TERRORISM AND growing drug crime have created such a demand for police dogs that forces are considering setting up a national breeding programme to make up the shortfall in canine recruits.
Senior officers say the terrorist threat after the September 11 attacks of 2001 has increased the need for dogs trained to hunt explosives. As reported previously, many forces are experiencing severe shortages of German Shepherds for daily policing.
Chief constables are competing with private security firms and foreign services to buy the best dogs and some forces have had to acquire animals abroad or experiment with ‘unusual’ breeds.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is consulting the 43 forces in England and Wales on a potential breeding programme.
Forces are being questioned about the sources for their animals and their calibre. Many police dog units rely on rescue dogs and puppies donated by the public.
Only a few forces, including the Metropolitan Police and the West Midlands Police, operate a breeding programme. Other forces compete with the Prison Service, Customs and Excise and the Armed Services for suitable puppies.
Puppies cost from £400 to £500 each and start training at between nine and 14 months. They can take up to 13 weeks to train and represent a massive investment in time, money and manpower.
There are about 2,500 working police dogs including GSDs, Spaniels and Labradors – the latter two breeds being used as drug sniffer dogs. The Prison Service has another 700 dogs and hundreds of dogs are used by the Armed Forces.
The dogs’ use is also being expanded into new roles including tracing currency, smuggled ape flesh, tobacco and hidden bodies. They are used when a gunman may be present and are often sent forward with a mobile camera fixed on their heads to search a property before a firearms team goes in.
Customs and security firms are training dogs to sniff air samples taken from containers at ports for evidence of contraband or weapons.
Fire brigades are also using dogs to find traces of accelerants used by arsonists to start fires.
Steve Allen, the president of the British Police and Services Canine Association, said: "The procurement of dogs is a growing problem."
He said the police and services have to compete with companies using sniffer dogs at the doors of nightclubs and in schools to search for drugs. Explosives dogs are also being bought for clearing mines abroad, he said. "More and more the security industry is branching out into specialist search dogs."
A spokesman for ACPO said: "Some forces are finding it difficult to get suitable dogs and forces are now buying abroad including dogs from Dutch police."
The survey will show if forces are prepared to join a breeding programme and what demand there would be. The Prison Service, for example, needs about 100 puppies a year. Chief constables could operate a regional or national kennel scheme based on dog training centres or sign a contract with breeders for a steady supply of puppies.
The Services were late to use dogs regularly although Victorian officers sometimes took their pets on patrol with them. European forces have been more advanced in the use of police dogs. In recent years forces have experimented with using Rottweilers and Belgian shepherds, with mixed results.