A firm favourite for many during Insights22 was the opportunity to observe, and get involved with, prison dog handler training, hosted by HMPPS National Dogs and Technical Support Group. In this guest blog, Anna Siraut from the Prison & Probation Ombudsman blogs about her experience.
The Insights Festival has always been one of my favourite events of the year. Past experience has taught me that the opportunities offered really do live up to the Insights invitation: to learn, share, connect and celebrate. After the past couple of years, I was particularly keen to utilise the opportunity to get out there and remind myself what it was like to work outside of my office environment. Consequently, when I saw the opportunity to observe prison dog handler training, I could not sign up fast enough. After all, most prison dogs tend to be the cutest and most adorable members of staff, right? OK, depends on your particular perspective, but that’s my viewpoint! After an email promising that I should expect to get covered in at least some dog hair and possibly paw prints, dog handler training had some anticipation to live up to!
The day itself meant an early start for me, but this was more than compensated for by the warm welcome from the trainers and officers on the course. Several handlers went off with their dogs to complete their 'explosives' training, so we were left with the new-ish dogs; four weeks into training, learning to detect drugs. Finally, the fun part! Having new people coming to watch, meant new people for the dogs to practise their recent drug detection skills on. So it was on with the prison jackets and lining up, before taking it in random turns to 'conceal' drugs in our pockets. Yes - in case you’re wondering, drug sniffing dogs are trained using actual drugs (just small amounts), thanks of course to their exceptional sense of smell. The dogs' reward when they correctly indicate the location of concealed drugs? In this case, tennis balls from their handlers, most of which got progressively soggier with dog slobber.
The end of passive training meant a break for the dogs to stretch their paws, and a chance for me to meet Lucy, 'champion prison dog', who, on meeting me, immediately indicated that I had my mobile telephone in my pocket! Tolerated by Lucy was Bramble, at just 10 months old, she had a couple of months to wait until she could start her training. Bramble behaved like any small child; over excited and full of enthusiasm for meeting new people. Bramble’s energy was finally brought to a halt when Lucy made it clear she had tolerated enough of the 'new kid'. Against this background, we had loads of opportunities to ask questions to the trainers. Everything from, "What happens if the dog fails training?, "How do you decide which drugs a dog is trained to detect?", "What has been your biggest find in prison?", "How do you pair a dog with a handler?"…no prison dog based question was left by the end.
Having seen the dogs working in passive mode, it was time for them to demonstrate their active search ability. The training room was cleared, drugs were concealed, (or were they?), and it was time for a full search of the room. It was great to see lots of super happy dogs when they found the concealed items, secreted everywhere from a wheelchair to a baby chair, and dog handlers with pockets full of soggy tennis balls - I was in awe of the skills of the dogs and the handlers. Even though one of the dogs decided to relieve itself on a couple of prison uniforms, this did not deter my admiration! The trainers, not to be left out, decided to demonstrate how the dogs learn to find a new drug. Expecting all sorts of clever gizmos, it is actually done quickly, using the association of smell with the reward of the favourite toy and then some play time.
The day was over all to soon. Everyone had been very generous with their time, not only answering endless questions but also sharing their knowledge and experience. Saying "thank you" on the day really did seem totally inadequate. Suffice to say, I left with a smile on my face, and while I didn’t have any paw prints on me, I was more than happy that my trousers were covered in dog hair!