Behavioural RoadBlocks

Police dogs and handlers strive to overcome setbacks with varying results

Several suicide notes addressed to different family members were strewn across the table.

It was just coming dusk. Not exactly ideal tracking conditions.

For 30 minutes Noble searched several kilometres, ending in a dark, marshy land.


Hiding within a hunting blind, entirely disoriented and high on drugs, a middle-aged man wanted to come home, but at this point in his struggle never would have found his way through the thick darkness.

“He wept on me after we found him. If it wasn’t for Noble he would have surely died out there,” said Constable Sid Stead of Prince Edward Island’s Charlottetown Police Service.

Noble – a police service dog for the last nine years – was named after an 11 year-old boy, Adam Noble, who lost his life in a house fire.

Noble, which means courageous, retired just last month.

Shimmer, a Toronto Police Service bomb dog, recovers at Morningside Animal Clinic after undergoing surgery on her back right knee.
Shimmer, a Toronto Police Service bomb dog, recovers at Morningside Animal Clinic after undergoing surgery on her back right knee.

Many dogs never make it this far in their career, and Noble would have been in the same boat had he never got over his minor behavioural issues. He and his handler never would have had the success they did.

“Absolutely most police dogs show signs of behavioural issues because they have a lot of stress put on them,” Stead said. “They are required to search, track, and indicate a specialty profiles be it be explosives or drugs. There is a lot of vigorous training required to get them able to do these things. Along the way you will see signs of behavioural issues.”

Sergeant Steve McEdwards, who is Toronto’s canine unit’s Chief Instructor, has been working closely with service dogs for almost 20 years.

According to him, about 20 per cent of the dogs put in the training program are washed out because of behavioural issues they can’t seem to overcome.

“Once the vet approves their physical health the training begins. It gets more vigorous as the weeks go on,” McEdwards said.

Anywhere from week four up to about week 10 in the course is when the dogs will most likely exhibit signs of a behavioural issue.

Closer to the four-week mark is more likely though because it is at this time when the handlers start to put a little more pressure on the dogs.

“By this point we’ve pretty much shown the dogs everything we expect of them obedience-wise. It’s when we start to expect more of them signs of behavioural issues may surface,” he said.

A plaque given to Dr. Gillick and his staff for their dedication and partnership in looking after Toronto's Police Dogs.
A plaque given to Dr. Gillick and his staff for their dedication and partnership in looking after Toronto

Veterinarian Dr. Avery Gillick, owner of Scarborough’s Morningside Animal Clinic, has been looking after Toronto’s Police dogs for the past 18 years.

According to Gillick, there is a major mental component that needs to be overcome before success will ever be achieved.

“Some of the dogs prove to be too fearful, or they are not agile enough. Some don’t show enough of a pre-drive, and some of them just aren’t stable enough in the home. This factor is very important. The dogs must be good in the home,” he said.

“The police want them to be happy around people, to run up to people when they are not on duty and like the attention they are given. They want dogs that are stable in their personality.”

There are a large variety of behavioural issues that serve as roadblocks to the dog’s handlers.

Quite often they are surmountable.

“Most of the time exposure, reassurance and bonding will help the dogs to get over issues like being scared of going in to buildings or being close to moving vehicles,” McEdwards said.

Lots of rubs on the head and positive praise always help.

“One of our biggest issues is when we take dogs from overseas. They will have lived and been trained entirely outdoors, they’ve never been in a building,” he said.

“These dogs will test out well chasing the ball, listening, being friendly, then all of a sudden when you take them inside all fours go out, and they freeze and collapse.”

“People will say a dog’s fear of buildings has to do with the floor’s hard surface.”

The floor’s hard surface is just one variable though.

“What I find is actually worse then the floor is the lighting. Sometimes the shadows cast by the lights are what scare the dogs,” he said.

Last winter, McEdwards’ service dogs trained at the Better Living Centre downtown Toronto. The type of lighting they use casts off a glow. The colour and glare off the floor scared dogs who had been perfectly fine in many other buildings.

“It has to do with how they see things. Sometimes they won’t be bothered at all, and other times, depending on the look of something, they are terrified,” he said.

To overcome this type of issue, the handlers focus on obedience training and play. They do apprehension exercises because the dogs love them, and in doing so the handlers are able to get the dog’s minds off of the affecting issue.

When the dogs experience something new, it’s hard for them to reason with it. According to McEdwards he can’t just tell the dogs it’s OK and expect them to understand.

“It is similar to how you would handle a situation with a young child; you try to distract them from what is causing the issue and make it fun,” he said. “The same strategy is used with the dogs to help them forget.”

Often times the dog’s favourite toy is used to get them over behavioural bumps.

Toronto Police Services have a garage where their police cars are fixed. Within it lies a large grate for water to drain in to. It’s about a foot wide and quite long. Most of the dogs refuse to walk on the grate when they are first exposed to it.

They leap over it instead.

McEdwards and his handlers use positive reinforcement to get the dogs to walk on the grate. They clip a leash on to a Kong – Toronto Police Dogs favourite toy – and drag it right down the middle of the grate. The dogs are so in tune with catching the Kong they will run right out on the grate with out even realizing.

After a couple times of walking on the grate, it is as though it was never an issue.

Unfortunately, a fairly large number of dogs can’t overcome their problems. Considering the huge cost associated with the purchase, training and maintenance of the dogs, McEdwards has to be picky with who stays and who goes.

The dogs imported by the Toronto Police Services are purchased anywhere from $3,000-$6,000 Canadian. These are green dogs who have had no training whatsoever.

About $24,000 needs to be allocated for the trainer to get the dogs where they need to be.

The initial vet bills are anywhere from $300 to $500, and equipment for the dogs can be up to about $1,000.

Let us not forget about the actual handler’s salary which is about $24,000.

“In the end, after all is said and done, you’re looking at dogs that are worth over $50,000, and that’s not including further vet bills and possible surgeries down the road,” he said.

A fully trained dog can be purchased from the States for about $12,000 U.S., but they still need to be fine-tuned to bring them up to par with Toronto Police expectations. Also, a trained dog cannot be put with a green handler; everything has to be matched up perfectly according to McEdwards.

“We mainly get our dogs from a broker. Most of the brokers guarantee the dogs up to the end of our training program. If the dog doesn’t work out, we get a replacement in one to two weeks at no charge,” he said.

Having a guarantee on the dogs up until the end of the course is beneficial because the most amount of time possible is utilized in progressing the dogs along, working on different issues.

So how long are behavioural issues tolerated?

“If they have issues with floors we may give them a month or more, depending on if we are in a rush to get them trained,” he said.

“If the dog is aggressive, snapping at the handlers and other dogs, we won’t give them too long – we don’t allow this. We want our dogs to be very sociable.”

In the last stretch of the course, expectations of the dogs have peaked.

“Some problems arise in the last leg of the program. When it comes to the dog’s ability to roam out and search on their own, without an officer, we may again see behavioural problems,” he said.

Upon the dog’s first real apprehension they will sink their teeth into human flesh for the first time, and may be entirely caught off-guard.

“It’s not uncommon for them to become confused because the protective sleeve they’re used to isn’t there,” McEdwards said.

“The dogs may just try to bite them anywhere because they have no sleeve option, but because it’s not common practice to them so they will bite and let go. If they keep biting and letting go, theoretically the suspect could get away. We want them to bite and hang on so we can then step in and take over.”

McEdwards said the transition from training to real-life work can be tough.

If the dogs have a high drive and they are trained properly they can get over the initial shock of working on the streets.

After all is said and done, the dogs turned out by police services are nothing but the best – top-gun protectors.

After years of hard work, most retire and live out the high-life with their beloved families.

Right about now Noble is likely roaming and tracking through the countryside of his new home, a farm on the coast of P.E.I., and enjoying every minute of it.