“They are cheap, they’re fast, they’re accurate. They can’t be bribed, they can’t lie, and they’re an increasingly important part of our fight against terrorism.”
Connexion visited the centre to see how the dogs are chosen and trained for these pivotal roles.
The gendarmerie selects dogs from private breeders based on their playfulness and lack of aggression. Those that don’t make the grade are re-homed, any that show aggression are offered to specialist security companies and, in exceptionally rare cases, dogs deemed to be too dangerous to train are humanely put down. “But that’s very rare,” said Col Dalier, sitting at his desk, stroking his dog Crixy’s ears.
Around 80% of the forces’ dogs are Malinois, 12% are Belgian shepherds, and the rest are bloodhounds, American staffies, springer spaniels, golden retrievers and fox terriers.
“They all have their different uses. Bloodhounds have the best noses, but terriers are small enough to be lifted on to shelves and ledges, so they can search anywhere.”
The dogs are checked for general health and hip dysplasia then start a three-month basic training with the centre’s permanent trainers, learning basic commands such as ‘heel’, ‘sit’ and ‘stay’. They live in the centre’s kennels, which can hold 137 dogs.
The dogs then meet new handlers, and after three days, the trainers pair the dogs with their permanent handlers. The new teams then undergo 14 weeks of advanced training before leaving the centre to start work.
Some of the handlers have never had a dog before, but others are on their second or even third dogs because the dogs retire at around 8-10 years old.
Col Dalier said: “It depends on the dog. Some just get tired of the game, and aren’t that interested. Others get arthritis, or just slow down.
“Generally they are all retired after eight years of service – or seven years for avalanche dogs, where the work is so much harder and more physically demanding.”
Outside, we walk past the centre’s dog cemetery, the final resting place for dogs who died in service. “Retired dogs usually go to live with their handlers, but it’s a dangerous career for a dog. Criminals do sometimes attack them or shoot them.”
Leaving the cemetery, we went into one of the large hangars to watch a training session. “Basically, it’s all just a game to them. We select dogs who love to play and we teach them games, using play as the reward.”
We watched as a group of gendarmes in jeans and tops formed into a queue. One was wearing an anorak and a waistcoat packed with explosives. A dog-handler entered the barn, gave his dog the command, and let it off the lead.
The dog worked quickly along the line and in under a minute, was sitting down in front of one officer, gazing intently up at the explosive waistcoat. It was indeed, very quick, even though this was a dog still in training.
“Good boy!” said the handler, producing a toy and embarking on a noisy game of tag. The game continued for a few minutes and then the toy was confiscated, the dog was back on the lead and it was time for the next dog to come in.
“We reward the dog with a game but always leave them with this little frustration that the toy has been taken away,” said Col Dalier. “It keeps them interested in repeating the game.”
Handlers and dogs go on different training programmes, depending on the dog’s potential, such as:
- defend their handler, plus catch and bite a fugitive;
- search for avalanche victims;
- discriminate between one sample of scent and another;
- follow a scent trail;
- search for drugs;
- search for drugs plus defend the handler plus attack on command;
- search for drugs and weapons;
- search for drugs, weapons, and bank notes (useful in the fight against organised crime);
- search for explosives in cars and buildings;
- search for explosives on people milling about in a crowd (a rare skill but one the gendarmes are increasingly teaching their dogs);
- search for human remains from eight days to 10 years old, even under water or buried under several metres of concrete.
Col Dalier’s Crixy, now retired, was trained to find human remains.
“It’s one of the most demanding jobs for a dog. But watching them work is so impressive. One dog was taken to the scene of a suspected crime where repeated searches had failed to uncover the corpse.
“It literally took the dog a few minutes to locate the remains in a well.
“The killer had thrown the body into the water, thrown all sorts of branches and rubbish on top and then filled the well in with cement.
“But the dog went straight to the well, and when we excavated it, sure enough there was the victim’s remains.
“No human would ever have be able to do that. Dogs don’t have to see something to know it’s there, that’s what’s so useful about them.”
In order to keep the dogs keen on the games, training sessions last only 10 minutes. Then the dogs are rewarded and they rest before doing a different session. We watched dogs doing obedience training in an outdoor enclosure, learning to stay, to walk to heel, to fetch, to jump obstacles on command.
At the ‘playground’ we watched them learning to run across surfaces including netting, high ledges, planks suspended on chains, and tyres.
The dogs enjoy running up ladders, scooting down slides, chasing balls through tunnels and drains, jumping onto swinging platforms, and
navigating surfaces with gaps and holes in them.
Training continues even once dogs and handlers have graduated and are operational. They return to the centre every two years, to keep skills sharp and, in some cases, add new skills.
“We need more dogs, we need more handlers. They are the cheapest, fastest, most efficient way of ensuring security in crowds,” says Col Dalier.
“At events such as football matches and Christmas markets, they do a great job without frightening people and ruining a good atmosphere.
“We use both male and female handlers and both male and female dogs. We just need the money to train them and pay them.”
Tests show 100% accuracy
THREE years of tests and 18,000 exercises involving dogs matching scents have shown that they are 100% accurate in identifying if a person has been at a crime scene.
Researcher Barbara Ferry at Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre said: “Trained sniffer dogs are incapable of making a mistake. My research proves it without the shadow of a doubt.”
Called forensic odorology, the technique has been used in France since 2003 after starting in Hungary.
It involves taking either a direct body scent or a trace scent, and asking a dog to match it. A direct scent is taken when someone rubs fabric on their hands, for example; while a trace scent is taken from an item (chair, car seat, handbag, weapon etc) and transferred to some fabric.
Samples of body or trace scents can be kept in sealed jars for many years, until a suspect is found and a second sample can be collected. The suspect sample is laid out in a large hall with many other samples and the dogs identify the matching scent.
Suspects watch the dog at work and four out of five times will confess once the dog indicates the match.
Ms Ferry has been working with the French police forensic odorology unit in Ecully, just outside Lyon, which has helped solve 162 crimes. She says checks have shown the dogs, usually German shepherds, find direct matches 90% of the time but this falls to 70% when matching trace and body scents.
She added: “The dogs simply can’t go wrong. They can’t be distracted, or threatened or bribed either. They can’t lie and they can’t make a mistake.”
Illnesses can also be found
DOGS are being tested as a way to detect cancers in patients and an NHS trial is under way in Milton Keynes to spot prostate cancer from urine samples while in the US, in Philadelphia, ovarian cancer is being identified from blood samples.
Trials using dogs to sniff out malaria and to detect the onset of a diabetic attack are also taking place in the United Kingdom.
In Alabama, researchers have trained a dog to identify a contagious cattle virus.
A different tale
ALTHOUGH French police credit their dogs with superb work in catching criminals – one dog in Haut-Rhin tracked a suspected criminal to his home, 3km from the scene of a robbery – police and customs officers elsewhere are not so convinced.
Earlier this year, a game at Manchester United had to be abandoned after a suspect bomb was found. It was later revealed to be a dummy bomb used in an exercise that sniffer dogs had missed.
At Manchester’s airport, the Home Office has called for a rethink after sniffer dogs failed to find any Class A drugs during a seven-month operation, but did succeed in tracking down sausages and cheese.
In Australia, the New South Wales Green party is trying to stop the use of sniffer dogs after dogs prompted drug searches of 14,600 people in 2014 but 74% of them were found not to be carrying drugs.
However, a team of sniffer dogs at the T in the Park music festival in Scotland were credited with stopping 340 people, of whom 70% were trying to carry drugs into the site.