A policeman's best friend

8 min read
29 Dec 2017
8 min read
2459 words
Police dogs and their handlers must develop unshakeable bonds in order to work together successfully. For handlers, moving on to another dog is the hardest part of the job

In the summer of 2006,  Head Constable Prahabir Tolangi, a police dog
handler, met Leo, a two-month-old German Shepherd puppy. Little did Tolangi know that this meeting would completely change his life, for Leo wasn’t just another German Shepherd. He would go on to serve as a valued partner with law-enforcement officers. Their journey together—with Tolangi training Leo to become a full-time law-enforcement dog, fighting crime together with his handlers and keeping the bad men at bay—is like something out of a movie. “Initially, it wasn’t love at first sight,” says Tolangi. “But then we of course became very close.”

Leo, like 80 other law-enforcement police dogs all across Nepal, was first given basic obedience training. During such training, dogs must first learn to obey, without fail, the commands of their handler. The obedience training helps to keep the inherent aggression of the dogs in check, allowing the handler to take full control of the dog. Puppies that are selected to become law-enforcement partners undergo one-on-one training with their handlers for about 8-10 weeks. These handpicked puppies then undergo rigorous training for a demanding job, which includes specialised training in detecting narcotics and bomb odours, and tracking down suspects.

Head Constable Prahabir Tolang with Leo, in 2014

But toward the end of every training session, a few dogs decide that sniffing out bombs and fighting crime simply isn’t their calling. Leo was one such dog. A few weeks into training, Leo began to show signs that he wasn’t interested in detecting the odours of explosives, a task that’s usually assigned to German Shepherds. This situation can usually be mitigated easily with a little effort from the dog handlers. For Leo, though, a little effort wasn’t enough. He was the trouble-maker—the stubborn black sheep of the pack—doing as he pleased.

Most dog handlers decide to drop troublemakers like Leo on the grounds that they are not cut out for law-enforcement duties. This is also because handlers are required to pass a test that requires them to have full control over a dog before the duo undertake any operations. A police dog handler must be able to perform with his or her dog tasks such as detecting explosives and narcotics, finding hidden objects and responding appropriately to crisis situations like fires.

It’s usually the incredibly intelligent puppies that are picked for training. These puppies are the sort that like to run up to you the first time they see you, and demand attention. However, this very type of puppies can later grow to become highly disobedient, a behaviour that’s difficult to correct. For this reason, it’s not always the intelligent puppies that go on to become law-enforcement dogs; puppies with a laid-back attitude, such as Leo’s, are also equally preferred, as they will not outwit handlers during training, but you can’t exactly gauge dogs solely on the basis of their easygoing nature either. Tolangi realised this very early on.

Tolangi was going through a rough patch in life when he started to train Leo, what with his mother’s failing health and financial troubles. Strangely, in Leo, Tolangi found solace. “This might sound strange, but Leo and his antics helped me develop patience and take myself less seriously,” says Tolangi. “In some way, he prepared me for the worst.” In the early days of the training, Leo would merely roll over and ask for a belly rub when commanded to obey basic orders like ‘sit’, ‘stand’,‘salute’, ‘rest’ and ‘bark’. When a dog rolls over and reveals its belly, it’s a sign that the dog is submissive, which is usually considered a good sign in prospective police dogs. “It means the dog is acknowledging its master/handler and submitting to them,” adds Tolangi. However, this very characteristic of Leo was to later have rather far-reaching repercussions when he needed further physical training. It’s very essential for police dogs to maintain their athleticism, and they need a good workout, preferably all-out running exercises in an enclosed area. But the overly affectionate Leo would always ignore Tolangi by licking him and stubbornly refusing to run. For Tolangi, though, there was no looking back at this point. “I had no control over my mother’s fate, but I for sure had control over Leo’s fate; his fate was to serve as a law-enforcement police dog and I was going to see to it that he became one,” says Tolangi.

Many police dog handlers establish control over the dog by being assertive, and some handlers even use force if the dog is as difficult to train as Leo was. However, Tolangi was convinced that resorting to cruel administrations would only create distance between Leo and him, and jeopardise their bond. He therefore began to react to Leo’s good and bad behaviour in the same manner, maintaining a calm demeanour come what may. “I knew from the very start of my career that a hot-headed trainer would get nowhere,” says Tolangi, who has been working at the Nepal Police Canine Operation Division for the past 14 years. He says that if the dog you are training fails to perform, you are probably going too fast with the training. Tolangi therefore first developed close ties with his canine buddy before training him, beginning with obedience and an extended socialisation training. Over time, dogs must be able to perform their duties even under stress, in loud chaotic environments, and sometimes even without much guidance. This requires simulations that are performed over and over again. Oftentimes, action-movie-type scenes are staged during training sessions: guns are fired, fake bad boys start running as if trying to escape and doors are slammed. Police dogs who are assigned tasks that mainly require the use of their olfactory skills, like Leo was, receive specialised training that is designed to help them to differentiate between various narcotics.Dogs used by the anti-narcotics department have to be able to distinguish between the smell of cocaine and the smell of French fries and burgers, for instance.

Sniffer dogs—also known as bomb dogs (Leo was a bomb dog too)—begin building their suspicious-odour vocabulary by working with more than 100 identical cans laid out in a grid. In this exercise, basic explosive-ingredients—such as powders, commercial dynamite, TNT, water geland RDX (a component of the plastic explosives C4 and Semtex)—are placed in cans in a random order. These odours are impressed upon the dog’s mind by using positive-reinforcement strategies. Leo, a late bloomer, underwent this training almost every single day for about six months.

After a year and a half of training, in 2008, Tolangi was sent off with Leo on their first operation. A group of criminals in Kathmandu were threatening a businessman, and said that they’d place a bomb in the businessman’s parking lot, in Baneshwor; the criminals said they would detonate the bomb if the businessman refused to pay a ransom. The Nepal Police Canine Operation Division was immediately notified about this incident, and the team arrived at the crime scene. Leo—now a fully-trained law-enforcement canine partner—led by Tolangi, sniffed out the explosives at the scene within less than 10 minutes. It was one of the many lives Leo would go on to save in his career.

Over time, however, Tolangi had to deal with a dog handler’s greatest fear: the dog’s growing old. “I know dogs get older and inevitably pass on, but I never thought it’d happen so soon to Leo,” he says. In 2016, Leo battled for his life as he fought an aggressive form of liver damage, but he made it through the year.

As law-enforcement dogs begin to age, the handlers find themselves in a situation where they are required to address many emotional and logistical concerns. Handlers believe that you can’t push a dog to keep working beyond its natural service life. “Just like us cops, canine cops need relief from the street and its stresses,” says Tolangi. He knew it was time for Leo to retire.

Many bureaucrats believe that a police dog is merely a government asset to be used until it breaks down. But the government is sort of forced to address all the logistical issues and operate on a predetermined budget. Owing to these limitations, many police dogs, as cruel as it sounds, are put to sleep after their career comes to a close. However, many handlers take their dogs home, where there canine partners live as a member of the family. Some observers say that a too-close relationship shared by the handler and the dog may at times interfere with the officer’s performance at work. But the bond that the handler and the police dog share is unique—because of everything they’ve to go through together. Earlier this year, Tolangi was already making plans of retiring his longtime canine buddy, and adopting him as his family member. But life had other plans.

Leo died peacefully three weeks back, on December 2, 2017. He was 11. “People ask me how I knew it was time. There was no stark turning point in his condition, only a slow degradation of his health,” says Tolangi. In his last few months, Leo was partially paralysed and would begin panting at the slightest exertion. “There comes a time in every dog handler’s life, a time to decide when your canine partner has suffered enough. It was time to let him go.”

The morning of December 2 would change Tolangi’s life all over again, just like it did in the summer of 2006. Tolangi took his canine partner for one final walk on the grounds of the Police Dog Training Academy in Maharajgunj, where the duo had spent so many hours together—from when Leo was a stubborn, playful puppy to a responsible law-enforcement dog. Leo was then putto sleep. Tolangi sat right next to Leo—feeling Leo’s dry paws with the tip of his fingers and rubbing Leo’s ears—before his partner was euthanised.

He mourned in the only way he knew how. Later that day, Tolangi started training his new canine partner, Brooke, a Labrador, who was to help with election security—on the same field where he’d once trained Leo.

History of the Nepal Police Canine Operation Division

In 1969, five Nepali police officers brought back two male German Shepherds from Malaysia, where the officers had gone for dog training. Nepal Police soon added two more male German Shepherds, which were bought locally. However, it was only in 1975 that a dog department was formally established, by a team of 10 officers. Ever since, the department has played a crucial role in leading crime investigations, controlling criminal activities, conducting rescue operations and providing security to important personalities.
By 1990, the dog department had evolved into a full-fledged centre called the Central Police Training School, comprising 40 officers at the central level, and 10 officers and three male German Shepherds in each of the five development regions.

Starting 2007, police dogs began to be more routinely used in Tribhuvan International Airport for security purposes. In 2014, under the purview of the Inspector General of Police, dogs began to guard the Prime Minister’s official residence, in Baluwatar, and were simultaneously introduced to the special security unit. By 2015, with the national Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre acquiring 20 additional dog-training personnel, the total number of Nepali officers in charge of dog-training services reached 144. As of 2017, there are 80 law-enforcement police dogs all over Nepal.
As told to VMAG by Superintendent of Police Dr Deuti Gurung,Chief Central Police Dog Training School, Maharajgunj

Some culprits that police dogs have brought to book

  • In 1996, a police dog helped arrest a runaway convict who had killed a 60-year-old woman by strangling her.
  • In 1998, a person, after being tracked down by a police dog, confessed about his crime. The culprit had murdered three persons from Ghuskan, Sindhupalchowk, by lynching their throats with a khukuri while they were asleep.
  • In 2001, police dogs helped arrest convicts involved in the murder of Prithvi Bahadur Thapa and Jas Bahadur Rai, residents of Panchkanya, Sunsari.
  • In 2005, police dogs helped sniff out 20 kg of explosives at the entrance of Pokhara Stadium, during a major political event.
  • In 2007, the missing body of abducted journalist Birendra Shah was identified by police dogs in the eastern jungle of Tagiya Basti, Dumarwana, Bara.
  • In 2008, sniffer dogs detected firearms in the premises of Soaltee Crowne Plaza, where former American President Jimmy Carter was to stay during his visit to Nepal. 
  • In 2010, police dogs helped find huge caches of drugs in Hotel Viya, Bindhyabasini Guest House, Supreme Guest House and Hotel Patala, all in Thamel. 
  • In 2014, a police dog named Jwala helped find Rammani Regmi, who had  murdered Arjun Prasad Regmi along with three of his family members, in Bhotewodar, Lamjung.