Even the fiercest dogs start life as cuddly puppies. But at Hong Kong’s police-dog training centre, every game has a purpose: to prepare canines for a life of sniffing luggage, searching vehicles and fighting crime.
Summer is swimming with her handler Kenneth. The one-year-old golden labrador won’t start training to become a police dog for another six months. Until then she has the run of the leafy headquarters of Hong Kong’s Police Dog Unit (pdu): there are laps in the pool, runs on the lawn and plenty of tennis balls to chew on. The facility – a stick’s throw from the border with mainland China – is a canine country club in all but name. Every four-legged recruit that enters the police force starts here.
It might be a dog’s life at this sprawling site but Summer’s future lies outside the compound: police dogs are in demand in Hong Kong and the city is calling her to serve. A rising number of border crossings with the mainland means that there is more luggage to sniff for drugs and container lorries to search for illegal explosives. “Frontline units need more canines,” says inspector Jimmy Ha, a 37-year veteran of the force, who is preparing for a 20 per cent increase in the number of dogs at the facility. The Pdu is facing a similar housing crunch to the city it keeps safe, prompting Ha to oversee the construction of a new block of 14 kennels.
During monocle’s visit, two of the Pdu’s freshest recruits are darting around a new puppy park. “You can see why they make great sniffer dogs,” says Ha, as he watches 13-week-old English springer spaniels frantically chasing a tennis ball. “They are fast and that means they can search large areas really quickly.” Born to serving parents, the dogs – a brother and sister – have good pedigree. When they are five months old they will be tagged with an identity chip and then given names – by the public. This tradition of police dogs being named by the people they serve explains a roll call of monikers that range from comedy (Chubby) to commercial (Kit Kat and Sony). Rocky VI is currently in training; Rocky V has a silver plaque in a memorial garden built to honour dogs that died in the line of duty. It’s also customary for police-dog trainers to adopt the name of their first trainee; we’re greeted on arrival by two officers named Ranger and Bensch. Instructions are given in English, hence the names.
On the training ground, police officer Kilo shouts warnings in Cantonese at a dummy suspect dressed in ice-hockey-style protective clothing. He then releases Devil 2, a Belgian Malinois, with instructions to “hold him”. The dog bounds after his quarry and clamps his jaws around a padded arm. Come December, Devil 2 will be competing for top dog alongside the likes of Kit Kat and Sony at the Pdu’s triennial trials, which are bigger and better this year in honour of the unit’s 70th anniversary.
Current titleholder King is about to hang up its lead and muzzle after a decade of service. Retired police dogs are given a kennel at the training centre until they are adopted, either by officers or the public. Potential owners can spend up to a year on the waiting list as the ever-vigilant Pdu conducts house visits and background checks. Pedigree labradors are in highest demand: there’s a golden retirement for Summer to look forward to as she splashes about in the pool at the beginning of her long career in service.