Gunner closes the gap quickly on a fleeing bad guy. Once he’s four feet away, the 70-pound German shepherd launches himself at his quarry’s arm.
With jaws spread wide, his teeth clamp down on the man’s forearm with a vice-like grip.
The force of Gunner’s body is enough to knock most suspects down but the dog isn’t finished yet. He repeatedly tugs at the arm trying to pull the suspect forward. At the same time, his front paws push back against the man’s torso.
The canine and incisor teeth do the most damage, though. The resulting puncture wounds draw blood and usually require medical care.
Gunner unclenches his jaw and the bad guy is free again.
The three-year-old police dog backs off, lies down and waits for his handler’s next command, eyes still fixed on the suspect.
Const. Roger Rempel, encouraged by his dog’s work, tosses Gunner his favourite toy as a reward.
This time the suspect is an adventurous reporter wearing a protective sleeve that even Gunner can’t chomp through. Had it been a real bad guy the arresting officer would likely have taken the suspect to the hospital first before escorting him to the police station.
Gunner and Rempel are part of the Integrated Canine Service. They’re officially attached to the New Westminster and Delta police departments but find themselves in Burnaby, Surrey, Coquitlam or wherever they’re needed.
All RCMP detachments in the Lower Mainland also share the pool of dog teams.
The team Rempel and Gunner are part of includes dogs Unox, Oso and Isko, and their handlers Sgt. Chris Borgstede and constables Mike Schultz and Harvey Sidhu.
The dogs, all German shepherds, are trained to sniff out suspects and missing people, take down bad guys, locate evidence like guns and knives, and sometimes uncover drugs or explosives.
Training isn’t taken lightly by the handlers because these dogs, which have high prey and defensive drive, can injure people if they disobey a command.
Most times though, says Rempel, mistakes are not the fault of the dogs.
“Usually we spend more time training the handler than the dogs. The dogs catch on really quick.”
A well trained police dog can be more in charge than its handler.
For example, Rempel’s previous dog Banks sometimes ignored his commands if they were tracking a scent. Rempel thought the suspect went in one direction but Banks knew otherwise.
“Gunner isn’t experienced so he will just follow me. Banks would stay on the track and pull me,” says Rempel. “Handlers have to learn how to read the dog and let him do his work.”
One of the more difficult aspects of police dog training is teaching them to bite on command. Dogs don’t normally bite unless threatened or taking down prey. Biting suspects is neither of those.
They start with the protective sleeve by rewarding them when they bite on cue. Some dogs become fixated on the equipment and not the quarry, so the training suspect wears a large hockey jersey over top of the sleeve in the next phase of training.
At the same time they’re teaching them to bite, commands like “watch him,” “out” and “platz” are being taught.
Bravery and confidence are key traits in a dog, says Rempel. When prospective police dogs are just 10 weeks old they are given a confidence test where they are subjected to a mock attack. A dog that cowers fails, while one that defends itself gets a passing grade.
Confidence is instilled on an ongoing basis by the handlers and through the dog’s accomplishments. For instance, when the two play together, Gunner always wins a tug of war. That way the dog believes he can grab a suspect and he’s not going to get away.
And if the bad guy strikes back, the dog defends itself. Something that’s not recommended because it inevitably results in many more puncture wounds, says Rempel.
Most police dogs stay on duty for five years and during that time they are the constant companions of the handler. The two spend much of their time training so when they are called into action they can be “close to 100 per cent.”
“It’s a pretty intense relationship,” said Rempel. “The dogs and handlers have to go wherever and whenever they’re needed.”
And while the handler does his work for monetary and career reasons, the dogs have their own motivations.
“We want our dog to do their work because it’s a game. And because they want to please us.”