Police dog master Chan Wai-man passed the portable wire cage, where Shadow, his 5-year-oldLabrador retriever sat on his haunches, waiting for his freedom. As soon as he spotted Chan,he bolted upright and began prancing around, never taking his eyes off Chan, in what seemedan enthusiastic welcome.
"Shadow", Chan said with falling intonation, while looking directly at the dog. Shadow calmeddown, bestowing a look, mouth curving downward, that Chan has come to interpret as Shadow'sspecial way of expressing happiness and his devotion to his master.
"I guess I am the only guy in the world that he would smile at," Chan joked. "Some cleaners atour training center said he has a strong personality, and will even turn away if they call hisname."
Eight-month-old Shadow was brought to Hong Kong from the Netherlands in 2010. Chan saidthe bond between Shadow and him was gradually built during the 12-week training program atthe Police Dog Unit headquarter in Sheung Shui.
Whether a dog is capable of becoming a police dog depends considerably on his DNA and onthe skill of his trainers, said Jimmy Ha Yick-hang, the dog unit's training and support inspector.Breeds chosen for police work have special characteristics. They are playful, curious, physicallystrong and very active, said Ha.
The 12-week training program progresses through several phases. If a dog under training lagsin any one phase, he usually gets a second chance. Usually the handlers will give those dogsextra training to help them catch up. But there is a time limit.
During the first phase, dogs assigned to find illegal drugs are encouraged to develop a keeninterest in playing with toys, like a towel or tennis ball, scented with drugs.
Dogs that are playful by nature, like Shadow, might develop a keenness to go off in search offavorite playthings hidden away from them only after three days of training. Some dogs need afull week. Chan recalled the dog assigned to him before Shadow wasn't so keen on going after ascented toy even after two weeks of training and had to be removed from the program.
The training reveals a dog's potential. More than 90 percent of the dogs at the police unit easilyadapt to police training, according to Ha. Members of the public can apply to adopt a dog thathas failed its police training program. The best dogs have a special character that might becalled "personality plus".
Chan recalled that he caught a glimpse of Shadow on his way to visit the dog he previously hadbeen assigned. Chan was taken by Shadow right away. "Shadow's appearance left me with avery deep impression because he looked like E.T. I have never seen a Labrador with such hugeand wide eyes." Chan joked.
The first time Chan walked Shadow out of his kennel, he was amazed by the dog's energy level. "He was so interested in playing with me," said Chan.
Shadow jumped and pranced and stared intently at the rolled towel Chan held out to him. Thenthe tug of war got underway. As Chan lifted the towel higher, Shadow tried to bring it down withhis forepaws.
"Whoo hoo" Chan intoned, "Good job, Shadow." After three to four rounds, Chan released hisgrip and Shadow did a victory dance, holding up his prize.
"The important thing is that you have to let him win," says Chan. Dogs get great satisfaction fromwinning, he explains. If they don't win they may become discouraged and lose interest. Theplayful interaction is part of the training. It keeps the animals interested and engaged.
Around 20 Labrador retrievers are still in service with the police dog unit. Ha said Labradorretrievers and Springer spaniels are used mostly to search for narcotics and dangerousexplosives, because of their keen sense of smell.
Since 2002, Malinois have become the police dog of choice. Malinois have natural endurancethat allows them to stay in service until they are 9 or 10.
German shepherds, previously were favored as patrol dogs, can serve only until about the ageof 6, when they begin to fail, owing to a genetic predisposition that affects their hips and legs.
Trial and error
Though Shadow missed the first two weeks of training, he sooncaught up and graduated with the rest of his class. Shadowwas a quick learner. But for Aron, a drug-sniffing Malinoibrought to Hong Kong from Belgium in 2010, the road tobecoming a police dog was not as smooth.
Aron's endurance was low and he tired easily during physicaltraining. "One of the experienced handlers once told me thatAron may not be suitable to be a police dog," said his handlerKaren Ng.
"Other dogs, finding the toys missing, would start searching.But my Aron just stood there, staring at me," said Ng.
Ng never considered giving up on him though. She blamedherself for not fully developing Aron's potential. So Ng workedharder and gave Aron additional physical training during breakor after work. Meanwhile she added more transitional steps tothe training program.
For example, when she held out the towel, concealed in herfist, she left a small corner exposed, so that Aron knew wherehis favorite toy was. In small steps, Ng concealed more andmore of the towel until it was completely hidden in her hand.
After a dog has established the awareness and habit ofsearching for his favorite toy, led by its smell, the trainers hidedrugs, together with the dog's favorite toy. When the dog findsthe toy and the drugs, he is rewarded with play time.
Then, the trainer cuts the toy in pieces, gradually reducing thesize and number of pieces hidden with the drugs. Thus, thedog learns to associate the smell of drugs with his favorite toy.So whenever they detect the drug and report it to handler,they get big rewards - more play time with the master.
Through Ng's specialized extra training, Aron finally was ableto graduate with the rest of his class in 2011.
Before Aron, Ng had trained a German shepherd namedLucas, and Carno, a Malinoi. But it was with Aron that she builther strongest bond, even going so far as to say, she felthandler and dog were destined to work together.
Ng recalled that no matter how hard her colleagues tried togain Aron's attention by calling his name or waving toys at him,the dog made no response. "But when he heard me calling his name, he would immediately runto me," said Ng.
Soon after graduation, Ng and Aron were assigned to Kowloon West, an area with a heavyinfusion of nightclubs and amusement arcades. During a sweep through the district, Aronsignaled that he had caught the scent of drugs inside a locker in one of the nightclubs.
Ng was worried. Aron had been working non-stop for two hours. She felt anxious that he wastired and may have discovered a false trail. On top of that, since the owner of the locker couldn'tbe found police had to break the lock, potentially invading someone's private space. Inside thelocker was a small amount of marijuana, just 20 grams, but it was Aron's first "score", and hewas rewarded with a large bone in addition to getting to play with Ng.
When Ng reports for duty every day, there's a place near the entrance to the unit'sheadquarters that she avoids. It's the unit's memorial garden where Aron's ashes are scattered.
"He just loved to play with tennis balls," said Ng, in tears, "I am afraid I cannot hold myself back."Aron died, last September, at the age of 5, after a part of a tennis ball he had swallowed piercedhis intestine.
An early start
Apart from imported dogs, some police dogs are bred locally. Since September 2014, 24puppies have been born at the Police Dog Unit headquarters. The puppies, after they grow toaround 6 months old, are sent to different units of the Hong Kong Police Department to bondwith their handlers-to-be.
Past practice saw the puppies farmed out to foster families at 6 weeks. After a year, many dogscame back spoiled and lazy.
Dog Unit Chief Inspector Lee Cheuk-wai said the foster program was abandoned last year. "They liked to stay inside air-conditioned rooms, climb on the sofa," said Lee. "It would take usextra one to two months to get rid of these bad habits."
Though Shadow is still young, Chan has plans for Shadow's life after retiring at around 8 yearsold. "After taking off the police uniform, he can enjoy post-retirement life at my place with myother two dogs," said Chan.