West Midlands Police boasts a dog handler establishment of 69 operational officers, the third highest in the UK, all of whom are posted and supervised within the framework of neighbourhood policing. This supports the force policing plan as well as catering for local needs and requirements.
All of these officers handle general purpose police dogs, the majority of which are German Shepherd dogs, although we do have a small number of Rottweilers which carry out an identical role.
Historically, police dogs have always been recruited into service by means of public donation, by sale or gift. This was, and still remains, a good way of obtaining dogs. Unfortunately, it can make forward planning very difficult as we can never be sure we will have the right number of dogs when we need them.
Consequently, in 1994 we took the decision to initiate a breeding programme, whereby good quality German Shepherd dogs and bitches could be produced from proven stock and in sufficient numbers to meet our training and operational needs.
This has continued to flourish and today the majority of our dogs come from our own breeding programme. This is supported by staff at the breeding centre at the Guide dogs for the Blind Association, near Leamington Spa, which is only a short distance from our own training centre.
Dogs and bitches selected for West Midlands Police must be fit and healthy, temperamentally sound and no more than about two years old. They must also display qualities which show they have an aptitude for working and, most importantly, that they are bold and courageous without being too aggressive.
Dogs and their handlers then begin a 12-week initial course, during which the dog is taught to follow a track or scent over various kinds of terrain, to search for and locate either people or property which may be concealed. The dog must be obedient both on and off the lead, be under the control of the handler at all times and show courage and determination when detaining a fleeing person, or someone armed with a stick or firearm.
At the conclusion of the course the dog will be licensed to carry out full operational duties with its handler. This will be constantly reviewed as they undergo regular periods of refresher training, which will continue throughout the working life of the dog. When dogs reach about eight years of age, they are retired to the care of their handlers.
Specialist search dogs, trained to locate either drugs or firearms and explosives, are used extensively in the West Midlands. For this type of work we tend to use Springer Spaniels or Labradors, since they are considered by many to be the most suitable for the role.
We continue to recruit these dogs from rescue centres and from members of the public. Dogs and bitches which show a high drive and willingness to retrieve toys or other articles generally make the best search dogs.
All specialist dogs are handled by officers who already have a general purpose police dog, thus giving the handler a double responsibility in terms of both training and operational deployment.