They are the city's first line of defense against illicit drug traffic but Hong Kong's canine squad has also proven an invaluable resource for dealing with crowds of unruly people. Ming Yeung reports.
On a freezing night two months ago, 50 police accompanied by a police dog were dispatched to quell a disturbance involving some 30 hooligans obstructing the interests of an estate food market. The police operation initially failed - and the officers became targets of attack - menaced by ferocious-looking thugs. The police simply had found themselves in a mess.
Out of nowhere, a police dog charged swiftly into the midst of the scene, and bit through the clothing of a man who was confronting aggressively a police officer. The other miscreants quieted down and were placed under arrest. The police dog was praised as the hero who brought the riot under control.
Police dogs serving in different units of the Hong Kong Police Department come from three different sources: they are purchased from overseas, locally bred and donated to the police as "gifts".
When they are three to four months, locally bred police puppies enter into the foster families whose members have volunteered their time and energy to raise the pups properly. After about a year, the full-grown puppies are then returned to the Police Dog Unit (PDU) to commence their formal training.
Dogs who seem hyperactive or naughty may be best suited to be trained as police dogs because they have greater drive, said Newman Yuen Tai-man, senior inspector from the PDU.
The PDU mainly consists of Shepherds as patrol dogs because they are loyal and highly obedient. They have been proven a great asset to the police, helping to fight crimes and assisting in crowd control duties.
"We train them in obedience to a maximum proficiency level because they need to work in public areas," Yuen stressed.
Sergeant Hung Fi-lok from the PDU training team has encountered numerous unforgettable incidents with his canine partner Baggio, a Malinois who has been in service since 2002.
One night, Hung brought Baggio along to inspect a night club but Baggio refused to enter. Why? "He was afraid of the flashing floor which was something he had never seen before," Hung said.
Moreover, Hung has to pay extra attention to surrounding dangers or possible attacks by stray dogs and cats when he carries out duties on streets with Baggio. "Without Baggio working with me, I feel relieved," Hung said. "People think we only walk the dogs, but it's not true."
While they share an intimacy, it is the moments of intensity that Hung best remembers. Hung said Baggio has never failed to give him 100 percent confidence of his capability he has proved in the trainings.
One morning at dawn, Hung spotted a suspicious-looking man standing in an alley, staring up at an abandoned building. Following the man's line of sight, Hung spied another man climbing the building. Out of instinct, Hung ordered the man to stop. The other man took off at the run. Hung found out later that the two suspicious looking characters were burglars trying to steal the building's water meters that they planned to resell them.
Hung chased the man and searched the district with dozens of his colleagues but in vain. Disappointed, Hung was ready to give up, when he heard Baggio barking furiously at a stack of cardboard where the escaped man was hiding. Hung's colleagues were amazed at Baggio's performance. "I felt like a proud 'daddy' at that moment," Hung grinned from ear to ear.
No matter what, Hung is thankful to Baggio for giving him greater patience and better presentation skills. He became a father not long ago, prompting him to observe that "teaching a dog is no different from teaching an infant. All it needs is patience and tolerance."
Senior inspector Yuen said Springer Spaniels are used in searches for dangerous explosives and Labrador Retrievers are used in searches for narcotics because of their relatively smaller sizes and superior sense of smell compared with other breeds.
These dangerous drug detection dogs were once used to search and track dangerous drugs in parcels but recently, some of them are used mainly to search for drugs on humans. "The dogs are trained to show passive indications such as sit down when they sniffed contraband because it will not scare people," said Yuen. At the same time, the dogs should not be afraid of strangers as well.
Since the drug problem among students surfaced in the summer of 2009, the PDU has been granted extra funding to expand the team from 125 dog handlers to 140 in an attempt to tackle the problem by increasing the number of drug sniffing dogs.
Since then, the PDU has successfully enlarged the team with the arrival of 15 more passive alert drug detection dogs. These dogs have been put through a 10-week intensive training to give passive indications, when they sense suspicious circumstances, as a signal to their handlers.
Sugar, a newly graduated Labrador retriever is one of them. She just met her handler Constable Li Sit-wa at the beginning of training. Handlers should make the best use of the first two weeks to build a strong bond between their four-legged partners through games and intimate contacts.
The tight schedule, Yuen said, is one of the shortcomings that the PDU faces in the training/bonding period compared to foreign police dog training units where the dogs are allowed to live with their potential handlers months ahead of formal training.
Upon graduation, all dangerous drug detection dogs receive continuous training every two weeks to refresh and enhance their skills, either in training center or at work.
In a room with several trainers who had luggage piled in front of them, Sugar was required to find out the only suitcase with narcotics and point to it. Li commanded "search" when they passed each luggage, Sugar sniffed every case and then pointed a black suitcase with her head. Sugar's tail wagged revealing a level of excitement suggesting she knew her favorite toy was hidden in the luggage.
"The most difficult task for them is not to spot the target, but to keep restrained after sniffing the thing we want, realizing a perceived treat," Yuen explained. "In the dog world, we call them high drive. They focus on a specific target and get a reward. All they want to do is work and get the reward."
People say "work like a dog" to mean how hard they work. It is particularly applicable to police dogs because they perform duties regardless of bad weather.
Constable Li recalled patrolling on street with his patrol dog Rottweiler on a boiling hot day, walking past a supermarket entrance with air-conditioning. Feeling pity for his pal, Li allowed it to rest so that it could cool down a little. Since this favorable treatment, it slipped into the entrance every time they walked past and was reluctant to leave. The solution: Li had to placate it with another treat - snacks.
Trainings may not be all smooth sailing from the beginning but Li knows well how to build a mutual trust with his dog from the first moment they meet. Li's second dog refused to enter the cage at first, so Li had to enter the cage to draw it in it. "It might be an ordeal for it, so we endured it together," Li said.
Unlike their overseas counterparts, Hong Kong's police dogs do not go home with their handlers after work. They go back to kennels in the police stations in respective districts. Sergeant Hung said he is going to adopt Baggio when the dog reaches retirement age.
Because of Li's living environment, he was unable to adopt his previous two buddies but a member of the public adopted one of them. "I would tell the new owner about its propensity and habits, its likes and dislikes to get both of them accustomed to each other as soon as possible," Li said.