Dogs with Jobs: What’s involved in training a police dog?

They’re on the front line of defence. Their far-reaching abilities allow us to find and control illicit items that are far beyond the detection of human abilities.

Police dogs can do incredible things. From tracking and apprehending dangerous suspects to sniffing out drugs, explosives and even child pornography, the dog unit are an essential part of Britain’s police force.

But how do we train them? How do these dogs go from small balls of fluff to Officers of the paw?

It all starts from conception.

Surrey and Sussex police dog unit picks the best bitch (female dog) and the best sire (male dog) and keep them specifically to be bred. That means she will not serve in active duty, just a life focused on producing no more than three litters.

Choosing the right mother and father allows breeders to focus on producing puppies with the right temperament, health and instinct to ensure that they have the best police dogs available.

However, they also look to adopt rescue dogs from up and down the country who fit their high standards of ideal canine characteristics.

Following the birth of the litter, human contact is kept to a minimum.

That may sound cruel, but what it actually means is that one or two people focus their attention on them, feeding, cleaning and giving the canine calvary whatever they might need.

Meet the pups

Police dog puppy in training
All the pups are named with the letter P (Picture: Aaron Crowley/ went down to Sandy Lane, Guildford to meet the latest recruits.

That’s right. Eleven lovely, fluffy puppies with floppy ears and big milk tummies. It was a good day.

Every dog breeder has a unique way to name dogs. Imagine naming upwards of three litters a year with just random names. Impossible.

Surrey and Sussex police dog unit are no different. While others use themes such as movie characters, music or space to name their dogs, this Guildford-based brand simply follows the alphabet. This litter was named with the letter ‘P’.

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P litter is made up of six males and five females.

While working with the dog unit was given the privilege and pleasure of naming one of the future members of the force of paw and order.

So we chose Pax, meaning ‘peace-keeper’ in Latin.

His siblings were called Perry, Paws, Percy, Pippa, Panza, Pepper, Poppy, Petra and Phantom.
a police puppy in training
(Picture: Elle Rudd/

The 49 day test

Once they reach 49 days (7 weeks) old they are taken out of their kennel environment for the first time to meet the trainers.

These dog specialists will put the put the future paw-lice officers to the test, looking at their natural instincts to see if they have what it takes to enter the force.

Simon Boylett, dog trainer with Surrey and Sussex Police dog unit, says that keeping the dogs separate from human influence before the 49 day test gives trainers “a good indication” of whether a dog is cut out for police work.

He tells ‘We need to know what this dog is like with very limited exposure to outside of the kennel block environment where it has been for the last five or six weeks, so it gives us a good indication of that dog’s natural reactions to things happening in the environment.

‘We do a 49 day test to see what their natural instincts are. When we go through the procedures so we’re testing them, asking [whether] this dog is going to be suitable for work or not.’

Those of you who have ever seen or met a puppy will know that the smallest thing can distract them. This could lead to disastrous results for our paw-lice academy cadets.

The assessment takes place in a room with minimal distractions. No one is allowed in or out during the test, except for Simon and the puppy, to allow the dog to concentrate on the tasks at hand.

For a litter the size of P litter, the test takes roughly three hours start to finish.

We were able to witness a demonstration of the test after the dogs had already been tried and marked.

The handlers are completely unaware of the name of the puppy they are trialling. This prevents bias and human connection and ensures that the future K9 is reacting solely on its own instincts.

‘These have had nothing,’ says Simon. ‘They have had none of this. This is the first time they have done anything like this.’

Help your pet be as active as nature intended. Exercise and play time are necessary for your pet’s mental and physical well-being. If you don’t give your dog opportunities to be physically active, or if you don’t encourage exercise for your kitty and find ways to make it happen, you may well end up with a bored, destructive, overweight pet whose health will spiral downward throughout her lifetime.

So what does the 49 day test consist of?

  • Follow

The first step is a simple one.

Does the dog follow you when you walk? The handler will simply stand up and walk away from the puppy and see how it reacts. While the dog unit look for independence in a dog, they also want the puppy to exhibit a strong will to follow their handler.

  • Holding them down

To replicate how they would react if under attack, Simon flips the dog onto his or her back and holds them gently, but firmly, in place and monitors their reaction. If the dog accepts that it has been pinned down and remains in place, it is seen as too submissive. Resisting being held in place is important for a future police dog as it shows dominance and independence.

During our simulation of the test, Simon chose not to hold the puppy down on its back as he had already done this before and did not want to place the dog under any unnecessary stress.

  • Squeezing the paw

Another reflex and dominance test sees Simon take the seven week old dog’s paw in his hand and gently apply pressure for around 10 seconds. They want to check how reactive the dog is to being put in a submissive position.

  • Crunching paper

Once the puppy is distracted or exploring the room Simon will grab an ordinary sheet of paper and scrunch it into a ball. He wants to see how the puppy reacts to this noise. The ideal police pup would be inquisitive and try to investigate what is going on.

  • Fetch!

The puppy is now interested in this mysterious noise-making object that the handler has, so the dog trainer will throw the paper ball across the room to see whether the dog will chase it. Trainers want to see whether the police pup will chase a non-human object across the room. Think of why your dog likes to play fetch? The game replicates the experiencing of hunting in the wild with the dog chasing and capturing it’s target. This is what Simon is looking for.

  • Bowl bang and clash

Simon waits for the little puppy to saunter off elsewhere in it’s bid to explore this new, if empty, environment. Once the dog is on the other side of the room, he throws a large metal dog bowl onto the floor. In its future line of work a police dog will deal with all manner of noises that suddenly occur. What his trainers don’t want is for the dog to exhibit fear or to rely on the officer for security. They want a dog that will go and investigate this loud noise immediately and confidently.

  • Ragtime

Another tool to test the dog’s chase instinct is by dragging a soft rag, very similar to a tea towel, around the room. They want to see not just if the dog chases it, but does the dog bite it. For obvious reasons, in a future front line police dog a strong bite instinct is fundamental.

Passing the test

Judging these pups correctly is vitally important. Choosing the dog that is not cut out for police work could not only risk the safety of the dog itself, but could have implications on the lives of the force and the public.

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Simon takes a strict but fair and reasonable approach to passing the dogs based on the results of their examination.

He tells us: ‘We don’t want any to fail but we’ve got to be realistic and say that if this dog hasn’t got the right suitability or character for working for whatever reason.

‘I like going running but I’m never gonna be a marathon runner or an olympian, it’s about being kind to the dog and going ‘actually there is no point in putting this dog under stress or the pressure of work because it’s not suited for that role.’

What are Surrey and Sussex police dog unit actually looking for when they train their newest litter of dogs?

‘At this stage we are really looking for a confident sociable dog but also has that touch of independence as well,’ says Simon.

‘They are inquisitive so if something happens they want to go and investigate it, they will come to you readily, no nervousness and is confident.’

Out of the eleven pups tested, only one failed, Poppy.

‘She was quite needy so she was pretty much looking for me for guidance,’ explains Simon.

‘I was doing the assessments and she was quite whiny and whinge-y so she lacked that independence and she didn’t come across as strong.’

poppy the puppy failed the test
Poppy was the only pup who failed the test (Picture: Elle Rudd

But don’t feel too bad for Poppy. Police pups that fail their initial exam get adopted by a suitable family selected from what we are certain is a very long waiting list.

What happens next?

Now comes the fun part.

Ten lucky pre-selected families will take home a puppy each to raise as their own for the next year.

They have frequent contact with the dog unit who offer up training advice and any tips for querying and confused families.

The puppies and their foster carers attend monthly training sessions at the dog unit in Guildford to help guide the new conscripts in the right direction. While in the care of the foster families, they will be socialised in a variety of locations to help their future potential police endevours. They visit train stations, parks, cities, fields and more!

If you’re thinking to yourself ‘I could never give back a dog I have raised since it was just a small pup!’. You’re not the only one.

The dog unit has started making sure that fosterers sign a contract promising that they will return the dog.

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Teary goodbyes cannot be prevented, sadly.

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