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Must love dogs: Wannabe police canine handlers must jump through hoops

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INNISFAIL, Alta. — One dog. One handler.

It’s a familiar motto at the RCMP Police Dog Service Training Centre in central Alberta, the one place in Canada where RCMP police dogs are born and trained.

The centre in Innisfail trains both officers and dogs and, once a match is made, it usually lasts the entire time a canine remains on the job.

“Our philosophy ... always has been one dog, one handler, so from the moment the team is paired, they stay together until the dog or the handler retires,” Sgt. Eric Stebenne, acting senior trainer, said during a recent interview at the centre.

There are 168 RCMP dog teams across Canada. The dogs are ready for training when they are between 16 and 18 months old, but a would-be dog-handler often puts in years of apprenticeship before formal training with an animal begins.

“Regular members of the RCMP who are interested in becoming dog-handlers, on top of their regular duties, go out with the local dog handlers ... and start raising dogs for us on their own time,” explained Stebenne.

“Most RCMP members who come here are looking at four to eight years of voluntary duties before they get a chance to come for the basic dog-handler course with the RCMP.”

The course takes 95 days so officer and beast have time to form a strong bond. After that, teams are assigned to wherever they are required across the country.

It’s a 24-7 commitment. A dog goes home with its trainer at night and, for all intents and purposes, becomes a permanent pet until it is time for retirement.

“Having to retire my previous police dogs was hard,” Stebenne said. “That would be the most difficult part of this job. Also seeing dogs injured or killed in the line of duty is very difficult.”

When RCMP Const. Dave Ross was shot and killed in Moncton, N.B., in 2014, an enduring image was his police dog appearing to mourn his handler at the funeral. The German shepherd named Danny was later returned to Innisfail for pairing with a new partner.

“That dog is the first thing you see in the morning when you take him out for a walk and likely the last thing you see at night. You do get very, very close. The bond that is created between the dog and handler is phenomenal.”

The program uses purebred German shepherds which are provided by local breeders. The puppies are born at the training centre and testing begins at seven weeks and continues every few months after that.

Some of the puppies are too timid to become a police dog and don’t make the cut.

Inspector Andre Lemyre, the officer in charge of the centre, said some of the 168 teams are involved in specialized work.

“Twenty-three of these teams are specifically for detection of narcotics or explosives, airports, the roving units, VIP missions,” he said.

Additional positions are created depending on need province-by-province.

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