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Behind the scenes of policing in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset


Video number two – general purpose police dogs

Continuing our look behind the scenes at the work of the Devon & Cornwall Police and Dorset Police Alliance Operations Department, this week it’s the turn of the “general purpose” police dogs and their handlers.

Many of you have been interested and enchanted by our coverage of the in-force puppy breeding and training programme: now find out what these magnificent animals do when they are grown up and active service

You can follow the Alliance Operations department on Twitter at @AllianceOpsDept where we welcome your comments and queries.

Q: What is meant by the term “general purpose” or “GP” dog?

A: The police use various terms such as ‘GP dog’ (and "GSD" for general service dog) to describe the police dogs the public are used to seeing and would recognise as being police dogs, namely the German Shepherds and Shepherd crosses that we use for every day policing such as searching for people and property, tracking, public order deployments, reassurance patrols and public engagement.

Q: How many GP dogs are working in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset?

A: There are forty GP handlers: 10 in Cornwall, 20 in Devon and 10 in Dorset. They can and do move across county borders. These handlers each have a ‘GP’ dog but will also, quite often, also handle a specialist search dog, normally from a working breed like a Spaniel or Labrador.

Q: How old are police dogs when they start work, and how long do they stay in service?

A: Police Dogs normally start work with us between 18 months and two years old.  They usually retire at eight years old but each dog is different and decisions are made on a dog by dog basis. Every dog has its own character but they all love to work.  The handlers have very strong bonds with their dogs and it’s important that they are consulted about the right time to retire their partner.

Q: What happens to GP dogs when they retire from active service?

A: The handler will normally keep them as a pet or they will go to a thoroughly vetted ‘Friend’ of the police service.  It must be remembered that police dogs are working animals and require careful handling.  Just because the dog may have retired they will still require lots of exercise and special care.  We are very grateful for the service and love these dogs give to us and therefore ensuring they have a long and happy retirement is really important to us.

Q: How long does it take to train a GP dog?

A: Because the Devon & Cornwall Police and Dorset Alliance mainly breeds its own dogs, the training program and socialisation starts from the moment they are born with simple things like obedience training and getting them used to people and traffic, the sort of thing everybody would do with their own pet. This initial training is always fun.  They are assessed as to whether they are suitable for full training and will then undergo a 13 week training course with their handler.  The Alliance is very grateful to the members of the public, the puppy walkers, who give up their time to help look after the young pups and get them ready for training. The 13 week course is just the beginning, very like a student police officer - we will not have the finished article until they have experienced at least 12 months of operational work, whereby they receive continuation training with a qualified instructor throughout the year. Training and development of the dog is done on a daily basis by the handler throughout its working life.

Q: Are all GP dogs the same breed? Are they pedigree dogs? 

A: The majority of our dogs do have a good pedigree from working lines.  We are interested in dogs that have a high drive to work and be active, so we don’t need them to be show dogs although they are really beautiful creatures!

Q: Do GP dogs stay with the same handler all the time?

A: Normally a dog will stay with a single handler for the whole of its career and will develop a strong bond with that person but for various reasons occasionally we will ‘rehandle’ a dog to another handler, for instance if the original handler is injured.

Q: Where do Devon, Cornwall and Dorset get their GP dogs from?

A: We have bred four litters successfully, but a large proportion of the pups are acquired by Paul Glennon from reputable established breeders of working lines. These pups are then placed with puppy walkers and Paul manages their training and development. In Paul Glennon we have one of the country’s foremost breed managers working for us, who is an expert in breeding and bringing on dogs for us. Some people will remember Paul as a winner of the National Police Trials some years ago.  There isn’t too much he doesn’t know about police dogs.

Q: Are GP police dogs taught to be aggressive? 

A: A large part of police dog work involves them finding missing and vulnerable people and therefore we are conscious that we don’t train dogs to be overly aggressive. However our dogs are trained to protect themselves and to protect their handlers.

Q: Is seizing or biting a person the only way a GP police dog can subdue a suspect or control a situation?

A: The presence of a police dog is normally enough to subdue most suspects - who wants to be bitten by an animal that can out run and jump most people? The dogs also bark loudly to indicate the presence of people that they find.

Q: How much are GP dogs used across Devon, Cornwall and Dorset?

A: Police dogs and handlers attend approximately 5% of all incidents reported to the Police.  They are busy! The dogs are available 24/7 and 365 days of the year.

Q: Are some GP dogs better at tracking suspects than others? Can they be used to sniff out things other than human beings?

A: Each dog is an individual and some will have better tracking skills than others however they are trained to reach an National ‘Advanced’ standard of tracking, so the public can be reassured that each dog has reached a very high level of tracking ability.  The dogs can be used to find property as well as people.  Their noses are 200 times more powerful than a humans!

Q: When did the police first start using dogs? 

A:Resident Devon and Cornwall Police historian Mark Rothwell, a member of our contact centre staff, revealed the following: Police in Devon began using bloodhounds in the 19th century to help track escapees from Dartmoor Prison, and in 1914 dogs of varying breeds were used to assist Exeter City Police when the force suffered an exodus of men to fight in the First World War. In 1953 Police Constable Gater founded the first Devon Constabulary Dog Unit in Torquay. Dorset first had a police dog section in 1953 too. Among the first GPs/GSDs in the region were PDs Feral and Astor.

Our photos show: PC Gater (with the dog) searching for an escaped prisoner on Dartmoor in the early 1930s; PC Gater with (believed) with PD Feral; now Sergeant Gater in 1953 on Dartmoor with the new dog section.

Q: Are police dogs police officers? They are often referred to as, for instance, “PD” for “Police Dog” like PC for Police Constable.

A: Police Dogs are not officers but they are very much part of the police family and are cared for and loved by their handlers.


Press officer
Devon & Cornwall Police, Press office
Police headquarters, Middlemoor

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