A Nose for Duty

drug detection dogs
Dog handler Wilkes with his three-year old black lab and dog handler McColvin with her 18-month-old springer spaniel.

The job of detecting drugs in prisons falls to a very keen team, as DDN discovers.

It’s Tuesday morning at the village sports and social club. Three people stand in a line inside the venue, about two metres apart. A man in dark clothing – who turns out to be a prison officer – watches from the side. The door from the outside terrace opens and a police officer steps inside with a young black labrador. The people in the line stiffen slightly and the dog wags at them enthusiastically.

Andy Baskett, HM Prison Service national dog trial champion, with Penny, best search dog in the country
Andy Baskett, HM Prison Service national dog trial champion, with Penny, best search dog in the country

The dog handler asks whether anyone has anything on them they would like to declare, then explains that she will conduct a brief search. She moves the pup to the first person, gently guiding him towards their shoes, their pockets, their clothing. She asks a tall man to sit on a chair so the dog can sniff his pockets and hood more easily. The dog concentrates and moves to the points indicated by his handler, rising very gently to sniff the higher points on each person’s body.

Suddenly the dog tenses and remains completely still, rooted to the spot, focusing intently on the last man’s pocket. He has indicated, successfully, that there’s a gram of coke in it. The tense atmosphere breaks, the handler unclips her dog from the lead and rewards him with heaps of praise and a joyful game with a squeaky ball, before taking him outside for more ball play on the field.

Training Techniques

The people in the line swap over to a different three, another dog handler appears with a different dog, and the exercise begins again. This is the format you would see in different settings throughout the criminal justice system to detect drugs, but today it’s a training exercise and the dogs are young pupils learning the techniques alongside their handlers.

They are introduced to people of various sizes and ages, including a child. Different people are brought into the line-up, the drugs are moved around the participants, and the handler sometimes asks people to sit on a chair for the search. The dogs encounter a motorised wheelchair for the first time and Paul is asked to move forward and turn his chair off before the dogs are gently encouraged to sniff all around the wheels and the mechanism before moving on to his pockets and clothing. They are rewarded when they find 3g of cannabis hidden in his shoe and the appearance of the squeaky ball dispels any nerves about the chair.

Dog Champions

Andy Baskett has been a prison officer for 32 years, and a dog handler for 17 of them. Between the changing line-ups he steps out from the corner where he has been watching, encouraging and giving some subtle feedback to the officers, to explain what’s going on. He’s been training dog handlers for four years, alongside his colleague Martin, and has been the HM Prison Service dog trial champion for seven years – a fact that’s revealed by team members who clearly value his expertise enormously. However reluctant he is to blow his own trumpet, he’s immensely proud of his labrador who has been ‘best search dog in the country’ for the past four years.

The training programme covers the whole of the South East and includes 70 handlers and 100 dogs, he tells DDN. The dogs are mainly found at rescue centres and dog dealers’ premises and are often the ones rejected by families for being too naughty or challenging. This energy and ‘prey drive’ can convert successfully to working for the reward of a ball, and an ‘interview’ with a pup can take the form of testing reactions with a ball. ‘We want it to use its nose, so we play with a tennis ball and then hide it,’ says Andy. ‘They have to scent it out, and if they can find it, they can hunt out drugs.’

The Best breeds

Labradors are the favoured breed for becoming a passive people-searching dog, ‘because we want a dog that looks friendly. Whether people are old, young, disabled – everyone likes labs, the Andrex dogs. They look friendly but they have a hunt drive.’ Collies are ‘too smart’ as they don’t see the point of searching the same person twice in a training exercise, but a collie-lab cross can make the best dog with a mix of both breeds’ traits. The more hectic springer and cocker spaniels have all the right traits for searching areas so are the best choice for active roles, he explains.

puppy Charlie, dumped by the roadside at 12 weeks but now getting used to the prison environment to prepare him for training.
Puppy Charlie, dumped by the roadside at 12 weeks but now getting used to the prison environment to prepare him for training.

Once matched with their new handler, the pup goes to live at their home so that they are with them night and day. Everything – kennelling, transport, upkeep – is paid for by the service, and their training can begin right away if they are old enough, which is generally about 15 months. The service usually takes dogs up to two and a half years old, ‘but we’ll take them older if they have the drive’. Sometimes they meet them as puppies, such as a recent prospective recruit who was found dumped by the roadside. The life ahead of them represents the most amazing transformation of fortune.

Each handler will get two dogs, a passive lab and an active springer, says Andy, and the dogs always belong to the service. The passive dogs usually work for five to six years and the active ones eight to nine years, at which point the handler can choose whether to keep the dog or rehome them with friends and family.

Charlie has the opportunity to encounter Paul’s wheelchair after the older dogs’ training has finished.
Charlie has the opportunity to encounter Paul’s wheelchair after the older dogs’ training has finished.

When they begin their training, the passive dog will learn to search in different prison environments and will have to get used to noise, including gates crashing. They will learn to search prisoners, prison visitors and sometimes staff as well, in pop-up searches.

The six-week training course (four weeks for the active dogs) leads to a year’s licence from the Inspectorate, for which they must have completed searches of a minimum of 30 people, and the development training is ongoing. They learn to search for cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, cannabis and NPS (mainly spice).

Watching the dogs and handlers train together demonstrates the remarkable bond between the two. Afterwards, while the dogs are rewarded with ball games and socialisation with the team, the dog handlers tell me that of many years working in the police, this recent role is ‘the best job ever’. DDN

With thanks to Charing Sports and Social Club

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