Dynamic duo taking bite out of crime
Whether the task is tracking missing people or sniffing out drugs at the border, the local OPP has the right team on the job with Cst. Chris Halverson and his German Shepherd partner, “Diesel.”
Diesel is a three-year-old OPP general service dog. He tracks for lost, missing, and wanted people, does evidence recovery, and does criminal apprehension, which means he is aggression trained but only on command from Cst. Halverson.
Diesel’s other specialities include narcotics detection (i.e., marijuana, hash, cocaine, crack, crystal meth, ecstasy, and Oxycontin) and gun detection.
Cst. Halverson also works with another canine partner, “Sophie,” whose job is to detect explosives. But due to the nature of her specialty, Sophie does not see as much time on tracking duty as Diesel.
Cst. Halverson said Diesel is used to search for drugs in houses and vehicles, and sometimes people, and works hand-in-paw with Canada Border Services.
He is a passive indicating dog so when he finds something, he sits. This is different from aggressive indication, when dogs used to tear apart whatever they found (this became problematic for authorities when dogs started tearing up expensive vehicles and homes).
Diesel’s reward for finding something is a yellow ball to chew on and a little praise from Cst. Halverson—he doesn’t work for treats.
Cst. Halverson explained that for the dogs, it’s like a game. Diesel doesn’t know if he’s tracking a two-year-old child or a 40-year-old armed robber—it’s all the same to him.
All that matters is that he finds them.
There are three types of scents used in tracking people: industrial scent (perfumes, deodorant, shoe polish, etc.), vegetative scent (the smell of the grass, broken twigs, etc. which are disturbed when a person walks over them), and human scent (skin, hair, etc.)
“All of that falls off you where you started and as you go,” Cst. Halverson explained. “The dog will take all three of those types of scents and develop what we call a ‘scent picture.’
“Stuff comes off you in a cone and funnels to the ground,” he noted. “So the dogs goes along and I tell him to find it, and he goes after that freshest human scent.
“It takes [Diesel] about 30 feet to acquire that scent picture of the person he is following,” he continued.
“And as he follows that, he will follow that scent to the conclusion of the track, whether they got into a car and we find the person or got into a house.”
Cst. Halverson said Diesel has to deal with a lot of contamination, whether it is the scent of other humans, animals, or environmental sources. But once he has that scent picture in his mind, he will stick with it.
“That’s what makes him very successful; that’s what makes them a great tool,” Cst. Halverson stressed.
“It’s amazing to see a dog track . . . when you see a dog tracking, his nose will be pasted right to the ground. He won’t lift his head until he finds the person he is looking for.
“It’s almost like they see they scent when they’re going,” he added. “They say their sense of smell is 45:1 greater than that of a human. . . .
“He has 220 million receptor cells between his nose and his brain, where we have five million.”
Cst. Halverson said the relationship between an officer and police dog is somewhat unique. When Diesel has his work collar on, his demeanor changes and it’s time for him to go work.
But at other times, he is very much a normal dog.
Diesel stays with Cst. Halverson 24 hours a day, who is totally responsible for everything the dog does.
“He’s at my house, he’s in my truck, we work together all the time,” Cst. Halverson noted. “[But] he’s never come in the house, he’s always outside.
“Some people might think that sounds cruel for a dog but keep in mind the environment these dogs work in,” he remarked.
“These dogs could be out on a February night when it’s minus-40 C. He has to acclimatized to that.”
Cst. Halverson noted if Diesel gets used to being all warm and cosy, he might not want to go outside and work when duty calls.
When Diesel is at home, he’s in his kennel relaxing. He doesn’t play with Cst. Halverson and his family.
“If I have him out, playing games or taking him for a jog or anything like that, and all of the sudden we get a call and go out on a six-, seven-, eight-, or even two-km track in the heat, it’s going to wipe him right out,” he explained.
“You can imagine, in the summertime when it’s 30 C out, he is trying to do that job tracking in a fur coat.
“Not only that, he is breathing in and out at a crazy rate and it tires him out.”
Cst. Halverson noted tracking is hard work for the dogs, especially when you have a dog searching a 10-room house piled high with items and full of scents ranging from garbage to cats to people.
While Diesel is the property of the OPP and, in some regards, a sophisticated detection tool, Cst. Halverson admitted he considers Diesel his partner and best friend.
“I spend so much time with him, I am kind of lost without him now,” he admitted.
“You get in your truck, he needs to be there. You don’t go anywhere without him.”
If Cst. Halverson goes on vacation, Diesel and Sophie go to a special kennel for OPP general service dogs.
The OPP’s canine program started back in 1965 with three handlers. Today, there are 28 across the province working with 45 dogs.
Dogs typically are brought into the OPP program between one-and-a-half and two years of age. They can be male or female (male dogs are neutered).
While the dogs typically come from breeders, the program also has brought in mutts from shelters and trained them.
Cst. Halverson said Diesel underwent 16 weeks of training to be a tracking dog, and another five weeks to learn to detect drugs and guns.
Other specialties, such as bomb detection, take another nine weeks while cadaver training takes another 10 weeks.
There also are urban search-and-rescue dogs which search for people, alive or dead, in city environments.
Cst. Halverson, Diesel, and Sophie cover the North West Region, from Kenora to Marathon, along with two other canine units (based in Thunder Bay and Dryden).
While it varies from dog to dog, OPP general service dogs usually work until they are eight-10 years old before retiring. At that time, they are signed over to their handler and become their property.
“The type of work they do is very, very hard on them,” stressed Cst. Halverson, noting that eventually the dog exhibit symptoms of their bodies breaking down, such as hip and back problems.
“Normally, we like to get them to an area where they retire before that happens to them, so they get to enjoy a little bit of their retirement life,” he reasoned.
But old habits die hard, with Cst. Halverson noting that retired dogs often still ride along with their handlers and their younger “rookie” counterparts each day.