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Long longs for dog handler status

May 11th, 2003, 11:46 PM
Long longs for dog handler status
by Sarah Elizabeth Brown

The following is the first in a series of articles on different aspects of police work that will continue next week to mark National Police Week.

The Yukon’s newest RCMP trainee doesn’t wear a uniform and is less than two feet tall, but he’s hard to miss.
As part of the national police force’s dog training program, a Whitehorse constable recently received a puppy that someday just might be a police dog.

Normally, the RCMP requires officers entering the dog service to have at least two years’ police experience. With slightly more than six months on the road in the Mountie uniform, Const. Cameron Long is an oddity, but it’s because he has done this before.

In 1992 as a Nova Scotia conservation officer, he started “quarrying”, or playing the bad guy, for dog-handling conservation officers. Five years later he became a handler himself. When the province’s natural resources division disbanded the nearly 40-year-old dog units in 2001, he started looking for other outfits that used dogs.

By June 2002 he was graduating from the RCMP’s academy in Regina and he and his wife were on their way to the Yukon. Immediately, he was acting as the suspect for Cpl. Rod Hamilton and Justice to practice on.

In March, Long travelled to Langley, B.C., for a one-week puppy-rearing course to start his trek through the RCMP’s dog handling program. Two weeks after coming home, the RCMP kennel in Innisfail, Alta., called.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the RCMP bought its dogs. But after the terror attacks that day, potential tracking dogs became scarce, so the RCMP set up its own breeding program of mostly German and Czech dogs. Nexus is a product of one of the first few litters.
For the next 12 to 15 months, the fluffy, all-black German shepherd will go wherever Long goes.

Currently, Nexus is so small that when seated, he comes up to the six-foot-plus constable’s shins.
If he passes the monthly testing over the next year, Nexus will go back to Innisfail for his 3.5- to four-month training with his new human partner.

Every year, RCMP handlers and their dogs must go through recertification, which means being taken off service. Fail badly enough and remedial training follows.

Meanwhile, Long will start the process all over again with another puppy. He’ll continue raising and doing basic training with RCMP puppies until he gets the “golden call” himself to attend dog handler training.

Many young officers show interest in the dog service because it seems like a glamourous job, said Hamilton, who is on-call 24-7 as he’s the Yukon’s only dog handler. Some drop out after raising a couple pups, he said.

“He’s got a long road ahead of him before he gets in the dog section,” Hamilton said of Long, who he’s supervising.
It’s the “never say die” officers who want the job badly enough to stick it through who’ll some day call a drug or bomb-sniffing dog partner.

Prospective dog handlers aren’t just checked out for their skill with the animals; they have to be top-notch investigators and gung-ho without supervision.

Handlers work alone and there are lots of opportunities to not go to a call that comes over the radio.
“These guys are highly, highly committed individuals,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton himself raised 13 pups, though many were much older than Nexus when he got them. He lucked out — the year he was called up 30 older handlers had retired.

The RCMP has 118 dog teams across Canada, and every year about 1,000 officers generally compete for four or five yearly openings.

While Nexus quickly settled in at Long’s home, it didn’t start that way.

“The first few nights were pretty rough,” the constable said.
As well as training Nexus and taking the puppy wherever he goes, Long is still a uniformed patrol cop with a stack of crime files on his desk.

The toughest part is coming home at 7 a.m. from a 12-hour night shift.

“He’s just getting up and he’s looking for a whole bunch of attention — and you have to give it to him,” said Long.
Part of building the handler-dog bond is making the police dog dependent on his partner for everything — love and affection, food and training.

“When he’s with me it should be fun, fun, fun,” Long said. “We don’t want him going to strangers looking for affection.”
That means forbidding the general public from touching the dog, which some find tough to take, said Hamilton, whose dog Justice is easily the best looking cop in Whitehorse. Nexus, with his huge ears, isn’t far behind.

But while the dogs aren’t treated as pets with the run of the house, Long says he couldn’t do it all without his wife.
Just like a 10-week old baby, Nexus can’t hold his bladder for more than a couple hours in a row, and on night shifts, Long’s wife is the one who gets up to let Nexus out.

On day shifts, Nexus hangs out in the RCMP kennel near the detachment, and Long takes 10 minutes out here and there to let him out.

“As you can tell, he’s not too fond of his kennel yet,” said Long, as his furry shadow barks incessantly. He notes the detachment has great neighbours.
“They’ve tolerated his barking.”

On Nexus’ first day in the RCMP kennel, “that dog howled,” said Hamilton. Nexus pulled on the chain link with his puppy teeth for eight solid hours.

“I thought he was going to pull it off.”
Long’s general duty shift-mates, known for their hijinks, give Long his fair share of ribbing. One said he’s “like a new dad.”
“It’s more of a lifestyle,” said Long of all his extra time spent with Nexus. “I don’t look at it as work.”

His job is to socialize the dog and get him used to different surfaces and situations. Nexus has been downtown, in the bush and all over the detachment building.
The end goal is a dog fazed by nothing.

Hamilton recalled airport training with his first dog Hoss close to graduation from handler training. Hoss, raised in rural Saskatchewan, froze when Hamilton led him into the teeming airport with slippery floors.

Part of the job is having a partner you never say “see you tomorrow” to.

“Sometimes they can get on your nerves, that’s for darn sure,” said Hamilton, noting Justice is a constant barker, something Justice knows can embarrass him in public.
“He’s smart that way.”

Hamilton recalls a break-in to the Kopper King Mini Mark earlier this week when Justice followed tracks through area trails. At one point, a man matching the suspect description came down the trail, but when it turned out to be just an unlucky fellow out for a walk, it was hard to convince Justice he had to go back to tracking when he was getting ready to chase a bad guy.
“That dog, he’s jacked now,” said Hamilton. “And I’m tired and he’s not listening.”
“I really applaud his heart and drive,” said Hamilton. “He doesn’t quit.”

But when Justice is a pain, Hamilton can go back to dishing out daily obedience training.

“He knows, when I get my tone, he knows.”
While strong-willed, independent dogs are valued by police, it makes for some interesting battles of wills.

Sometimes at the end of playtime when Hamilton heads to the unmarked SUV to start work, Justice will just lie down.
Sometimes Hamilton has to actually start driving away before Justice gives in.

“The main thing is as a handler, you make sure you win.”