If you’ve ever trained a farm dog, you’ll know it’s a special skill needed by both animal and trainer. Imagine, then, how you get a police dog prepared for its job. Debbie James reports
There are faint scars on Keith Gibby’s hands, similar to those borne by farmers after minor mishaps with tools.
But these blemishes aren’t a legacy of Keith’s working days on his parents’ dairy farm – they’re a reminder of the one German Shepherd he failed to master in his role as a police dog handler.
“The dog had excellent tracking skills, but he just wouldn’t recognise me as the Alpha male. He objected when he had to return the bite bar I used as a reward during training,” Keith recalls. That animal is now guarding Category A prisoners in a maximum security jail.
When Keith was a child, his parents had German Shepherds on the family farm in Pembrokeshire and he admired their intelligence and loyalty.
Although he studied agriculture at college, the family business was not big enough to support two families so, while helping his father, he worked also as a cowman for eight years for the late Frances Voyle and family of Clover Hill, New Moat. Then, after a brief period as a fertiliser sales rep, he joined the police. “The agricultural economy was challenging at that time and the police service represented a secure future,” he recalls.
After spending five years as a beat officer, Keith was introduced to the dog handling team. He enjoyed this aspect of the job and spent some time with Special Branch at the local ferry ports, handling dogs trained for drugs detection.
The first major step forward in the development of the modern police dog came in the 1890s in Germany where serious attempts were made to introduce recognised training programmes for dogs bought by the police, army and customs authorities.
Ironically, he had to relinquish this role after passing his sergeant’s exams because, to gain promotion, he had to return to uniform duties. He gave up hope of pursuing his ambition to become a handler as there was only one sergeant’s position in his local Dog Section. Fortunately, he only had to wait two-and-a-half years because another sergeant’s post was created and he landed the job.
More recently, he took on the role of secretariat support to the chairman of the National Police Dog Working Group of the Association of Chief Police Officers.
He has not only trained his own team – a German Shepherd called Flynn and a Springer Spaniel called Jack – but he is also a Home Office-approved licenced instructor.
Training involves bringing the animals up to an approved standard in tracking and searching. The ideal dog must have a high “prey drive”.
“We are harnessing what the dog does naturally. If it doesn’t have a prey drive – ie the will to search and seek out – then all the training in the world won’t develop them to the required standard,” Keith explains.
Training techniques are based around association and repetition. Once a dog learns there is a reward on offer, the instinct is to please and do as instructed.
It takes 13 weeks to train a general-purpose dog. Not only do they have to learn to search and track, but agility is important too. And protective clothing is used to train a dog to bite under instruction. “If someone is about to attack the handler, the dog is trained to protect,” says Keith.
Fortunately, Pembrokeshire has a low rate of violent crime, but Keith and Flynn are frequently called upon to track missing people who are attracted to the isolation and beauty of Dyfed and Powys.
Although these searches don’t always have a happy outcome, one incident that did will always remain with Keith. He had been deployed to look for a local man who had gone missing after taking an overdose of prescribed medication. Flynn led Keith to the exact spot where the man laid unconscious under a hedge. “I managed to rouse him and walk him to the road to get help,” says Keith. “This man is alive today thanks to the work of the police dog section. If I hadn’t achieved anything else in eight years of service, that would have made it all worthwhile.”
Dyfed Powys, a largely rural force area, has 17 police dog teams – each team is made up of one officer and two dogs. They are licenced as a team because the animals can only be handled by the officer they are assigned to.
The dogs are sourced as puppies from reputable licenced breeders but many are also gifted to police forces. Jack, Keith’s second dog, was one of two springer spaniels gifted by a mid-Wales donor who found them too lively to handle. Jack trained as an explosives dog and, after his brother Sam failed to make the grade with Gwent Police, he came to live with Keith as a family pet.
Keith and Jack are frequently deployed to secure sites during visits by royalty or VIPs, such as the recent opening of an LNG terminal in Pembrokeshire by the Emir of Qatar and The Queen.
“Jack has great boldness and agility so he didn’t give a monkeys when he had to work through steam and drilling at the LNG site,” says Keith. The most common reaction of a dog when it has found what it is seeking is to freeze.
Access to the land
Training is vital to get animals to the required standard and this is where collaboration with the farming industry is vital. Many farmers make their land and buildings available for training, and within the Dyfed Powys force area, the Royal Welsh, Pembrokeshire and Three Counties agricultural societies and the Forestry Commission also provide access.
But more land is always needed in Dyfed Powys and in forces across the UK. “We need the dogs to be able to train on a wide range of surfaces including arable, grassland and ploughed fields,” says Keith.
He is fortunate that one of his closest friends, Harold Warlow, is a farmer and he often uses the partnership’s land at Ffynnongain near Maenclochog to train Flynn and Jack.
Flynn is close to retirement after eight years of sterling service. He will remain with Keith in retirement because the handler always has the opportunity to keep their dogs when they are no longer needed for service. Flynn has lived with Keith and his wife, Carol, since their children were young and both he and Jack are very much a part of their family.
The dogs live in the garden in a purpose-built kennel and never challenge their place in the household. “They don’t cross the threshold, but whether that will change when they retire is another matter,” says Keith.
List of police dog breeds and how they’re used:
German Shepherd – protect the officer, attack dog
Dutch Shepherd – protect the officer, attack dog
Belgian Malinois – protect the officer, attack dog
Labrador Retriever – sniff out bombs and drugs
Doberman Pinscher – protect the officer, attack dog
Springer Spaniel – sniff out bombs and drugs
Bloodhound – track down criminals, sniff out bombs and drugs
Beagle – sniff out bombs, drugs and foodstuffs
Rottweiler – protect the officer, attack dog
Giant Schnauzer – protect the officer, attack dog