An unbreakable bond

Written and photographed by Hilette Hatting

An insight into our brave SAPS dogs and handlers

Left: Sergeant Shaun Dicks in front with his Rottweiler, Bruno, followed by Constable Romano Beck with Mia, Constable Luyolo Keli with Factor and Warrant Officer Riaan Victor with Velle.

If you were asked to think of a police unit that could be described as the cream of the crop, perhaps you would immediately think of a SWAT team after being exposed to them in movies and television shows. Now, if we were to take mentioned unit and picture them as a red velvet cake with cream cheese icing, then the Port Elizabeth SAPS K-9 Unit would be the cherry on top!

Warrant Officer Denzil Dirk certainly describes the PE K9 unit as the cherry on top of the best police teams, a unit where everyone is one big family. WO Dirk is a qualified tactical handling instructor and narcotic dog handler at the unit and interacts with all the dogs and the handlers on a daily basis. He has to ensure that the unit maintains the standards of the SAPS in terms of dog evaluations and dog instructions.

The Humans

Before you can start at the K9 unit you need to have been a police officer for at least two years and you also need to have a great love for dogs. An officer is required to attend the patrol dog handlers’ course in Pretoria for 120 days to receive non-stop training. A member of the K9 unit should be prepared to go where normal policemen do not want to go.

The Dogs

The Port Elizabeth-based K9 unit has a variety of dogs, all trained to cater for specific needs and incidents. Dogs are either donated or received from the K9 academy in Roodeplaat, Pretoria. When a dog is received as a donation, it will get tested and, if approved, will be sent to Pretoria for a medical examination, which includes a closer look at its hips and elbows. They are also screened for various diseases. Donated dogs should normally be between nine months and three years old.

When a dog is received, the trainers need to establish what the dog’s personality is like in order to decide which section it will be trained for. For example, if a dog enjoys playing with a ball and has a keen play drive and good focus, it will typically be trained for patrol and/or explosives. They also look at the dog’s possessive and protective drive, whether it is scared of thunder or loud noises, and if it likes or dislikes water. All operational dogs are sterilised and microchipped, receive their annual inoculations, are regularly de-wormed, and are in very good health. 

Warrant Officer Lindy Steen, who is an in-house qualified animal behaviourist, is always on site and sees to all the wants and needs of the dogs. WO Steen successfully completed her veterinary orderly through the police service and loves and knows all the dogs by name. When the dogs are not on shifts with their handlers, Lindy looks after them. On their rest days she ensures that they spend time in the socialising camps so that they can mingle with the other dogs and get some exercise.

The Port Elizabeth K9 Unit currently has fully trained Patrol Dogs, Explosive Dogs, Patrol and Explosive Dogs, Narcotic Dogs, Search and Rescue Dogs, Protected Species Dogs and a Fire Investigation Dog. Depending on the dog’s drive and the nature of the work it needs to do, various types of breeds form part of the above-mentioned list. These include Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Malinois (Belgian Shepherd), Border Collies, Labradors and Golden Retrievers, to name a few.

The Unit

Lt Col. Marais is the Unit Commander of the Port Elizabeth K9 Unit. It consist of 54 members, of which 33 are operational in the field with the remainder being dispersed, for example, into admin staff, etc. They currently have 29 operational dogs wagging their tails at the unit, covering 14 stations in the metro whilst also assisting Jeffreys Bay, Humansdorp and Uitenhage. Although other places such as Humansdorp, Uitenhage and East London also have K9 units, the Port Elizabeth one is the largest in the Eastern Cape.

A typical day in the K9 unit consists of the officers reporting for duty, dog training taking place and some of the officers going out on the streets. During shifts the unit responds to priority 1 complaints, which include murders and house break-ins. Random inspections can occur on any given day and yearly exams are also taken. Both the standard and pass rate of the exams are very high, and with some of the courses nothing less than 96% is acceptable. They are also issued with a 6-month/year working certificate.

During the last 15 years, the unit has never lost a dog. Should a dog get hurt on duty, it will receive immediate veterinary attention. The police employ dogs due to the fact that using them minimises the timeframe it would take to search or catch culprits, whilst also reducing the amount of people needed on a scene. A dog has a natural instinct to protect its owner when a life is in danger.

The Bond

Each handler thinks of his dog as “the best in the world”, much the same as parents always brag about their children. The bonding process between the handler and the dog is very important in the police unit and lasts much longer than just the time they are together and on active duty. Most police officers still have their first dogs from the field.

Placing of the right dog with the right handler is extremely important. The personality of the handler should match the personality of the dog as you cannot place an Omega type personality with an Alpha dog, and vice versa. There is only one dog per handler, and if the handler is sick his dog will not go out into the field with anyone else.

Most of the dogs go home and live with their handlers, although this may vary depending on the handlers’ home environment, other dogs or children. When a dog is no longer able to work and retires, the handler has the option to purchase the dog from the unit, which WO Lindy oversees. They are then allowed to live happily ever after with their handlers.

If you would like to make contact with the Port Elizabeth K9 Unit you can call the following numbers: 041 504 5956/8 or 082 779 7254.

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