An undeniably important part of any police force is its canine unit, which often proves to be invaluable in solving certain cases. In fact, many of these dogs form part of the police force’s Rapid Response unit for serious crimes, which means they are often the first on site. Yet we don’t hear enough about the bravery of these four-legged officers and the sacrifices they make to protect us. So, we decided to pay tribute to these unsung heroes and take you into the world of SA’s canine cops.
Not every dog is cut out for service. The SAPS, like most police forces around the world, only use certain breeds of dogs as part of their canine unit and prefer Border Collies, German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds, Dobermans, Boxers, Labradors, Rottweilers and Bloodhounds.
But that’s not all. Dogs also have to be of a certain age to join the force – between 9 months and 3 years – and will have to undergo a rigorous assessment to ensure they are ready to be trained.
Dogs are trained in a number of fields, including sniffing out drugs and explosives, tracking people and, of course, search and rescue operations. And while they are initially trained by themselves, they are also later trained with a handler as the two will need to work as a team.
Handler training often takes longer than training for dogs, as the handler needs to be taught how to read the signals the dog is giving them. In fact, most often the handler is the one who fails testing, rather than the dog.
Stories from the field
Policing is an equally dangerous occupation for dogs and it is common for them to loose their lives in the line of duty. Last year, Sky, a 5-year old Belgian Shepherd in the Pietermaritzburg K-9 unit, made the news when he was shot and killed while pursuing an armed robbery suspect. Sky was a celebrated member of the unit – he had helped apprehend 10 criminals in just 2 short years – and was just about to reach his career prime. His death was particularly hard on his handler, who, like most handlers, considered the dog a colleague and a close friend.
Another hero, Champ, also made his unit proud when he helped foil a hijacking in Durban earlier this year. Under intense gunfire, Sky chased one of the four hijackers down and took a bullet when he attacked the suspect. This, however, did not stop him from pinning down the man, which allowed his fellow officers to make the arrest.
Unlike Champ, Chaka did not recover from his injuries, but his death did lead to the development of South Africa’s first tracking collar for police dogs. Last year in October, Chaka pursued a robbery suspect and went missing in the process. After an 11-day search, the Rottweiler was found dead. This prompted local businessmen, who were involved in the search, to develop a collar specifically for police dogs that can help officers keep track of them in future.
Lend a hand
Brave as they are, our canine officers do need our help. Currently there is a shortage of dogs in the SAPS’s K-9 Units, which is due to old age, injury, and untimely deaths. This has prompted the SAPS to reach out to the public to donate German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds and Rottweilers aged 1 to 3 years old to K-9 units around the country.
This call for help is indicative of the importance of these furry heroes. They play a critical part in keeping our police units strong and helping to make our streets safer every day.