Potential police pups show off their skills

Robin Levinson
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Headed for intensive training so they can join the force

Nose to the ground, 14-week-old Eiko shows he has what it takes to make it as a police service dog.

The German shepherd puppy should be going away next spring for intensive training at the police dog service training centre in Alberta.

But before he can begin his training, Eiko and his 11-month-old buddy, Dayson, must get used to the kinds of tasks and environments they’ll encounter during training —and in the field.

Beginning at the tender age of eight weeks, the pups live with trainers who teach them basic tracking and expose them to different terrain.

The process is called imprinting, and the more prep the puppies have before they go to Alberta, the quicker they’ll graduate and join the K-9 unit back in the province.

In order to join the K-9 unit of the RNC, the dogs must become experts at tracking humans for arrest or rescue, finding evidence and detecting contraband such as drugs or guns.

Eiko is a keen tracker and followed a human scent in a grassy field for about 100-metres at a demonstration for the media Monday.

An experienced police dog can follow a scent as far as 10 kilometres.

Ideally, the dogs will start service duties between the ages of 13 months and 18 months.

Once the dogs join the K-9 unit, they move in with a full-time handler and are housed in an outdoor kennel at the handler’s home. Sleeping outdoors allows the dogs to build a thick undercoat, which will protect them in harsh conditions.

The dogs work exclusively with their handlers, who give them lots of treats and rewards. When Eiko first learned to track, a trail of kibble marked the scent in the field.

As the dogs progress, they need fewer and fewer treats to get the job done.

“If the dogs are not having fun, they’re not going to do the job,” dog handler Const. Kevin Morgan says.

The relationship between handler and dog is important. Morgan’s current dog, Rugger, is seven years old and set to retire soon.

Morgan and Rugger must often go into unknown territory, like a forest at night, to follow a scent. Mutual trust is important for everyone’s safety.

“I can read him like a book. He can read me like a book,” Morgan says.

When the dog helps make a case, like in a drug bust, the handler testifies in court about the skill and accuracy of their dog.

“Dogs don’t lie,” Morgan says.

It’s an elite unit, and the dogs are bred from a strong line of police dogs.

Still, Morgan says that out of a litter of eight puppies, they’re lucky if they get one or two that are capable of joining the unit.

The ones that can’t master all the skills are sold to other units or private companies for more restricted jobs, such as guarding or tracking.

After they retire, their handler or another officer often adopts the dog as a pet.

If little Eiko has what it takes, he’ll replace Rugger and move in with Morgan next year.

Morgan says he would like to keep Rugger, but worries Rugger wouldn’t like watching him go out to work with his young usurper.

Morgan says he wants to see Rugger in a good home with a big yard so that the dog can just be a dog in his retirement.

“Lots of belly rubs,” Morgan says.

robin.levinson@thetelegram.com

Geographic location: Alberta

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