Training police pups is tough, rewarding and sometimes heartbreaking work
'I think it's more special than any other work-partner relationship,' trainer says
The image of a napping police pup, flopped on a desk between a keyboard and a printer, has melted hearts online, including that of an officer who knows what it's like to love and lose a canine partner.
The photo of six-month-old Jix, an RCMP German shepherd, was posted on Twitter earlier this week and has been retweeted 2,000 times and liked more than 6,000 times.
RCMP Sgt. Kent MacInnis likes to imagine what lies ahead for that snoozing ball of fur.
"What are you going to be, little girl?" he said. "The world is her oyster at this point. You see the promise and potential, like we do in our own children.
"We're there to hopefully have our children meet and exceed their potential, and we think the same way of our police dogs when we raise them."
Almost midway through her training in the Selkirk, Man., area, Jix is being groomed as a full-fledged service dog. But before she tracks her first bad guy, or sniffs out explosives, or finds a lost child, Jix needs her nap time.
Training is tough work, said MacInnis, an expert handler with the force who is helping Jix to meet her potential. He works with Const. Jesse Neudorf, an apprentice dog handler whose duty is to show Jix the ropes.
MacInnis knows the joy a canine partner can bring and has also experienced the heartache.
His first canine partner, Rev, was killed in 2013 when MacInnis's RCMP truck was broadsided on a highway by a driver who ran a stop sign outside of Saskatoon. They were on the way home from a canine SWAT course in Edmonton.
You need to mentally prepare for those situations that may occur, where you may have to send your dog — to sacrifice your dog — in order for the greater good of the public.- RCMP Sgt. Kent MacInnis
"I don't know if you ever really get over it. You learn to live with it. That's all you can do to move on," said MacInnis, who broke his back in five places and his pelvis in three places in the collision.
Another dog, Eddie, who is 4½ now, was in the vehicle as well but was not critically hurt. He had just started his training to take over from Rev, who was close to retirement.
"It's quite difficult to go through those kind of losses, but loss is a part of life," MacInnis said.
On paper, MacInnis and Eddie might be partners, but their bond goes far beyond that.
"We spend a tremendous amount of time together. I think it's more special than any other work-partner relationship that anyone can ever imagine," he said. "My partner is man's best friend."
He's almost like a family member for MacInnis.
During Thursday's cellphone interview, MacInnis was out for an off-duty stroll with Eddie.
"It's his time to be a dog, out with dad for a walk, and he knows that," MacInnis said.
That relationship, however, is something MacInnis must dismiss from his mind when he sends Eddie into a risky situation, such as searching for explosives, which is his specialty.
Our dogs are not wild, savage creatures. When they find a missing child, we want the dog to lick that child in the face, to let them know, 'It's OK, I'm here to take you home.- Sgt. Kent MacInnis
"You need to mentally prepare for those situations that may occur, where you may have to send your dog — to sacrifice your dog — in order for the greater good of the public or even myself. He may have to save my life," MacInnis said.
"I know I may have to send Eddie in to do that. I guess, to me, as long as I know his death or his sacrifice is doing that — making sure I go home safely or your child is going home safely — I can accept that. And I honour that.
"That's how I wrap my head around the whole process."
As an experienced handler, MacInnis raised and trained Eddie, and when the dog's career comes to an end (police dogs are typically in the field for two to eight years, depending on their health), MacInnis hopes to keep him at home with his wife and three kids.
Although RCMP dogs are trained to be fearless when the job demands it, they also know when a gentle paw is needed.
"Our dogs are not wild, savage creatures. When they find a missing child, we want the dog to lick that child in the face, to let them know, 'It's OK, I'm here to take you home,'" MacInnis said.
"But when they find that dangerous suspect, for example, in the bush, the dogs also have to be able to react to that aggressive behaviour and help us take that person into custody."
Training begins with pups
The pups begin training at seven weeks and by the end of their first year, they will be tested to prove they have the cognitive ability as well as the drive, nerve and will to become a member of the force.
If they pass, they go back to the national training centre in Alberta — where they originally came from through the breeding program — for the final stages of training before being teamed with a partner.
"You put your heart and soul into his. It's a labour of love when you're raising a dog for working," MacInnis said.
Just as important as preparing them for every scenario is teaching them how to flip the off switch so they can relax and just be a dog, said MacInnis, who also refers to Eddie as "a highly trained family friend."
"To me, it's the most rewarding work that I've ever had the privilege of being involved in."