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Dog Unit Q&A

In the latest of our Q&A sessions with specialised branches of Police Scotland, we go on a ride-along with the Dog Unit to an abandoned factory outside Edinburgh as they take some new recruits through their paces. PCs Morris and Davidson tell us about the joys of mucking out kennels and how the humble tennis ball is their most important training tool, and we catch up with four-legged social media favourites Archie and Mac, as they go though initial training with their handlers.

Morning, gents, and thanks for having me along. So are there special qualifications required to become an officer in the dog unit?

You need to be a decent cop with a very good record first and foremost, and have the support from your superiors, but you don’t need any qualifications or specialist knowledge of dogs. If you apply, you get a look-see week to come and see how the unit functions, then a suitability week, actually going out with one of the instructors and asked to do bits and pieces; taking the dog out in the van, cleaning out kennels, walking the dogs, simple things like that. It’s a good test to see that you’re comfortable around the dogs, and it’s not for everyone. We’ve had people that came for their suitability week, and decided after two days of cleaning out the kennels that it wasn’t for them as the smell was making them sick.

So no sensitive noses or cat people. If you’re okay with pooper scoopers and accepted into the unit, how does the training work?

When you first join the section, an officer will go on a GP (general purpose) initial course, which involves working with the German Shepherds and Malinois breeds. Then you’re paired up with a dog, and go on a minimum thirteen week course. During the thirteen weeks the officer and dog will bond and learn how to track. This is done in a field, and you start by just putting out a straight line of scent, and we train the dog to put its nose down, so it follows the scent to the other end where there’ll be a reward, normally a tennis ball.

Once the dog’s comfortable with this, we add what we call legs; individual turns and right angles building up to various pattern tracks, which consist of eight or nine legs which could have been laid up to an hour previously. It also has to learn how to find people, for instance in a building. We start simple, just getting a person to run away down a corridor with the dog chasing them, and the person then hides somewhere easy, like in a doorway, so the dog follows and sees him. As soon as the dog barks, we give them their toy which we’ve been withholding from them. This way, it trains the dog to think “Okay, when I do this and then bark, my ball appears.”

So during the thirteen weeks it goes from the suspect just running away and hiding in a doorway to searching a whole building, with the suspect hiding in a loft, in a floor space, or in a cupboard, we also do lost property search and depending on the breed, firearms and explosives searches. At the end of the initial training, before the dogs are licensed, an instructor from another force will come in, set up the scenarios and the handler has to run the tests the way the instructor tells them before the handler and dog are allowed on the street.

And is there further training after the dog and handler have been accepted into the unit?

Yes, once they come off their initial course, they get an extra day’s training every month, which gives training officers a chance to have a look at active dogs and perhaps see things that their handlers don’t just because they work so close to them. The monthly training is especially important with the explosives dogs, as they’re rarely used, but if there is a threat, the dogs need to have that contact with explosives all the time and be ready for that specific type of job if it comes up.

As well as the monthly training sessions, the dogs also need to be re-licensed every year. This takes at least a week, more usually a fortnight, and is done to make sure the dogs are kept up to standard, and to fix any problems if they’re not. I don’t know any handlers that would want to work with a dog that wasn’t at its best, especially when dealing with explosives.

What happens if a dog passes initial training, but fails at the re-licensing stage?

That’s different, because the dog’s already proved they can do the job, so they have thirty days when the dog isn’t allowed to work, but has intense training, and 99% of the time, that’s enough and they’ll pass the second time.

Is there a minimum or maximum age for police dogs?

For german shepherds and springers, we normally like to try and get them at about a year or two years. Some we can get onto the course a bit younger, maybe ten or eleven months. The German Shepherds or GP dogs usually work till they’re about eight years old. If they have specialist training, like working with the TFU (Tactical Firearms Unit), if they’re fit and healthy they can work on till they’re nine. The smaller dogs, because of their size they’re lighter and have less injuries, and they’re not worked as hard as the GP dogs, they can work till they’re ten if they’re fit and healthy. When dogs retire, most of the handlers keep them as pets.

Do the dogs transition into civilian life easily enough?

Some of them actually take a wee while, but others make the change with no problem. My first German Shepherd took forever to settle into retirement after I adopted him. He liked being out, being busy and working, so whenever we took him out for a walk, if he heard a siren from a patrol car, an ambulance or fire engine going past, you could see him reacting, same as any retired cop would. Then again, another shepherd I adopted could’ve retired a year earlier and he would have been fine. Like people, they’re very much a mixed bunch.

Where do the dogs come from? Are they specially bred?

Until five or six years ago, most of the dogs were donations, and we’d go out and have look at them before deciding whether to take them on, but even so the failure rate among these would be about nine out of ten, which wastes a lot of time because we’d be starting courses with them and realising halfway through they weren’t suitable. We then started purchasing dogs, and most of them now come from Holland, because there aren’t a great deal of good standard working German Shepherds in Scotland anymore. They’re mostly used as show dogs these days, and the natural work ability that we look for has been bred out of them, so we go for stronger lines of working dogs bought from Holland. This costs money, but saves us time and money in the long run because these dogs have a much higher pass rate of around 80% - 90%, so this almost guarantees we’ll have someone out on the streets after the thirteen weeks. But even then, some dogs can have problems six weeks later, and have to go through the initial training course again.

So what other breeds do you use?

For specialist work like searching for drugs, explosives, firearms recovery and victim recovery, we use spaniels, mainly English Springers and Cockers and sometimes Labradors. We use them because they have a natural hunting instinct from game keeping. The specialist dogs are mostly donation animals. We talk about the ‘drive’ of dogs, and we like high drive dogs, the ones that most people wouldn’t want in their house; high energy breeds that need a lot of exercise and to be kept busy. What you would probably call a ‘hyper’ dog. These are the ones we like because we can hone that excitement and drive, making the job it into a game, essentially telling the dog, you go and search this area, and if you find this smell, you get this tennis ball. A normal dog, the kind people have as pets would maybe do this kind of thing for a few minutes and then get bored, but the dogs we’re working with today will happily do this kind of task for an hour, an hour and a half, because it’s all they want to do; run about and find their ball.

What happens to the dogs who don’t make the cut?

The handlers will keep them, or we have a list of police personnel, officers and civilian staff who’ve called and asked to be added to the list for future rehoming. We always go and check the homes first to make sure they’re suitable for the dog. Do they have a garden, other dogs, children etc?

Today we’re at an abandoned computer factory for this training course. Do you have many places like this?

We’ve actually got very few vacant properties we can use. Most disused buildings these days are just shut up and left, they get vandalised, windows get broken, and we can’t use them. The place we’re going today is one of the few that still has security patrols, and it’s huge, which makes it ideal for initial training courses. As the courses go on, we go to live venues, because they’re more suitable and realistic to the job, but at this stage, for first week training, a big empty factory is ideal.

What kind of jobs are you most commonly called out for?

We were busy during the Olympic Games, especially in regards to the explosives dogs, which are used at large venues where there’s a potential threat to the public. But there are also searches aimed at drug detection at music festivals. The drugs dogs tend to have a lot more work. During marching season for the bands and Remembrance Day, we’re always kept busy. We’ll go out at maybe six in the morning, searching round cenotaphs and vulnerable points, and after that it’s sealed and the local cops stay there during the event.

Our main bread and butter is in missing persons. That’s our highest priority, searching for vulnerable missing persons or children and people with mental health issues. If I was going to a break in to try and recover stolen property, and a missing person call came out, I would call the control room to authorise with the duty officer that I stand down from the break in and prioritise the missing person. Threat to life is always an officer in any department’s top priority, so if we were to receive a dangerous dog call, which we often do, that constitutes a potential threat to life, and again would be our priority.

In that type of incident, is it the handler or the dog that takes care of the situation?

The handlers take care of it, but a lot of people ask that, as some have this perception that our dogs are “better fighters” and used to deal with dangerous animals. We usually get called if the cops are dealing with maybe a warrant enquiry and there’s a dog in the house, then we’ll be asked to assist. They’ll put the door in and enter the premises to serve the warrant, and we’ll be totally focussed on the dog. We can also get called if people have been bitten and the dog’s locked in a room.