WDP - Springer Spaniel Tom
What a delight to spend some time with pioneering detection dog, Tom and his owner, trainer and best friend, Tony.
Tom is a highly trained Springer Spaniel sniffer dog. He was the first dog to be clicker trained by the West Midlands police force and latterly worked as a private contractor during the London Olympic Games.
Tony, his owner, is a leading expert in dog training techniques and also headed up a brand new police dog breeding programme.
In the early days, the set up and methods for training police dogs were very old fashioned. Most of the dogs were donated by the public and were largely German Shepherds. As time moved on breeding stock started to come from the worlds of Ring Sport and Schutzhund sport. These sports combine complex obedience, nose work, speed and courage and are a great starting point for the parents of a police dog. Springers were also selected because they search just for fun.
Training used to be more negative in that you were correcting mistakes. Nowadays, training styles have evolved, training for success. Things are much more positive, and the emphasis is on rewarding good behaviour. The carrot really is better than the stick and the working dogs in today’s forces are more accomplished as a result.
Puppies are assessed at seven weeks of age. Dog and handler must like each other, and the partnership just won’t work otherwise. In the end, it’s the dog who chooses the handler.
Tony wanted to progress Springer Spaniels into the working environment of the police force. The Spaniel is naturally curious and has a very sensitive nose. It must be trained from a very early age to get used to some of the busy noisy environments with all the distractions that they can find themselves working in.
Tony found a highly rated breeder involved with gundogs and chose two puppies, Tom and Billy. Billy didn’t make it as a working dog and became a pet, but Tom had what it takes and was sent to a puppy foster family. All of Tony’s dogs start this way in their early life. The puppy foster will just play with the dog and let them have a puppy life. Their behaviour is monitored, and it is noted how they get on with other dogs and handle distractions. They visit Tony once a month to check on progress.
Tom started working when he was 15 months old and Tony became his handler. Tom had to be trained to identify dozens of different smells depending on what they were looking for. He is only trained for explosives so there is no confusion over indications when he finds anything. Explosive finds are treated differently because of the danger they present.
In the years that followed, Tom and Tony carried out sniffer duties for royalty, politicians and even the Pope. Sniffer dogs perform a vital role as they help the smooth running of day-to-day life by continuously checking buildings and suspicious packages and confirming they are okay. If people were to do this instead, streets and buildings would be closed all the time and there would be chaos.
This work can be dangerous. Police Officers will not enter a search area without a dog searching first. Tony had to put his name to all searches and be as confident as he could be that the search was safe to be entered. Tom being such a great dog made that job easier for him.
Tom and Tony were invited to work at the Olympic Park leading up to 2012 games. Tony also trained around 40 dogs and handlers working at the park during this period. It was such a busy and important time with long days and Tom searched areas, routes, buildings and all transport.
Tony remembers the long shifts taking their toll. One morning he left for the stadium as usual but he had forgotten Tom. “I left him on the stairs of our bedsit. I got as far as the M25 before we realised Tom hadn’t hopped in the van. When I realised what I had done I dashed back and there he was on the stairs looking at me as if to say - well one of us is stupid!”
Tom was taken ill in 2012 when a growth appeared on his left side. He had it removed, but the vet was not very hopeful. However, Tom bounced back against the odds and was working at the park again in only a few weeks.
Tom’s health has taken a turn for the worse in recent months and he has had to endure operations, x-rays, medication and blood tests, but Tom fights on. He was a joy to be around when we met him, and so full of energy. Nothing, it seems, will dampen his spirit.
Tom has sired several litters that have gone on to become gundogs and working dogs for the forces. While his offspring have been trained to search for many things such as drugs, cash and guns, Tom has searched exclusively for explosives. There are so many more Springer Spaniels now in the police force since Tom has shown the way.
Tom’s sense of smell is so sophisticated that he is able to pick up not only commercial explosives but even recipes of different ingredients that make up some of today’s homemade devices. A dog can store a scent in its nose today but keep it as a memory forever. They can go into a room and smell hundreds of different smells and isolate each one. It really is a skill we cannot even begin to understand.
Tom is retired these days. He has been an exceptional working dog. He has done everything he has ever been asked to do for his whole life. Tony still takes him out twice a day and he still throws balls for him and Tom still brings them back. He says that Tom has retrieved everything he’s ever thrown for him for his whole life and you really can’t ask for much more than that.