that would still be impressive today. “That was a magical week,” he says.

Each year, dog teams respond to more than 30,000 incidents and they need to be ready to hit the ground running at a moment’s notice. It’s a high-energy job that requires physical and mental fitness.

Although tracking suspects is the “bread and butter” for patrol dog teams, Alan says there’s no such thing as a normal day.

One minute you might be tracking a suspect and the next you’re up against them and having to read the situation for the best way to proceed. “You never know what you might come across, but you have to be prepared for anything,” he says.

Handlers need to be able to remain calm and focused in volatile situations.

The tough times are usually when a dog isn’t working well, which can happen with new dogs that aren’t streetwise and haven’t yet got the experience needed to do a good job. In the past, a handler might go through several dogs before finding one they could become operational with, Alan says. Now, however, New Zealand has a fantastic breeding programme that produces dogs with all the qualities necessary to do the job well.

Reputation is hugely important to dog handlers, and their strong work ethic can add to the pressure already felt to succeed, Alan says. “We’re there to perform a specific task for frontline staff and there’s a lot of expectation on you to succeed. Dogs aren’t machines, though, so it can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride at times.”

When they’ve got some downtime, teams will often be behind the scenes somewhere, practising their skills to ensure they’re consistently performing at the highest level.

Alan warns that being a dog handler is not for everyone. “A lot of people have the perception that it’s a glamorous job, full of reward and glory, but there’s a lot that most don’t get to see.”

Most of the day, it’s just you and your dog, which for many would be lonely. Handlers, especially in detector dog teams that have large geographic areas to cover, can spend a lot of time on the road. Often, travelling between jobs will be the only opportunity for a bit of downtime or to catch a quick bite to eat.

It’s also a highly physical job. Suspects will do everything they can to get away, which can result in epic cross-country journeys. If a suspect goes through a damp, narrow culvert, crosses a river, or leaps a high fence, so does the dog team. Often, the teams are tracking at night in wet and cold conditions. Winter is tough.

On the positive side, Alan says, “New Zealand’s terrain and size provide ideal training conditions that give our teams a really solid training base to work from. Our police dog teams are leaders on a global scale to succeed; handlers also need to have an exceptional bond with their dogs and to know their strengths and weaknesses.

“In a dangerous situation you have to have absolute trust that your dog will look after you. When you have doubts, that’s when things start going wrong,” he says.

Handlers are now more accountable for their actions with the dogs and, for evidential purposes, must be certain of how their dogs will act in all situations.

Alan says there is a real family dynamic within the section, which, combined with the scarcity of positions nationwide, may be why many handlers stay for the long haul.

Handlers tend to think alike and have very similar personalities, he says.

Like their dogs, handlers are good hunters with a high work ethic and they thrive in volatile situations. Alan found these characteristics in overseas counterparts when he visited the United States. “We shared very similar work stories and just seemed to be on the same wavelength.”

The ultimate achievement for many is the opportunity to compete in the annual Patrol and Detector Dog Championship. The fiercely competitive event pits the best of the best from the Police, Corrections, Customs and Aviation sectors against each other.

Last year Alan passed his dog and leash to another handler and took up a role as an instructor at the NZ Police Dog Training Centre in Trentham. Quietly, he says, a part of him misses the operational role, but training new dog teams, including those from Pacific countries, is rewarding as well.

“I’ve gotten so much from this section, so it’s good to be able to give something back,” he says.

AOS and police dog training. Photo: NZ POLICEAOS and police dog training. Photo: NZ POLICE

Joining the pack

Alan Campbell's son, Rob, is a trainee patrol dog handler, due to graduate in October with his dog, Quita.

Rob will become one of only a few second-generation handlers in New Zealand. Alan says Rob’s decision wasn’t a simple case of “following in his father’s footsteps”.

Perhaps stories have had an influence, though, as Rob is upfront when he says he joined Police to catch criminals and believes dog handlers are frequently the first to catch the worst offenders.

“Handlers are at the sharp end of frontline policing,” he says.

While waiting for a position to become available, Rob had four years of fostering police dogs, a requirement for all potential handlers so they can better understand the realities of the job.

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