Dogs With Jobs: Meet the dog unit keeping you safe when you travel

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Airports are a truly surreal place. Fluorescent lighting shatters the concept of time, smashing pints at 7am is totally accepted and a bag of crisps and a bottle of water will cost you £10.

It’s brilliant.

But to ensure that we can safely experience both the experience of the airport and our travels, a lot of work has to go on behind the scenes.

One of the cogs in the machine of airport management is security. We all have our hand luggage checked and X-rayed, we walk through a metal detector and our checked bags are scanned and sometimes manually searched.

But before you enter the official security checks, anyone can go inside an airport. Hundreds of people filter in and out of this unchecked space, and for anyone wishing to cause harm this would be, theoretically, the easiest place to do it.

This is where dogs like Lola and her handler Ken Luke come in.

Lola, a small liver and white springer spaniel sits on the airport floor wearing a high visability neon yellow harness with a leash attached and holding a tennis ball in her mouth.

They are part of Gatwick Airport’s dog unit, an extension of Surrey and Sussex Police dog unit.

They work alongside the armed police to run random checks across Gatwick’s publicly accessible space.

Ken tells ‘ My role here is to actively search for any explosive material or trace amounts of explosive material and any persons and there are any objects in and around the Gatwick Airport perimeter building.’

Each handler at Gatwick airport dog unit has two dogs, a people scanning dog and a proactive dog.

A people scanning dog does as their name would suggest, it scans people and their belongings. For instance, it would sniff both you and your suitcase or hand luggage.

PC Luke says: ‘With a person scanning dog they’re looking for the scent of explosives around that person, and they can follow it back and effectively chase that person.

‘Then they will stand in front [of that person] and indicate in a passive manner, which is why they were often called passive dogs.

‘And they will sit down in front of that person to let us know that person may or may not have explosives on them.’

Proactive dogs scan everything that is not a person such as buildings, luggage, corridors, car parks, vehicles and even aircraft.

‘It’s a different skill set and focus for the dog,’ explains Ken.

‘There’s different methodology in the training that we use.

‘The main thing is the height of the dog. So you could use a Springer Spaniel for a person scanning dog if it’s a very leggy dog.

But most of them tend to be quite short. ‘So they’re not high enough that we require to be able to check the chest area potentially of a person, which is why we tend to use the larger dog.

‘The large dogs can sometimes interfere with some of the searching if they’re used in a proactive manner.

‘There are dual role dogs in the country. But here at Gatwick we still like to specialise in one proactive and one person scanning dog, just so that we can be confident in their search ability.’

Lola and the other dogs on her team are all explosive specialist search dogs.

Ken explains: ‘The dogs are capable of detecting drugs and explosives.

‘But if they were to indicate on somebody that had a small amount of drugs on them, it would be the same indication as if they were wearing a vest or a backpack full of explosives. So how we deal with that person should they want to run away is somewhat different.

‘And I can’t tell the difference in the indication from the dog because it’s the same. That’s why we can’t dual role because otherwise we may be using unnecessary force.’

Lola, a liver and white springer spaniel, jumps up at her handler PC Ken Luke. Lola is still wearing her official high-visability harness and holding her favourite tennis ball. PC Luke is wearing his police uniform.

As with all of the dog handlers we have met in our Dogs With Jobs series, the relationship between dog and owner is everything.

PC Ken Luke has two dogs, Lola, the three year old Springer Spaniel who we followed on our run through Gatwick’s bomb detection drill, and Ghost, a Labrador/Great Dane cross.

Ghost is a person scanning dog who came to work with PC Luke after being rescued after being abandoned in a flat.

Even though police dogs are required to live outside in kennels, they do get to socialise with the officer’s family.

When they do socialise with the handler’s family, it has to be in a controlled environment. For instance, PC Luke’s wife cannot be left in charge of Ghost or Lola because she is not licensed to do so.

As a dog handler, you are generally single crewed, so it’s just you and your dogs,’ explains Ken. ‘You’ll spend time exercising them through the police day, you’ll take them run across fields, obviously for a good run.

‘You are very reliant on their ability to sniff out explosives. So you could say that they’re the ones keeping us safe.

‘We owe our lives to them because they’re looking after us soon as it is very strong, very strong bond. ‘[The bond] just strengthens, the longer that you’re with them, the more the bond increases.

‘The trust comes from our consistency and approach. We believe in positive reinforcement. So if the dog does something that it should do, we really go over the top and make a big fuss at the dog.’

Lola lies on her back on the floor of the airport holding a tennis ball in her mouth. She has just given a positive indication during a drill and PC Luke is rewarding her with attention and a game with her tennis ball

Given the fact that it is rare to find explosives in a British airport, it is hard to keep the dogs on the top of their game.

One way the force ensures that the doggy detectives are able to run successful sweeps is by running practice drills.

A drill is done by hiding a small portion of a controlled explosive substance somewhere in the publicly accessible parts of the airport with someone who the dog has not met. This ensures that the substance is supervised, the dog can still positively indicate despite human distraction and the dog will not positively indicate because he recognises the person.

‘It’s important to the dog that they don’t think every single time they’re going to get one,’ says Ken. ‘That can sometimes bring on a false indication.

‘If they’re expecting a reward every search, and then you do a negative one, they may give you a false indication just to try to get the ball and try their luck.’

Lola sits on the floor of the airport after a positive indication reward. She holds a tennis ball in her mouth.

Due to the nature of what they are looking for airport security dog units are reinforced by an armed unit. Some travellers may find this off-putting.

Ken says: ‘They’re not there to try and intimidate the average holidaymaker. We’re there to prevent some people that want to come to the airport and do anyone any harm.

‘So please don’t be alarmed if anyone sees us out and about. We are friendly, we are approachable, and we will help you.

‘In my 20 months here, we’ve certainly not located anything that could have brought anyone to any harm. There’s no need to be alarmed if you do see us.’

For the original article see here.

Frontline Security can provide specialist Security Dogs and handlers for a wide variety of Security needs nationwide. Our Security Dog units can be utilised for a wide variety of uses including, but not limited to:

  • Security Dog Patrols
  • Site Security
  • Mobile Dog Unit Patrols
  • Specialist Searches
  • Sports Events
  • Venue Security
  • Event Security
  • Property and Asset Security
  • Crowd Management
  • Narcotic Detection
  • Explosive Detection

We have a dedicated specialist who can provide all the information that you need. All of our Dog Handlers are registered with NASDU to ensure the highest security and welfare of both the Dog and the Handler / Public.

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