Police rely on dogs’ physical abilities and highly developed senses to carry out a wide variety of missions with their masters. These pairs complement each other naturally and provide a strong leg to other departments if needed.
They are called Escobar, Loki, Thor, Lexy, Lenox, Junkie, Zippo, Ruby, Poison, Menotte or even Peaches. These are some of the 17 dogs from the Grand Duke’s police dog group. Their name sometimes betrays their specialty. We spent a morning watching them develop with their master. Some dogs are all-around athletes, others excel in a specific area. Everyone is attached to their human and ready to do anything for him. A beautiful complicity and a strong bond unites these men and women to their animals.
“The dogs belong to the state, but it is the dog handlers who take care of them, even after they retire. We follow them to the end”, explains chief curator, Christian van Wissen, deputy leader of the group. “It is not possible to have worked with your dog for so many years, to have experienced so many situations with him and then leave him.” A police dog retires at the age of ten. A dog handler commits to the dog brigade for a minimum of five years.
The places there are highly sought after, but animals as well as humans must pass rigorous tests to be able to integrate it. “Our task is not to walk around all day with our dog”, tempers Christian van Wissen. The dog brigade is active 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the territory.
16 weeks of training
You have probably already met them on the sidelines of demonstrations, in the streets of Luxembourg or in public transport, among other things, but this is only a tiny part of the tasks that these couples perform. Dogs can sniff out narcotics, explosives or fire accelerants, provide protection or surveillance measures and for three years track individuals according to their natural dispositions.
Some dogs are said to be “passive”, meaning they don’t bite, just search, and when they find, mark the spot without moving. Others are trained to attack. The duration of basic dog training lasts an average of sixteen weeks. Another 12 weeks for specializations. The training takes place once a week, although the dogs – and their handlers – gain experience in the field.
A glance at the training ground is enough to see that the police dogs are all shepherds, mostly Belgian, but also German and Dutch. Beautiful, healthy animals with shiny hair, well-defined muscles and honest, even slightly amused looks. With pricked ears, they happily follow the instructions as they wait for their toy, whether it’s to find marijuana hidden in my shoe, explosives in a facade, to stop a criminal’s escape in their tracks or to jump over a low wall.
“These breeds exhibit all the qualities we look for in police dogs. They are tireless and fearless,” explains the chief commissioner. “Dogs also need to be on the ground and be able to follow their master because he trusts him completely.” Recently, the dogs were trained on the Haute-Sûre lake.
They learned how to navigate and approach. They must also be able to board a fire capsule or police helicopter, rappel with their driver, and be unafraid of detonations, gunshots, projectiles or pain. In short, the ideal dog is a hothead who knows how to keep calm when the situation calls for it.
A presence that is enough to calm the spirits
Size also plays a role. “For passive dogs, the breed does not matter. But they have to reach the height of the belt, and it is easier to find a one-year-old Malinois to adopt than a Labrador or a border collie,” says Christian van Wissen.
On a daily basis, the pairs patrol the four corners of the country and most often in the station district of Luxembourg. “A policeman with a dog does not go unnoticed”, observes Christian van Wissen. “Usually the presence of the dog is enough to calm the spirit. Dogs rarely come into contact. Sniffer dogs are not trained to bite or attack unlike others. “They are trained to attack, although we are looking for sociable dogs. Some “Sometimes we get them to do muzzle attacks. We teach the dog to push someone, especially during normal fights,” explains the dog handler.
“Attack is not a dog’s game, unlike searching. His behavior changes. Their pupils dilate, heart rate increases and they produce adrenaline. They love it.” That’s no reason to let them. The last time a police dog bit while on duty was eleven years ago.
Super trained and very good
In all circumstances, the behavior of police dogs must be exemplary. No question of barking for nothing or being distracted from his mission by a bird. “Our dogs are not drug addicts and don’t eat dynamite for breakfast,” jokes the deputy team leader. “They are super trained and very good.” Serge doesn’t have to give orders to Kia, his drug-sniffing dog. They have worked together for almost ten years, and the dog will soon go on a well-deserved retirement.
“I don’t have to give him an order. She acts on her own initiative when she smells something that smells like her toys. Whether it’s people or objects, she doesn’t make mistakes,” testifies the policeman. “She sits or lies down in front of the person. If she doesn’t stop, the female dog will follow her. She wants her toy. As long as I don’t tell her with the clicker to get her toy, the dog won’t let go.” But like a good so-called “passive” dog, she doesn’t bite.
The handlers must also be impeccable. There are many candidates, but few chosen. “It is not enough to love dogs. You have to be a good policeman first. A motivated policeman, because our work does not stop after eight o’clock. We must take care of our dog’s needs. He must also like being at the front of the stage, because we make many public presentations,” sums up Christian van Wissen.
A great responsibility for the master
“A dog handler has a great responsibility. He has an animal that has learned to bite. He must be able to work individually. We are often alone with our dogs in support of other units and have to make decisions,” adds Serge. Like the dogs, these police officers undergo regular training with trainers recruited from within their ranks or abroad.
It can also happen that these men and women perform tasks without the dogs. In particular, coordination during searches, testing candidate dogs with a veterinarian and a trainer, or capturing dangerous animals lost on the roads or present during searches carried out by intervention teams. Dog handlers are trained in, among other things, shooting tranquilizers with blowguns and handling snares.
A handler without his canine partner is a sad handler. “It’s a lifestyle, a passion”, concludes Ivo, trainer.