Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Getting to spend your working day with dogs – right from the start that sounds like a winner of a career choice. I spent a few days working with one of the Metropolitan Police’s Dog Support Units and, frankly, it was fantastic.
Monday morning, though, and I was well and truly lost somewhere in a muddy South London park with five minutes until I was meant to be reporting to a police station – not something you want to be late for. Frantically powerwalking, guided by a version of Google Maps that was out to get me, I staggered in six minutes late, dripping with sweat and with mud covering my slightly too high heeled ankle boots. At least if you’re starting at rock bottom, it can only get better, right?
I was taken pity upon by Sarah, a Metropolitan Police Officer from the Met’s Dog Support Unit and was invited to spend the day with her and her dog, on patrol. First though, I needed to get kitted up. This involved a bullet-proof vest sturdy enough to sort out any back-posture problems and a radio with a big red button that I was told not to press unless “14 knife-wielding gang members spontaneously attack you, as the entire Met Police force would turn up to save you.” Message received loud and clear. I spent the next few days in constant panic of an accidental button-press.
Looking like I belonged on the set of a gritty police drama, we set off on patrol in Sarah’s vehicle with her German Shephard in the boot. We stopped briefly to meet the team of other officers for breakfast in a greasy spoon café and the morning could not have possibly been more of a fantastic cliché.
Cruising towards Central London, I watched as other cars obeyed the traffic laws slightly better than normal and how everyone courteously always gave way to us. Then the radio broke the peace and barked at us to attend a call – Sarah clicked the sirens on and we were away, 50, 60, 70 mph down London streets with vehicles parting out the way just in time for us to fly through. Just as my heart started racing and we have gone about 500m, the radio came through again, we weren’t needed after all. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed – I was really looking forward to seeing Sarah and he dog in action.
We headed back out of Central London to meet the rest of the team for some training with the dogs in a school that wasn’t in session. Each officer and their dog took it in turns to enter a school building and search for a second officer silently hiding somewhere inside. Within five minutes each dog successfully sniffed out the hidden person. After three of the pairs had gone, the officer in charge of training turned to me and asked if I’d like to take a turn hiding. ‘Yes’ is the only real answer to that question.
Whilst I love dogs and was a big fan of the German Shepherds, I wasn’t so keen on the idea of an angry one thinking I was a criminal and coming to sniff me out. Swallowing my nerves, I gave the correct reply and not only said ‘yes’ but lied and followed up with ‘that sounds amazing, I’ve always wanted to try that!’ before I’d even had the chance to consider what I was saying. Who has ever dreamt of being chased by a police dog? No-one. Ever.
Dutifully, though, I put on a jute bite sleeve that weighed nearly as much as me, grabbed a squeaky toy to throw once I’d been found (an ironic ‘reward’ for a snarling, barking beast) and hid in a cupboard on the ground floor. It was pitch black and silent - the longest three minutes of my life. My arm was sweating. Finally, I could faintly hear the dog entering the small classroom and start sniffing around. She knew I was there and within another thirty seconds had started howling right outside the cupboard door to indicate a person found. As instructed I opened the door slightly to throw out the squeaky toy and could see nothing but gnashing teeth and angry dog spittle. In a panic, I refused to open the door any further and dropped the toy limply on the floor just outside. Once she had got hold of the reward, she turned back into a formidable but entirely docile and controllable dog. I came out with the largest fake smile I could muster and lived another day.
Once training for the morning was complete, Sarah and I headed back up into Central London on patrol, and as it was a quiet afternoon, she took me to visit the stables of the Met Police’s Mounted Branch in Westminster. I was very kindly given a full tour, shown the horses and was told about their care and role within the police force. Once we’d covered their ceremonial role, we talked about their use in law enforcement and crowd control. It was then suggested that to better understand what it must be like to work during a riot, I try on the mounted officer’s riot kit. This was the result…
Whilst I am grinning away here, I was barely able to move due to the sheer weight and bulk of the protective gear. Knowing that during breakdowns in public law and order, officers must sit in this for up to eight or ten hours, sometimes through the night with no bathroom breaks, my respect for officers and their horses could not have been higher.
After an hour with the mounted branch, we were back on patrol and edging slowly towards South London. Again, the car radio crackled on loud, calling us to a potential drug find near Brixton. The siren and lights were clicked on and we sped along, dodging cars, pedestrians and bollards. Westminster to Brixton in less than five minutes! This exact route was once my commute home and took at least 40 minutes, so you see the sort of speed we are talking.
We pulled up outside a courtyard with blocks of flats on each side. The firearms unit had already made an arrest, but suspected that the individual had hidden drugs in the stairwell where they were arrested. Time for the Sarah and her dog to step in and get sniffing.
Dog and Sarah entered the brick stairwell that faintly smelled of urine. I tentatively waited with the other police unit, not wanting to add more scents to the mix. A minute passed with nothing. They went up to the first floor – still nothing. The second and final floor led to another minute of silence – nothing.
No drugs were found that day.
As you can probably tell from the gushing, I really enjoyed this placement. I loved the variety of the role – that every hour, let alone every day could be totally different. Officers don’t know what sorts of situations they could be thrown into at any given time, and whilst this can undoubtedly be a difficult thing, it can also be exhilarating.
Every new situation has to have a tailored approach, so problem solving was a major part of day-to-day life, along with the individual contributions that officers made. I also really enjoyed the camaraderie that comes with working so closely with others in high pressure circumstances.
Their work certainly makes a difference though, and I found that the more I learnt and observed, the more my respect continued to increase. Whilst policing has its issues, which I went into in my last post, in the dog support unit the pros seemed to far outweigh the cons.
NB – This placement was completed before my 25th birthday, it’s just taken me a while to catch up with writing it up!