Explosive Detection Dog Course @ Malpeet K9 Academy
In 2015, I attended the Malpeet K9 Academy to complete a Drug Detection Dog (DDD) course in which I was successful at graduating with my English Springer Spaniel Jethro. After gaining experience as a DDD Team it was time to move on and expand my portfolio as a Detection Dog handler so I enrolled in the Explosive Detection Dog (EDD) programme.
The first consideration obviously would be the choice of dog. A dog can be provided as part of the course at Malpeet and on both of my courses, there were a number of very high-quality dogs available. However, during my RAF career, all 3 of my Search and Rescue Dogs had been procured as puppies (6 to 8 weeks old). The main benefit as I see it is that a bond between dog and handler can be developed from a young age and all the relevant socialising can be carried out. It had worked for me then, it had worked for me with Jethro, so why change a successful formula. The downside of course is if you choose wrongly you have a very expensive pet and a reputation in tatters!
After speaking to a number of my experienced “dog” friends, I was lucky to be put in touch with Jill Grant. Jill is a very experienced and successful breeder of working dogs. I went through a meticulous selection process and in August 2017 Chief, a little black working Cocker Spaniel arrived.
I turned up at Malpeet K9 Academy at the start of September 2018 to begin a 32-day course with Chief (now 16 months). After the usual meet & greet with the other candidates, it was time to meet the other budding EDD canine hopefuls. I had a funny feeling that there were some ringers amongst them! They all looked a lot more mature, bolder and certainly bigger than little Chief. The first few days were spent matching dogs to handlers and vice versa. It was then on to basic hunt and search exercises in “the barn” and then an introduction to real live substances. All the initial signs were good and little Chief was more than holding his own. He developed a short rapid stepping motion and an eager approach to everything and if success didn’t come quickly he would stand and “yap” till it did. This was to become his little ritual and even as he developed throughout the course he would still become very vocal at the least bit of frustration (mostly aimed at me for not keeping up with his version of the programme).
The daily routine at Malpeet began with us rising from what always felt like an inadequate slumber into a darkness that became slower and slower to turn into morning. A cocktail of strong coffee, Berocca, porridge and toast (with Tony’s lovely homegrown honey) seemed to kick-start us all for the walk up the hill to the kennels. The morning arrival at the kennels was met with a crescendo of intense noise and a unique smell that you never seemed to quite get used to.
We gradually worked out a system (painful at first) that seemed to get all the dogs fed, exercised, groomed and prepared for the day ahead whilst leaving the kennels clean and smelling like a hospital ward in an ever shorter and more efficient order. The noise and the smell rapidly became a distant memory as excited beasts (canine and human) were loaded into vehicles for the anticipated antics of the day ahead.
Upon returning to HQ at the end of each day the dogs were fed, exercised and checked over whilst the vehicles were cleaned and prepared for the next day. We would trudge wearily down the hill to the accommodation (plush surroundings it has to be said) to write daily reports, prepare for future written assessments, feed and clean ourselves and inevitably conduct inquests into what had happened during the day. For some, it was a chance to boast about a super dog (Ringers!) for others it was tears and tantrums. We were all in the same boat, some good days and some not so good. We developed a bond, listened to each other, offered support and put the world to rights with lashings of coffee, tea, a little red wine and a seemingly endless supply of biscuits. As people made little mistakes or errors of judgment each day, biscuit fines were levied according to the severity. It is a great way of lightening a moment and provided lots of tools for the nightly stress counselling. As the course progressed it began to resemble the Big Brother house (all that was missing was a diary room – I don’t think it would have stood empty for long!).
The one thing that quickly became apparent to me was the number and diversity of external training locations. Shops, Colleges, Public Houses, British Legions, Truck Parks, Warehouses and even an Airfield where we were allowed to search on board a Boeing 737. It was all very exciting yet, at the same time challenged the skills of the handler and the character and stamina of the dogs.
We were introducing our dogs to more and more new scents, working them indoors and outdoors, testing their ability to discriminate a wide variety of distractions. As handlers, we were learning a whole new way of searching systematically to remain safe. As a DDD handler, I am used to moving objects, emptying bins, opening doors and drawers to assist my dog in his search for narcotics. This was different. This is real and potentially life-threatening. The “system” was hard to master and caused many a frustrated profanity; though it all made sense it was very easy to come off the rails in practice. On top of this, we had our dogs to manage as well. Having now got the basics of it I believe it will make me a better proactive handler in all disciplines.
Another big difference between DDD and EDD is the “Scent Testing”. I found this phase of the training to be fascinating. I now have a much better understanding of cross-contamination, use of discriminators and the importance of blanks; I even use this type of training with my DDD now. In my opinion, it offers huge benefits and a great way of focussing the dog by using every day discriminators like tobacco, coffee and food items. It can also help you with confidence in the dog when working at festivals, prisons etc. where such items are deliberately used in an attempt to deflect the dogs.
One of my favourite training sessions was the day spent on bulk explosives. It was fascinating to see the reaction of the dogs to what amounted to massive amounts of scent when they had been regularly training on small amounts and trace. It was a unique opportunity and one that I believe will prove its worth in the future.
The hours became days and the days became weeks. Before we knew it our final assessments were looming. Were we ready? Had we done enough? Would our dogs cope? Would we?? Throughout the course, we were constantly asked if we were happy and were given regular debriefs and updates of our performance and how we were progressing. I was at a slight advantage in that I had completed previous courses at Malpeet and I knew that I had enrolled onto a tried and tested product. If I trusted the product and did what I was asked to do then it would all be fine.
In the end, it was all fine and we eventually graduated as an EDD Team. At the age of 53 my mind and body were no match to that of a 16-month-old working Cocker and it was certainly one of the most challenging events that I have ever completed. Thanks to Simon for your patience and experienced teaching. Thanks also to Lee and Sophia at Malpeet. Thank you and good luck to all the other candidates in the big brother house, it was emotional!
Day Thirty Two – course completed!