Police Service Dog (PSD) Dak made a brief but special appearance at the Kingston Police Services Board meeting on Thursday, Jul. 20, 2023, as an ambassador of the Kingston Police Canine (K9) Unit, which is celebrating 25 years of service.
Before Sergeant Paul Doak presented an overview of the K9 Unit and Emergency Response Unit (ERU), he joked that he had told Constable Jeff Dickson, who had yet to arrive, that he had better feed Dak before the meeting for everyone’s safety.
Once the K9 Unit dog handlers were introduced by acting Police Chief Greg Sands, Dak the German shepherd/Belgian Malinois mix made a big entrance and sat like a good boy. After about five minutes, Dak appeared bored by the board meeting and began panting and whining at Dickson, as if to say he’d had enough desk duty. Dak won out, and the pair left Doak to continue his presentation.
Doak is in charge of both the aforementioned units and said it had probably been 10 years since he had been asked to address the board. The two units, he said, “are a small but important part of what we do as an organization,” and Doak is currently “doing double duty “as the Unit Sergeant and as a dog handler of his PSD, Bask.
The K9 Unit began in Kingston in 1998, just prior to Kingston Police taking over the former Pittsburgh Township and Kingston Township when the City of Kingston amalgamated. One handler and one dog were trained at that time by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), according to Doak.
Doak joined the force in 1996 and became a member of the K9 unit in 2002 with his first PSD, Scout. Since then, Doak has been the handler of four different dogs.
In 2010, Doak facilitated the expansion of the K9 Unit to two dog teams. “It costs a lot of money to run the program,” he said, and in 2009 he was called out 45 times, “mostly in the middle of the night,” when he had very young children at home. Clearly a second team was required, so Dickson then went through the extensive training program with his first PSD, Indy. Doak said this expansion to two teams “allowed local training, mentoring, a backup in case of an injury to the dog or handler, and a small break from the pager.”
According to Doak, selection and training for a position within the K9 Unit are very demanding. Officers must have at least five years of police experience, in addition to completing a job-specific fitness test.
A high level of physical fitness is expected for handlers and dog candidates alike. Attendance and a successful grade must be attained at a seven-day canine selection course, which is mandatory for all potential dog candidates, according to the Kingston Police website.
Doak explained that the general service dog course is 16 weeks in length and places numerous demands on both dog and handler, who go to a special training facility and are away from home that entire time. Course topics include obedience, agility, tracking, building searches, open area searches, article searches, handler protection, and apprehension. Classroom work focuses on dog training theory, canine care, first aid, court preparation, and case law. The majority of initial training time, however, is spent on tracking. The team trains in various terrains, environments, and weather conditions and is expected to reach a high standard in this area. Within the first year of operation, these teams return for another four weeks of training to cross-train their dogs in the detection of controlled drugs and substances and firearms.
Successful teams are required to complete weekly training as well as annual re-certifications. Constant training keeps the dogs focused, physically fit, and acclimatized to all types of weather conditions, noted Doak.
Doak said that he and Dickson have both gone through “the best of times and the worst of times.” Doak lost Scout in 2006 at the age of five, while Dickson’s then-partner Zeus died of a heart tumour unexpectedly in 2020 while he was still in service.
“That pulls at the heartstrings, for sure,” said Doak, “But we worked through it, and we’re both still plugging away.”
At present, Dickson works with Dak and Doak works with Bask. Both dogs are approximately four years old, shepherd/malinois mixed breeds. “Last month, as part of succession planning we had an officer successfully complete the OPP K9 assessment course, and [that officer is] slated to attend the general service course in Orillia in August for 18 weeks,” said Doak. Of 11 officers who attended the OPP assessment course, only four completed it successfully.
The K9 Unit is used most often to track people, said Doak, who explained that dogs are trained to follow human scent from skin cells that fall off the human body, “a hard thing for a dog to do.”
Not only do they track criminals, but they also search for missing people. As an example, Doak described “a call I will remember until the day I retire” when he helped find an elderly woman who had Alzheimer’s and had wandered on a freezing January night.
The PSD, named Barney, found the woman in a back yard, huddled against the cold; she was freezing but did not suffer serious injuries. Though she was confused, the woman “mentioned the nice young men who brought her home,” according to a thank you note from her daughter.
The dogs also assist in high-risk arrests. Doak presented a newspaper clipping about him and Scout capturing a fleeing man in a school playground. The man had escaped police custody, forcing police to chase him; they called Doak for help. Confronted by the canine unit, the escapee ran into the St. Patrick School yard. Doak shouted at the man to stop, but the man kept running, so Doak released Scout, who tackled the man in the playground. Very shortly after Scout “took a bite out of crime,” the man surrendered.
Sniffing out drugs and weapons are other talents the dogs have trained for. Doak presented a photo of him and one of the dogs searching a pickup truck; the dog, nose in the air, checks the wheel well.
One of the most enjoyable things the K9 Unit does is public demonstrations, the experienced handler expressed. Thousands of people will attend to watch the furry ambassadors show off their skills, and nothing gets a bigger roar from the crowd than when someone wearing a big protective suit gets tackled. “Sniffing out drugs? Yeah, that’s fine — but when someone gets bit? That’s the highlight,” said Doak, laughing and wondering aloud, “I’m not sure what that says about human nature.”
“I can honestly say in policing there is probably no greater [public relations] than having the dogs,” Doak noted, saying the teams often visit schools as well.
Doak described the volume of calls the K9 unit gets as typically 75 to 100 per year, assisting the Patrol Division, the ERU, and the Drug Enforcement Unit. Approximately half of the calls for service are searching for wanted persons or missing and despondent individuals. The unit has also assisted the OPP, Belleville Police, and the Canadian Border Services Agency.
The two K9 units are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with officers keeping a take-home vehicle and kennel at their homes. Officers work a normal shift schedule assigned to an ERU team and assist patrol with regular calls for service when not conducting K9 calls. “Success really depends on a team approach: good dog and handler, supervisors, patrol officer’s actions at the scene, buy-in from senior administration, and community to support the unit,” said Doak.
The deep commitment the team has to the job was especially evident when Doak pointed out, “Jeff takes a dog home. I take a dog home. So they’re part of our family. We spend more time with the dogs than our families, for sure.”
You can meet Doak, Dickson, and Dak this weekend when they put on a demonstration at the Kingston Police’s Community Fun Fair between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, Jul. 22, 2023, at Kingston Police Headquarters, 705 Division Street in Kingston.