K9 handlers and their dogs (Part 1)

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Mood swings and fire investigation

By Nancy Nais

AS SURPRISING AS IT MAY SEEM, dogs don’t actually get excited 365 days a year. They apparently have mood swings too.

Even the specially trained canines (K9) from Fire and Rescue department (Bomba) Malaysia sometimes just don’t feel like doing anything or can feel down.

When that happens, it is up to their handlers to ‘sniff out’ their problems and cheer them up again. After that, training or real life situations should resume with active participation from the dogs.

It is also the strong friendship between the two which can help bolster each other through the stress of the job.

Huang spending time with his dog Wilf

Firefighter Peter Huang, who is also a handler, said “I must make sure my furry buddy Wilf is obedient and follow my commands both on and off the leash, and that he is capable of performing accelerant searches when he is in training and out for operations.

Wilf, a two-year-old English Springer Spaniel, is a trained accelerant detector. He is one of the six new four-legged officers who were recently transferred from Kuala Lumpur to Serian to kickstart Bomba’s first K9 unit in the state.

Huang, 36, who has been with the unit for 11 years acknowledged that these dogs helped enhance and smoothen the department’s fire investigations, search and rescue work more efficiently.

Before returning to Sarawak, Huang was attached with another English Springer Spaniel named Rosco for seven years at the unit’s main base in Kuala Lumpur. He recalled how when Rosco was not in the mood for training or work, he would cheer his buddy up by playing ball games or just simply cuddling and patting.

“The handler’s relationship with the dog is very important because good communication and bonding between them will result in increased levels of detection accuracy,” Huang said.

As for his new dog Wilf, they must be familiar with each behavioral signal he may offer, and responsible for initiating a search if Wilf gave the sign that he has found accelerant in fire scenes.

It was a bittersweet feeling for Huang when he was told of his transfer home as he also learnt that he would be paired with a new dog.

Looking away sadly, Huang said, “Rosco and I are very attached to each other. We know each others’ characters. When I am sad, it is Rosco that I would go to seek solace. He is an awesome friend and work buddy. After so many years together, it was hard for me to let go of him but I know he will be fine with his new handler.”

Handlers are also responsible for providing all basic care for their dogs including tasks such as providing food and water, grooming, bathing, and taking the dog out for bathroom breaks throughout the day, says Maxwell Joe Richard Sampa.

Maxwell with his canine Sue during the interview

Maxwell, 34, is currently paired up with Sue, an English Springer Spaniel, for fire investigation. Sue is his second dog, after working with Rocco, who is also the same breed, for about six years.

“When Rocco is not in the mood for training, I’ll do a play time with them for few minutes. That usually works. During bath time, I will always feel for lumps or any abnormal mass in my dog’s body,” he said, adding that if they do have one, then they can address it with the veterinarian.

On how he handles Sue, who is of a hyperactive breed, Max said English Springer Spaniels are typically enthusiastic and highly driven.

“Based on my previous experiences with Rocco, it is a challenging job because I need to be one step ahead and know my dog very well. We participate in regular training exercises to keep the dog sharp and to monitor its effectiveness in detecting,” Maxwell added.

When it comes to training, these dogs are taught how to alert the handler to the presence of accelerants.

In the case of Wilf, Sue and all the fire investigation dogs in the unit, they were taught to ‘freeze’ as a sign, and this is what they do during training and on the actual fire scene. The dog and handler also work on several other accelerants.

Usually the handlers will hide drops for the dogs to find in difficult places. Huang added that fire investigation dogs are more sensitive to finding accelerants than human electronic equipment.

“It may take hours for an electronic equipment to detect, while a dog’s sense of smell is faster. Dogs can tell the handlers where to take samples, usually finding the spots at the fire scene where the smell of the accelerant is strongest and ‘freeze’,” he said.

Fire investigators will then collect the sample pointed out for laboratory test. These dogs can also help rule out arson if no accelerant is detected. When a job is done, Maxwell says that rewards are also very important for these dogs.

“The reward must be consistent, as a morale booster and since these dogs are hyperactive, we use tennis balls,” he said, adding that it is also a form of bonding and to ensure that their motivation levels do not drop.

Meanwhile, Huang and Maxwell together with their charges Wilf and Sue are looking forward to start working on fire cases in Sarawak. — DayakDaily