No school bell rings, but one by one the A-team puppies come bounding into the training room at the Cumuto canine police facility like happy children returning to class.
With laser-like focus, the Belgian Malinois/German shepherd puppies focus on brown wooden boxes attached to the wall. The first of four litters of police puppies search for a target odour – drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana, or part of an explosive device.
The puppies work to earn a chance to play with a soft yellow ball on a string that their trainers, Cpl Shane Chase and PC Leon Lopez, toss from behind them. The puppies' sinewy little bodies leap for the toys and then play tug-of-war with the officer.
It all looks like fun, but Chase and Lopez are evaluating the puppy's personalities and performance to decide exactly what discipline these dogs will perform as police dogs.
Who will be the narcotic detection and tactical dogs? Who will be the explosive detection or cadaver dogs?
Born last October, the A-team puppies later had a setback when they got parvovirus, but regained their strength and most recovered. One unnamed puppy died; then Ati nearly died. The police worked around the clock to save the sick puppies.
Now, the males – Alpha, Ammo, Apollo, Arrow and Axel – along with Aniva, Ava, Ashes, Anya and Ati, prepare to officially join the police-dog working force when they reach 18 months old. The puppies demonstrate surprising progress. They have their own individual personalities and make progress differently.
“Some puppies develop gradually. Some struggle, and it just clicks overnight,” said Lopez.
All have their endearing qualities, although Axel can be frustrating with his lackadaisical attitude.
“Axel doesn’t have a good work ethic,” said Chase.
Axel was on sick leave for a ligament problem and is still at the beginning stages of training, looking for his toy in an elbow-shaped PVC pipe. If he stops and fixes his gaze on the pipe where the toy is, he’ll be rewarded with that ball on a string. The canine police still have a soft spot for Ati.
“She fought for her life when she had parvovirus, and she tries so hard. She just doesn’t have the body to do much of the work, and she knows it,” said Chase.
Although tests so far haven’t revealed any congenital hip problem, Ati’s hind legs shake and she has a slight limp.
“If only I could put Ati’s brain in Axel’s body,” said Chase.
Ati is the only dog to have an officer solely dedicated to her. Cpl Premnath Maharaj takes her for long walks and spends extra time with her because of her hip issues and the time she lost from being so sick.
"She's going to make it," Maharaj insisted. “She’s resilient."
To become dual-purpose narcotic/tactical dogs, the puppies will need tenacity. They must be strong-willed and brave.
Tactical dogs must operate in a variety of settings and like bite work, in case they are required to catch a fleeing suspect. Their bite-work training hasn’t begun yet.
Explosive detection dogs must be tenacious and fearless too. They must do explosive sweeps of Parliament or venues visited by the president, prime minister or other dignitaries, so their job requires control. It’s best not to have dogs for this job who operate like bulls in a china shop, because explosive-detection dogs might have to search in an open field or in a hotel dining area with crystal glasses.
Chase and Lopez keep all of this in mind as they evaluate the ten puppies.
Lopez described Ashes, the only all-black dog, as “mentally tough. When we put her through the paces and correct her, she doesn’t go into a shell. She goes on with the same drive. Take away the toy, tell her, ‘Leave it,' and she will keep going for the toy.”
"She’s set in her ways,” said Chase. “She wants to bite. She always wants the last nip of the toy.” She is the most stubborn puppy of all."
Lopez described Apollo as “brave. He’s the puppy always up for a new challenge. When we do exercises or take them on the obstacle course, he will cautiously watch something, and the second time he will go through with confidence. He has a good work ethic, great drive and strong will. He's obedient.”
“He’s the little engine who could,” said Chase. “He's brilliant and thinks a lot. He’s steady on the obstacle course, a quick learner.”
Alpha has surprised canine officers.
“I would say Alpha is tenacious,” said Lopez. “Over time, he has developed a good work ethic. He wasn’t always like that. One day, he just got it. He just turned around about a month ago. Everything clicked into place for him.”
“Alpha was a slow learner, but he is toy-driven. Once he knows the toy is in play, he wants to go out there and work,” said Chase.
Ammo is the quirky-looking, resident maco with the thick neck. He has a kennel near the training room, and he loves to stand on his hind legs to watch what's going on. He looks comical with his one upright ear and one ear that won't stand up. But Ammo is no joke.
“He’s a monster,” said Chase. “He comes with full energy, ready to tear everything apart.”
Ammo searches with lightning speed, indicating on a target substance confidently.
"He is going to butt his way through the wall to get to what he is looking for. He works fast and brings that energy every single time he searches. You have to hold him back and slow him down,” said Chase.
Anya's energy rivals Ammo's. She has a high toy drive.
“She’s strong and a quick learner,” says Lopez.
Chase described Anya as “flirty. She’ll give puppy-dog eyes so she can have her own way. She is brilliant…part of her intelligence is being flirty. She looks you in the eye, puts her ears back, dances around, rolls over and says, ‘Look how cute I am. Don’t yell at me.’”
Anya’s sister Ava is described by Lopez as feisty and having "a good drive."
She’s also a drama queen.
“When you give her a check to take away the toy, she quarrels, barks and carries on,” said Lopez.
She carries on so loud and long in the training room you would swear she is being tortured. Ava is as vocal as a dog can be.
“She is not so aggressive,” said Lopez.
“Ava’s easily distracted,” said Chase. “She will stop while doing a search if she hears something and only when she sees what is coming or passing, will she continue her work. She won’t come back to you no matter how many times you call until she sees what is going on.”
Aniva gets an “A” for being the most improved puppy.
“She went on sick leave with her leg and when she came back, all her training clicked,” says Lopez.
“She’s the little girl who came from behind,” said Chase. “She’s playful because she is a puppy, but she comes out and works. She’s the little engine that could. She’s a dark horse.”
Arrow, the introvert, has a high drive for work and a good work ethic, but he doesn’t like to interact too much with people. He’ll play with his toy and a canine officer, but prefers to go into a corner and bite up his toy.
"He is very smart and learns quickly, but folded up when he saw a big leaf on one of their walks,” said Lopez.
"We had to throw the toy for him to get over it," said Chase.
Chase said there’s nothing quite like training puppies to be police dogs.
“Seeing a puppy being born right in our compound is special. The puppy, being new to this world, doesn't know anything. We have that puppy in our hands, and we shape his or her behaviour psychologically. Being able to get that puppy to do what we want without any correction; watching that puppy grow and develop into a police dog is satisfying.”
Chase said it will be even more satisfying when puppies are paired with handlers. The dogs and the handlers will go through a course and pass out together when the dog is about 18 months old.
“That will be a heartwarming, really fulfilling experience,” said Chase, who has been a police dog trainer since 2006.
Chase thinks about the work life ahead for these puppies.
“What we expose these dogs to in training is nothing compared to what they will face outside. They will have to overcome unforeseen challenges and obstacles.”
On Thursday, the ten A-team puppies travelled to the Mounted Branch to get acquainted with the horses. The puppies practised their commands on the horses’ field and showed off their skills. Ashes jumped into the horses’ water trough, much to the dismay of one of the canine officers.
"It's ok," shouted Chase. "It’s all part of their socialisation."
Gleefully, the other puppies left their work on the field and jumped into the trough to swim.
After all, they are still puppies.