Saanich police: Working like a dog

New partnerships ‘outstanding’ in the canine unit so far

Aaron Thompson can’t help but take his work home with him.

The 26-year-old Saanich police constable recently joined the department’s canine unit; and being partnered with a four-legged officer is a 24/7 job.

“One of the biggest things is the time commitment it takes for these animals. They’re so high in drive and because of their genetics and family, they are working dogs – that’s what they thrive on and what they want to do,” Thompson says.

He and his partner, three-year-old German shepherd Asher, have been working and living together since last October.

“Asher’s not a pet, and it’s tough for people to understand that. But he is a working dog and he’s treated like a working dog – it’s what he needs,” says Thompson, who also lives with two pet dogs, Trigger and Shrek. “He’s needier than most dogs – he has to go for runs, he has to train because he’s so driven. Sitting around like a pet dog just doesn’t work for him.”

 

At home, Asher, Trigger and Shrek have different experiences. While they all have the same basic needs – food, walks, training – Asher is an outside dog, and his day-to-day is a lot more regimented than the others.

 

That discipline is what keeps Thompson safe; it builds a level of trust between the two officers.

“He knows the rules and he knows what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. And it’s through that concrete, black-and-white training that we go through that we actually develop that trust,” he says. “Training’s a big thing for us. Whether it’s a working day or a day off, we’re training. What he does is a diminishing skill, so it’s super important to keep on top of our training and make sure that we’re as sharp as we can be for when the real calls come.”

Asher has already proven his value to the department.

“He found everything we were looking for in about two minutes, which would be a lot of police resources if we had to look for the stuff ourselves,” Thompson says.

Thompson and Asher aren’t the only new members on Saanich’s canine unit. Const. Matthew Morin and PSD (police service dog) Grimm have been on the road together for just a few weeks now.

“It’s all brand new, it’s all quite fun,” says Morin, 36.

Morin, who grew up with pet dogs, says while Grimm, a two-year-old black German shepherd, is a working dog, he uses his experience as a pet owner to help manage his partner.

“In order to form a working relationship that works, that the dog wants to perform and wants to perform with you, it takes time and effort and just being with the dog,” Morin says. “Our relationship, although probably a little bit more controlling than a normal pet, I’ve treated him similar to that as far as how I’ve bonded with him and how I work and play with him.”

Sgt. Glen MacKenzie, the sergeant in charge of the canine unit, says he’s been impressed by both new pairings.

“Aaron and Asher are really high-functioning and high-achieving. Aaron’s doing very well and he’s partnered with the perfect dog – the sky’s the limit for this dog. This dog will give him as much as he can give,” MacKenzie says. “Matt and Grimm, too. They’ve formed a really good team. As far as tracking and finding bad guys, Matt and Grimm together will be an outstanding team.”

Police dogs typically work until they’re eight or nine years old, when their health generally starts to deteriorate. Then comes what’s usually a brief retirement, where the dog transitions into more of a pet role.

“(Retirement is) very difficult on the dog in particular. The problem is you can’t set a dog up for it. It goes from working every day, that’s their reason for living, to nothing,” he says. “The average retirement for a police dog is 18 months. It’s really hard; they almost lose their will to live. It’s a tough thing to watch.”

Morin says one of the biggest misconceptions people hold of police dogs is they are, by nature, vicious animals. In all of 2013, the four dogs on the canine team only made three bites.

“We’re a community-based police force. We have dogs that are able to be strong and confident when they need to be when apprehending a suspect, and that can then turn around and be pet by a room full of kindergarten kids,” Morin says. “He’s an incredible dog. I’m constantly blown away by how intelligent he is and how well he performs. On the flip side, he’s an idiot that any two-year-old dog can be. He paws at you and licks your face and is constantly seeking attention. He’s a great partner.

 

“I know that this dog would step in for me, because I’m a member of his pack and because there’s a bond between us, and that all comes down to putting in that time and effort in committing to him as your partner.”

 

Puppy-breeding a business plan?

After a long career as a Saanich police officer, MacKenzie is set to retire by the end of the year. He will be replaced on the canine unit by Sgt. Todd Lamb, who was a dog handler in the early 2000s.

Lamb already has his new dog, PSD Riven, currently a 14-month-old shepherd. Riven is Saanich’s first female police dog.

“Females are actually as good or better than the males. Males have a hunt drive, females are more protective so you get a stronger bond and a dog that’s more willing to work for you, work harder for you,” MacKenzie says.

The other benefit of having a female dog is it provides an opportunity to run a breeding program.

“Riven comes from really good bloodlines. Bloodlines are integral to what we do,” MacKenzie says. “That would be (the police chief’s) decision whether they run a puppy program, but this does give us the option.”

The downside, he says, is it would make Riven non-operational while she’s pregnant because she would need to breed before she hits retirement age.