Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Waikato’s oldest police dog signs off

He’s tracked down Head Hunters hiding under decks, bounded through bustling workshops to find criminals and sniffed out offenders concealing themselves in the reeds of the Waikato River.

But after eight years, ‘Valko’ – Waikato District’s oldest patrol dog – is signing off from the front line.

Although the fearless dog is certified until October, he will soon retire from operational duties as his handler Sergeant Mark Sandford steps back from the front line to focus on training the future dog squad.

Waikato Dog Section is the biggest it has ever been, with 10 full-time members and more coming onboard under the new Tactical Response Model, and Mark says his focus needs to be on the supervisory role and training.

He’ll still respond if it’s critical and would never turn down a chance to help track down an offender when needed, but he won’t be on the roster.

“Valko is nearing that retirement age and he’s only working part-time here and there,” says Mark.

It’s big a change for Mark, who has been a frontline dog handler for more than 20 years.

Mark joined Police in 1985 and became a handler in 1990, when he was serving in Hawke’s Bay. He moved to Hamilton in 1998 before becoming an instructor at the Police Dog Training Centre in 2002. He was Breeding Services Manager from 2005 to 2012, when he returned to Hamilton as Dog Section Supervisor.

“You’ll always love the thrill of tracking someone down with a dog. You never lose that. But there’s a lot of satisfaction in training handlers and seeing them go out and do the same with their dogs.”

Mark’s fifth dog, Valko came to district at eight weeks old from the Police Dog Training Centre breeding programme and was fostered out until he was 11 months old.

From the start the tenacious hound showed his people skills.

He has a calm temperament and is bold and confident, with all the typical traits you look for in a police dog, Mark says. He likes to chase a toy and play tug-of-war. He’s high energy, always on the move and not too much fazes him.

“He’s really good with people. He’s a dog that we use for school visits – and still will – because he’s very social. He has a very stable temperament.”

In his time, Valko has assisted in catching dozens of offenders from the King Country to beachside Coromandel communities to the rapids of the Waikato River.

Mark laughs as he recalls a callout years ago when his fellow dog handlers Vinnie Gibson and Cliff Bell were fresh on the beat. They were tracking an offender who’d done a runner from SH1 near Karapiro to the banks of the Waikato River.

Hearing the updates, Mark decided to respond with Valko. While Vinnie and Cliff cleared one area, Mark headed downstream, knowing the fleeing offender wasn’t likely to go against the current.

Within 10 minutes Valko had sniffed him out at the river’s edge, leading Mark to a pair of eyes peering out of the water.

“It’s about knowing the conditions and knowing the dog would pick him up on the wind scent.

“The biggest thrill as a dog handler is that our dogs help us to catch people who wouldn’t be caught.”

Valko has shown his strength throughout the years. In one arrest he was able to track for some time over a concrete wall into a yard of people working and bustling workshops to locate the man hiding in plywood, despite the disruption to scent and distraction that comes with such an environment.

In another case, he caught a patched gang member attempting to conceal himself under decking with his hand over his mouth – hoping to stymie the scent.

With Valko retiring, the rest of the squad are looking forward to keeping the catches for themselves and not having Mark and Valko “cut their lunch”.  

Valko will stay with Mark after his retirement – living out his days at home, where he’s sure to be entertained.

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