Meet the Rescue Dogs Once Abandoned, Now Sniffing Out Trouble

By on October 8, 2016

When you think about the stereotypical dog in rescue, what comes to mind? You can say it, it's okay. Even I'm thinking it.

It's a sad fact that there are more Staffordshire Bull Terriers and their cross-breeds in rescue than ever before. But this isn't indicative of the breed itself, rather it is due to the numbers in which they are bred.

What doesn't often come to mind when you think of this breed is their amazing ability to work, and their drive to want to work.

At the recent Animal Hero Awards Sue Dicks, a supervisor at RSPCA West Hatch Animal Centre in Taunton and PC Lee Webb from Avon and Somerset Police won a special award recognising the initiative that together they've built saving the lives of (so far) 12 dogs in four years by harnessing each dog's natural ability to want to work.

Speaking to K9 Magazine they explain more about the initiative and how the program has evolved with highs and lows along the way.

Having worked with dogs since she left school, Sue joined the RSPCA in 1997.

“I found that working in a rescue environment was a much more satisfying experience. In 2011 we (West Hatch Animal Centre) became an Inspectorate Intake centre, which means we now take in the neglected, abused and abandoned animals that Inspectors need to bring to us.”

Over the last twenty years, Sue has noticed a change in the type of dogs coming into rescue.

“We used to see mostly unwanted dogs due to owners moving house and not being able to take them, marriage breakups for example, and the dogs generally hadn't been abused. This has obviously now changed, and we, unfortunately, see a lot of neglect and deliberate cruelty. Twenty years ago there used to be many more Labradors, Spaniels and generally more purebred dogs in rescue whereas recently this has shifted to Staffies and Staffie crosses.”

It was this shift which saw the now established program begin with a dog named Kos, Sue recalls.

“Kos came into kennels after an Inspector was called to the home one evening. He had been fighting with his brother and they were both covered in wounds. Kos did not cope well in the kennel environment and was so stressed that each morning he would be almost on the point of collapse by the time I opened his kennel hatch.

“I needed to find something to occupy him and give him something to focus on, so began to play hide the ball with him. I was quite shocked at how good he was, as I normally did this with working breeds who have a natural ability for search work - not a Staffie!”

PC Lee Webb is currently a Police Dog Trainer with the Tri-Force collaboration between the Avon and Somerset constabulary, Gloucestershire Constabulary and Wiltshire Police. He joined the Avon and Somerset Police Dog Section in 1996 and became a permanent Police Dog Instructor in 2004.

He says, “I have had pet dogs for most of my life and always had aspirations of becoming a dog handler. It is true to say, dogs have always been my best friend!”

Since 2004, he has taken the lead on training the Constabularies drugs detection dogs, of which there are currently 16 spread across the three forces.

Before Kos, PC Webb recalled that typically the types of dogs the police were offered were German Shepherds, Labradors and Spaniels.

Sue was known to PC Webb through a colleague after she saw something special in a young Shepherd named Zeus and recommended him to the force. It was through that professional relationship that Lee and Sue's began forged on a mutual love of dogs and all animals, so when PC Webb was looking for a dog to join his drug detection unit he spoke with Sue.

The role of drug detection dogs

“My new appointment as drugs Trainer led for a need for dogs to train for drugs detection work. I visited the centre and got to know Sue. We discussed our needs and exercises to develop potential dogs, mainly teaching the retrieve and willingness to search. Above all making the reward article, usually a tennis ball, the dog's world", said PC Webb.

“The dogs are deployable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and may be asked to work anywhere across the Tri-force area, and sometimes further afield. Our drugs dogs went to London to support efforts to keep the Olympics safe.

“The drugs detection dogs carry out a range of activities. They regularly assist Officers at warrants to search  for drugs, firearms or proceeds of crime (currency), search vehicles at the roadside when requested and attend requests to search open spaces, where intelligence suggests there is a stash. There is no match for the dog's nose in identifying and locating this vast array of scents.”

Kos proved to be a turning point for the partnership between the rescue centre and police force, as PC Webb recalls.

“Things took a real change one day when Sue called me to say that she had a dog in the kennels which she thought might be ideal. She was apprehensive because of the breed of the dog, knowing that the police mainly take the gun dog type breeds.

“The dog was Kos! I visited the centre and together Sue and I carried out our usual initial assessment. I was impressed.

PC Webb pictured above with Kos

"I left Sue with the task of developing his desire to play and retrieve the ball, and willingness to search. Kos is a handsome Staffordshire Bull Terrier crossed with a Whippet. The Bull breed in his genetics makes him tenacious and obsessive, and the Whippet gentle and at times sensitive.

"I had a need for a dog for a colleague whose serving drugs dog was due to retire, so Kos was brought in to the police service for assessment and if deemed suitable, training. Kos was quick to learn, environmentally sound and absolutely obsessive about his toy. He was the perfect package – but he was not a gun dog!”

Recalling the reaction when he first introduced a Staffie to the team to begin his 6-week training program, PC Webb said:

“Not everyone was keen to see Kos enter the service, and back then there were even moves to have him returned. Fortunately, his ability was so exceptional that it was difficult to argue against keeping him. Indeed, I have learnt that you should not ‘judge a book by its cover’. Just like people, we should judge dogs on ability, not looks.

The Officer that required Kos was given the dog of another handler that retired. I had trained Kos to the standard required. He was now a licensed drugs dog. It was decided I could work him and keep him, Kos was now ‘mine’. Technically, at that time the Chief Constable’s, but as with all dog handlers such is the bond with our dogs they are very much part of your life, most love and care for them like a family member.”

The program which has developed between the rescue centre and police team is one PC Webb is confident has given a new lease of life and a second chance to the dogs it has helped so far.

“The main benefit from adopting a dog from the centre is giving it a happy and fulfilling life. The dog has a happy future choosing its destiny through its desire to play and be rewarded. It will be given shelter, love, food and a routine. For the search dogs it's simple, I search – I find! I play that game as my job and I get rewarded!

“I get to spend lots of time with my handler, often be part of a family, see new places, new people, new experiences. I can not think of a better life for a dog.

“For the organisation I work for, it's simple, we get the type of dogs we need, with a lot of the ground work taken care of. Very often it's the case that with a rescue dog that, what you see, is what you get!”

Former rescue dog Boris, now part of the police dog unit, pictured above

A sentiment Sue echoes.

“Many of these dogs had behavioural problems, either due to them having high energy levels which had not been satisfied in the previous home, or due to having had no training or proper care. Many were also suffering from kennel stress and were not coping well in this environment. To be able to work and use their natural instincts was the outlet they needed to overcome their frustration.”

The professional relationship which has turned into a friendship between Lee and Sue is one which has been forged on an understanding of what the other needs and the basis of the program between a rescue centre and police force is one they think other rescues and police dog units can benefit from.

Lee says, “Certainly I would encourage other police dog sections to broaden their horizons if they have not done so already. I was lucky when we joined as a collaboration with neighbouring Gloucestershire because they have a couple of Staffy crosses working successfully as drugs dogs.

“Often the reluctance to take a dog comes from the fear of something going wrong, and the reputation, in my opinion, that the breed has been given through the mainstream press. I have been a dog handler for the best part of 20 years and found other breeds to be more concerning, certainly more likely to bite you.

“I understand the desire to be risk adverse, particularly in our society’s blame culture. That's where choosing dogs with the right temperament, traits and abilities become important, whatever the breed Staffy or Labrador.”

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The program introduced Stella a Staffie to handler PC Claire Todd in Gloucestershire.

Sue remembers when she first arrived in rescue.

“We had been told she was aggressive and had been grabbing at people's hands. It turned out that she was just frustrated, and once she had a purpose she turned out to be the most amazing little dog you could meet.”

Stella showed great promise from the start completing her 6 weeks training in only 4 weeks.

Stella pictured with her handler and TV presenter Matt Johnson

The 6 week training program

The allotted time for training a drugs detection dog with a new or novice handler is 6 weeks.

“Some of the dogs I have trained in the absence of their handler”, says PC Webb.

“We call this pool training. An experienced handler with previous knowledge and expertise in drugs detection can, therefore, attend a much shorter course, during which time the team bond and learn to work with each other.

It starts with the selection of a suitable dog or bitch.

“Once the dog is deemed suitable it begins training. The retrieve is developed into a search for the dog's favourite toy. Once the dog demonstrates the ability to find its toy, often a tennis ball, the first substance is introduced. There are many ways to train this, but a common practice is to place the toy with the target substance. When the dog is tasked to search it finds the toy, which is hidden with the substance. When the dog inhales, it not only smells the scent of its favourite toy but also that of the target scent. The dog is rewarded for ‘indicating’ the presence of its toy, not knowing that it is actually rewarded for indicating both.

“The toy is removed from the hide and the dog tasked to search again for its ‘toy’. This time, it will experience only the scent of the target substance, but will usually react to the fact that it has sniffed and been rewarded for some kind of action on the previous occasion. Again the dog is rewarded. The hide is moved and again any reaction ideally a freeze is rewarded.

“It is the timing of the reward or marker if this has been introduced that shapes the dog's behaviour at the hide. The desired indication is a passive one, however, if left dogs will display behaviours that are natural to them, scratching, digging, pawing, biting and even barking at the hide, often due to frustration.

“Once the dog is finding the substance consistently in a reasonably sterile environment, distraction is added. This may be as simple as moving the hide outside. The hides are made increasingly more difficult and the quantities the dog are tasked for is lowered.

“The dog is so good at this that it is common for me to introduce the dog to 100 grams of a substance at the start of the day and finish with a dog finding 0.5 grams. That is the equivalent of one half of a pain killer tablet. This is the first day!

“You can also teach a dog to find a cocktail of substances. The most I have attempted on a day are 3, but I am aware of a number of substances being taught at a time. The dog is rewarded for finding three different substance a number of times. At the end, the substances are split and placed out individually. The dog is so adept at differentiating the individual scents that it can identify all 3 substances when they are apart and will indicate each of them, again in tiny amounts.

At the end of 6 weeks, the dog is required to indicate the majority of illegal drugs, currency, both Sterling and Euro and firearms in a variety of simulated operational environments. The team, dog and handler are licensed together.

Reflecting on the overall success PC Webb says:

“A number of Staffordshire Bull Terriers or their crosses have since been selected. Lacey a Staffy cross Jack Russell Terrier, Stella a Staffy of Animal Hero fame, Harry a Staffy cross Boxer (pictured below with his handler) and Boris a Staffy male.

“I must not forget the others that have come from West Hatch over the years following Zeus, Kaiser a Rottweiler, Ollie an English Springer Spaniel, Sid a Hungarian Visla cross, Diesel a black Labrador,Tom a golden Labrador, Jake a collie cross Spaniel and recently Ted an English Springer Spaniel.

“The scheme is only a success because of the work that Sue and other staff at the centre do, the fact that communication and understanding of what each agency needs is clear and the trust that has developed over the years.

“We are at the stage where Sue and I have developed a ‘gut’ feeling over which dogs are likely to make the grade. The success rate is high.”

Boris and his handler, pictured above

The future of Staffies in the police

“If rescue Staffies become police dogs then they are not only providing a valuable service, but they are also being saved. This is such an important move for rescue centres, as it means we can not only promote how great the breed really is but also help reduce the numbers of Staffies in rescue”, says PC Webb.

Lacey and her handler, pictured above

“I was and still am a keen supporter of using rescue dogs over breeders where possible, this sits with my moral and ethical values. It is also great to be able to take dogs with often not the best of histories and employ them to work happily in the area from which they originated. Making something good, out of something bad.

“I would urge anybody who wants a dog, to first look at why they really want one, because so much appears to be based on image, and secondly to really look at which breeds really suit their circumstances. It is my belief that dogs return the most to the people that give them what they truly want, more often than not it is interaction, play and quality time.”



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