Dog Handlers : Protectors & Good Companions of Furkids

Reporters/Wu, Hsing-Fang,Yang, Tzu-Hsuan
Everyone must have heard the phrase: “Dogs are human’s  most loyal friends.” As times change, dogs are not only human’s partners but also increasingly referred to as “furkids,” treated like children, and even if people who are unable to have children are more willing to raise dogs. In society, some dogs are even treated as important partners in maintaining rescue operations and are called “working dogs.” People who lead them on duty are the “dog handlers.”

How to Be Dog Handlers

Although there are no professional standards for this occupation, it is not easy to be competent dog handlers. The basic requirements for a dog handlers are: they must have a driver’s license and have practical driving experience; These are just some of the basic conditions for applying to become a dog handlers.

A total of four levels of screening tests are also required. Only those who stand out can be assigned to a quarantine dog and become dog handlers.First of all, the applicants must pass the written screening test. In addition to checking whether the basic requirements are met in the written resume, the selection staff also expect the applicants to have experience interacting with dogs.

Dog handler playing with rescue dogs. Photo/Yang, Tzu-Hsuan

Applicants who pass the written screening test can enter the next level of “experience camp. ” In the experience camp, the selection staff will assess the applicants’ personality through behavioral observations and judge whether they are suitable to be dog handlers or not. For example, when working with dogs, both the dog handlers and the dogs must not be afraid of crowds, have good adaptability, coordinated response, and carefulness. Afterwards, a written test and interview will be conducted.

Those who pass the written test and interview will become “management dog handlers” and be prepared to receive training courses. The trainer will prepare a group of working dogs, and the new opportunity to pair with different dogs. Finally, the trainer will match them.

Last but not least, management dog handlers need to participate in a 10 to 12 weeks training course. During the dog handler training course, management dog handlers will learn “dog care” including how to bathe the dogs, cut their nails and clean their ears. They will also learn basic training principles such as the behavior of dogs, and olfaction, so as to understand what each reaction of the dog means during actual operation.

Moreover, they will learn “basic search and rescue skills” such as the use of passwords and how to move. The trainee often take a lot of time to develop a tacit understanding with the dogs, so that they will not block each other’s way when walking. Those who successfully complete the training will become qualified dog handlers, and have the chance to work with dogs.

Contributions of Working Dogs

On February 6, 2023, a strong earthquake occurred in Turkey. Taiwan dispatched ten excellent search and rescue dogs in three stages to assist in the rescue operation. The media reported extensively on their bravery. However, this was not the first time that Taiwan’s working dogs have shown their talents.

In recent years, the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine has continued to increase the allocation of quarantine detector dogs to prevent Taiwan’s pigs from being affected by African swine fever, and has successfully seized many cases of people illegally bringing meat into Taiwan. Thanks to the joined forces of all parties, there are currently no reported cases of African swine fever in Taiwan.

Dog handler using tools to train quarantine detector dogs. Photo/Yang, Tzu-Hsuan

In addition, sniffer dogs trained by the police have also performed outstandingly in sweeping up contraband, and have become effective partners for the police in handling cases and maintaining social public security. However, Asia is a region where the development of working dogs is relatively slow. Taiwan’s police dog teams are declining more than those of other Asian countries, and have even been disbanded.

Daily training of quarantine detector dogs. Photo/Yang, Tzu-Hsuan

Compared with European and American countries, people in this country still have different views on working dogs. In Taiwan, people and dogs are not partners or friends. Some working dogs, such as search and rescue dogs, are in the same situation as the national army. The results of their normal training can only be demonstrated when disasters occur. However, when there is no disaster for a long time, the relevant budget for working dogs will be deleted.

Stories of Dog Handlers and Working Dogs

Sun, Fa-qi, dog handler of the police dog team of the New Taipei City Government Police Department, said that because his dog partners are sniffer dogs, they often need to work in dangerous scenes with the dogs sometimes stepping on some broken glasses. Sun said that as a dog handler, he made an all-out effort to protect his sniffer dogs by checking the environment where the dogs need to work in advance.

Retired sniffer dog of police dog team in New Taipei City Government Police Department. Photo/Yang, Tzu-Hsuan

Sergeant Liu, Xin-Hong, former chief trainer of the Presidential Security Guard Regiment who had trained sniffer dogs and detector dogs, recalled his experiences of working with  his partner Edan in the Nangang Exhibition Hall in 2014. People reported suspected explosives on the scene, and Edan reacted strongly when approaching an extremely airtight cabinet. At that time, Edan suddenly sat down, indicating that there was something in this cabinet. Liu thought to himself: how could there be a bomb? But when he saw Edan being so determined, he asked the officer on duty to bring a scientific and technological detector to verify, and it also responded to a pack of unknown objects deep inside the cabinet. After a careful search, they found that it was just a pack of firecrackers. This false alarm made Liu feel relieved but also realized how important his dog partner could be.

Qiu, Wei-lin, dog handler of the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine, shared her warm interaction with her dog partner, Hans. During the COVID-19 pandemic period, there were few passengers in the airport; thus, there were not many opportunities for Qiu to have on-duty training with Hans. Since both Hans and Qiu were new to the quarantine detector dog team, the dog naturally did not know much about the detection work at the airport.

Dog handler uses toys to play with rescue dog. Photo/Yang, Tzu-Hsuan

Qiu was distressed at the time and did not know how to make Hans understand what needed to be done. In order to train Hans, Qiu began to use her own packaging materials to prepare some simple objects, such as apples, bananas, oranges, and practiced the detection training with Hans.

One day, Hans smelled an apple in a foreign traveler’s backpack. Qiu found out that her training paid off. She said, “At that moment, I was very excited. I kept encouraging Hans and gave him a lot of delicious snacks. I hope he can remember that the apple is the beginning of everything.” Qiu pointed out that the moment which turned on the switch for Hans to detect passengers’ luggage is a very cherished memory for both of them.

However, Qiu won’t forget the frustration she experienced during the run-in period with Hans. She said, “I want Hans to smell the luggage, but when the dog smells it, it doesn’t know what to look for. At that time, I felt so disappointed when I went out on duty every day.” It is also because she and Hans have not yet built enough affinity. Sometimes she didn’t understand what Hans needed, and Hans didn’t understand what she wanted.

In other words, as a dog handler, Qiu didn’t  show the dog what she wanted it to do and give the dog genuine praise when it succeeded. Fortunately, after going through the run-in period, both Hans and Qiu have cultivated a tacit understanding and have since then helped each other. Although the process is not a bed of roses, she thought it was worth the effort.

Qiu also shared that Taoyuan International airport has become crowded since the pandemic has subsided; thus, Hans has to be on duty most of the time. The dog has to keep sniffing among the crowd, looking for the source of the smell of the quarantined objects. However, due to a large crowd, Qin couldn’t help Hans to locate the luggage easily. But if Hans sat down, it means a passenger’s luggage has some quarantine products.

Qiu remembered asking the staff to check one of the luggages and eventually found that there was “a piece of maple leaf” in the luggage which the passenger wanted to take home as a souvenir. Qiu said, “At that time, I really admired Hans’s keen sense of smell. The passengers also applauded the dog for its sensitive nose. I think the praise and applause are the best encouragement for both Hans and me!”

For humans, working dogs or pet dogs are not only loyal partners, but also their intimate family members. When working dogs are entrusted with responsibilities and fully carried out their duties, they should be given a treat. A communication link established between the dog handler and the dog is necessary.

Dog handler and retired sniffer dog playing together. Photo/Yang, Tzu-Hsuan

With proper training, the dog can quickly respond to work commands. They also expect humans to give them the same love and care as they do to their pets. The bond between the dog handler and the working dog will last far beyond the dog’s demise.

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