Sunday, May 26, 2024

Police pups worth their weight in gold

Police patrol dogs have played a crucial role for nearly 70 years and, more recently, have been providing a million reasons a year to justify their role in NZ Police.

The catalyst to train police dogs to detect cash came after a search warrant was executed and $400,000 in cash was found by Police. However, when a trainee detector dog was then put through the address, a further $500,000 was discovered.

Detector dogs, usually labradors, have taken the workload and skillset of Police’s dog sections to a new level – and since the introduction of currency detection in 2011, dogs have sniffed out an average of more than $1 million a year in illegally hidden cash in Tāmaki Makaurau alone.

Sergeant Chris Harris, (pictured right with Floyd and Iti), has been with the Dog Section since 2000 and recently promoted to supervisor in charge of detector dogs for Tāmaki Makaurau. He’s had five operational dogs in 23 years – 17 years as a patrol dog handler and the past six years working with detector dogs.

His latest protégé is Mav, a 20-week-old black lab puppy in training, who’s already showing very promising signs.

“Mav’s hunt and retrieve determination is impressive, and his desire to not give up is even more remarkable,” says Chris.

“You can’t train a dog in determination; it’s inherently born into them and when you see that in a dog, you really want to harness that high drive.”

Chris currently has two cash detector dogs – the reliable and experienced seven-year-old Floyd and the mischievous, high-energy Mav. Together, they keep Chris on his toes. When Chris is asked if experienced Floyd teaches Mav good habits – the reply is “no, they both wind each other up”.

Floyd and Mav having fun on the job.

New Zealand Police is a registered dog breeder and most police dogs are bred through those lines, with a small number of approved external breeders supplying dogs too. Labradors are the preferred breed for detector dogs due to their nimble nature and calm demeanour.

The Dog Training Centre (DTC) Detector Dog Breeding programme, based in Trentham, has been hugely successful. Puppies are pre-trained by DTC staff which means by the time they are assigned to districts, they are already high quality. The journey from training a puppy to it becoming operational is a real team effort.  

Chris turned to working with detector dogs in 2017 and has an impressive prize-winning record, taking top honours for narcotic detector dogs at the New Zealand Police National Championships twice, and the Australasian Championships once, with his ‘firecracker’ Floyd.

Chris attributes much of his success to dog training instructor Sergeant Al Campbell, who he says has been a big influence on him.

Sergeant Al Campbell, Chris, Floyd and Sergeant Steve Pike (TM dog section trainer). On the right are Chris and Floyd at their graduation.

Detector dogs are called to jobs wherever there is a perceived need for their skills. Searches at commercial or residential addresses, in vehicles or open spaces are all in a day’s work for a detector dog. 

Sergeant Colin Howard and Mav.

Sergeant Colin Howard, (pictured right), was responsible for developing the Tāmaki Makaurau pilot to train detector dogs to find currency back in 2011.

It’s a relatively quick process to teach a dog to detect a new scent and all cash has a very distinctive odour – no matter what the currency.  Colin says trials were being carried out overseas and they wanted to trial it in Tāmaki Makaurau, so they created a pilot and haven’t looked back since.

“Back when we were developing the pilot, we had to take out a very large bank loan to train the dogs to search for large amounts of cash,” he says.

“It was a nightmare, because we had to keep it locked in a safe and sign it out. Now we are given shredded cash by the banks that is of no value but smells the same.

“Detector dogs are literally worth their weight in gold. Hiding places for illegally gained cash have become more inventive and creative over the years, but there’s very little that escapes our dogs.

“Their ability to detect scent is approximately 5000 times that of humans.  They are remarkable at what they do.

“The cash that is discovered by detector dogs go towards the Proceeds of Crime Fund and the Tāmaki Makaurau Detector Dogs make a particularly significant contribution to that.”

Chris can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“It’s fair to say I love my job,” he says. “I come to work every day and never know what’s going to play out or what we’re going to find.

“Working for Police has always been a calling for me and I’ve always had an affinity with animals, so working with police dogs is my dream job. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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