Dave Wilcox’s Journey to Becoming a Dog Handler.
This is a short story of my journey to become a NASDU Drug Dog Handler from the initial idea to the conclusion of training and spans over 2 years in actual time. I had joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an Aircraft Mechanic in 1984 and later joined the Mountain Rescue Service (MRS). The RAF MRS was formed in 1943 to rescue the crew and passengers of military aircraft in mountainous and inhospitable terrain world-wide. In reality they could be asked by the Police to assist in any rescue situation. It was during my early years in the MRS that I became aware of the Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA), a volunteer group that uses dogs for air scenting during searches and avalanches. I soon became a very enthusiastic member of SARDA with a Labrador X Rottweiler called Inca. I really enjoyed this work and went on to work two further operational dogs, both Belgian Shepherds (BSD). After a long and very successful career in the RAF that had spanned over 28 years, I decided to volunteer for early retirement. With only 6 months to go till I was to become a civilian I had a massive decision to make; what am I going to do next? My perfect day would always include spending time with my dogs, if I could get a job that paid me to work with dogs then so much the better. Decision made but where to start. I talked to a lot of friends and contacts who were involved in Search Dogs or the Police and considered many options. One name that came up regularly with a good reputation in the industry was K9 Malpeet in South Wales. A quick scour through the resettlement magazines gave me a phone number and I was soon interrogating Simon Mallin about my future as a Dog handler. Simon gave his time and advice freely and answered all my questions such as which discipline to choose (drugs, explosives, tobacco etc.), which breed (why can’t I use a BSD??), costs, timings and all manner of other issues. Decision made. In Search and Rescue, team-work is everything; my 3 previous working dogs had come to me as pups and a bond had developed that was life long and ultimately I had found this to be successful. I chose this route again although I was fully aware that this was a gamble without any guarantee of success. After much research I chose an English springer spaniel and identified a suitable pup that had good working parents and obvious potential. A good friend of mine (Craig Flint AKA The Dogman) had trained a previous pup from
the same parents that had gone onto become a very successful explosive dog with the UK Armed Forces. Jethro was born on 4 March 2014 and came to us some 6 weeks later. Basic training began; house training, obedience, fitness, chasing and hiding a tennis ball but mostly it involved making sure he did not get eaten by the 3 BSD’s that we have at home. Jethro had developed nicely and he could find a tennis ball almost anywhere but, was he ready for Drug Dog training? Another quick phone call to Simon for his thoughts and he advised me to come down for a day to have the dog assessed. With hindsight this was crucial and was probably the most important day in young Jethro’s career (I would fully recommend it as time well spent). I spend the day observing Tony & Tom teaching a Passive Drug Course and learning lots. In a short break in training it was time to put the young dog through his paces. Tony & Tom were very thorough with the dogs assessment and very honest with his debrief. They both felt that Jethro had potential to become a good Pro Active Dog but that he did not want to possess his ball to the point where he would follow the carrier when they moved away; this could be a problem for Passive searching! We returned home and booked onto a course, we also put together a training regime to address the concerns as we had only 4 weeks till our course started. After lots of long walks on Cannock Chase, lots of swimming (I think he is part Otter!), plenty of games of tug-o-war and meeting as many new people as we could get exposed to, the big day arrived. We arrived at Malpeet and were met by Tom. A tour of the very impressive facility saw Jethro walked, fed and settled into his Kennel. I forgot to tell him that he was to spend the next 30+ days in a kennel! Training started the next day and it looked like the assessment findings and subsequent corrective training had the desired effect. Jethro did really well and his drive for the toy had improved so much that Tony quickly nicknamed him the thug. Jethro made steady progression through his training on all the new substances in the Capitol Shopping Centre and the Art College plus the truly exceptional experiences at the Swansea Night Club (where he had his first live find!) and Cardiff International Airport. He had one particularly difficult day in the busy high street at Porthcawl where dogs, food, toys in baskets and lots of other new smells and distractions had us both wondering if we had bitten off more than we could chew (as a dog handler can I say that?). After years of working an air scenting search dog and attempting to direct a dog at distance in the wind and rain, I found the change of disciplines very
testing indeed. I now had this small dog on a lead and I had the bad habit of talking and directing Jethro constantly. It took sublime patience by Tony and Tom to alter my failings. I will always remember Tony’s wise words…he doesn’t need your help; he is the one with the nose! (Thank you guys). The 16 days of the initial course became a blur of kennel routine, breakfast, polish boots, brush dog hair of black trousers, get in the van, remember your Hi-viz, is it lunch time already?, back to Malpeet, feed dogs, cook dinner (if you have the energy) last light walk for the dogs. The time flew by and suddenly it was assessment day. I was a nervous wreck. The realisation of what was at stake was huge. If we passed it would be the culmination of over two years planning and work ending with a successful career change. Failure would mean I had another well trained pet (or should that be a ball crazy maniac on steroids?). You will have already guessed that we were ultimately successful and have since also qualified as a Pro Active team. The journey was protracted, intense and more difficult than I had ever imagined. I must thank Simon for all his time and advice, Tony for his expert tuition and patience, Tom for his inspiring work ethic and enthusiasm and Lee for his honest assessments. I now have first-hand knowledge of why Malpeet K9 has such a good reputation in this industry. I now just need to find some work so we can gain some experience!!! Thank you all for the exceptional end of one journey and the start of another. David A Wilcox MBE