Cpl. Melvin Sansome sits in his North Battleford RCMP office. Like most offices it’s filled with a combination of photos and books and loose papers and unlike others, behind Cpl. Sansome’s computer chair sits aluminum bowls with water and kibble.
“I did a traffic stop and the driver got out and ran and I thought ‘oh that’s not good,’ so I made a phone call to a doghandler and he came and tracked and located the guy and I just thought that was the greatest thing in the world.”
This experience, Sansome says, is what spurred him to look into becoming a doghandler. According to the RCMP’s website “in order to become a police doghandler … you have to be a good investigator, be able to work independently, and be self motivated.” Sansome proved to be a fit candidate and completed the necessary imprinting and mapping courses.
The imprinting course requires RCMP officers to train puppies taken from the RCMP’s dog rearing facility in Innisfail, Alta. When these puppies reach eight weeks they travel across the country to RCMP detachments and are matched with officers in the quarry program —the training program an officer must complete to become a handler — before the dogs head back to Innisfail at 17 months old to complete training with their new doghandler.
Sansome has had his latest dog, a German shepherd named Diego, for four years. His previous dog was retired from the force because he would become anxious when ordered to operate inside a building. In cases like these, Sansome says, the dog will be transferred to a different detachment or to a private company that doesn’t require it to work outdoors.
The Battlefords RCMP detachment currently has two officers in the quarry program who train Jenni, a German shepherd puppy. The two German shepherds are just part of the team at the North Battleford station.
“(Diego) will make his way down (the hallway) and when (the people working at the front desk) see him they’ll call and throw his ball. He wanders around the detachment and doesn’t bother anybody.”
The province of Saskatchewan has seven working police dogs, which means each doghandler is responsible for a sizeable portion of the province.
“I could get a call from Onion Lake or Unity. I’ve gone as far as Flin Flon, Man. There are seven dogs in the province, and let’s say the dog in Meadow Lake is not working, for whatever reason, the closest one would then take the call,” says Sansome.
“I work Monday to Friday and a part of the job is we’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unless we’re on holidays. At four o’clock when I go home, I’m on call. I always have my phone with me, my truck with me and my dog with me.”
Even if he’s not taking a call to cover for Meadow Lake, Sansome spends considerable time behind the wheel of his specialized SUV. The backseat has been removed to create a second home for Diego when they’re on the clock. The vehicle, even when it doesn’t seem to be running, is temperature controlled and Diego always has food and water. As a doghandler an officer is required to patrol daily, Sansome says.
“Basically, my day, I would patrol around in the Battlefords or Unity or wherever, or sometimes I might drive to Maidstone and up to Onion Lake, over to St. Walburg and Glaslyn and then back here again.
“What I do is, myself and Diego supply backup to the members on the road. Sometimes when the members on the road go to a … domestic assault, well sometimes I’ll go, not necessarily because there’s something for Diego to do, but I’m still a police officer, so I can go and attend the call.”
Sansome is chiefly a police officer, but because he’s been trained to work with Diego, there are still specific situations in which he is called in to help before other officers.
“Sometimes if there’s a stabbing and a knife is thrown in the ditch, they call me because Diego is trained to find the knife. Me and Diego will walk the ditch until he finds the knife.”
And in other instances, Sansome says “they’ll call me when there’s traffic stops and they suspect there’s drugs in the vehicle because Diego is trained to find the drugs.
“In penitentiaries where there’s drug involvement they’ll call me to search. When there are escaped inmates they’ll call me because the dog is trained to track the inmate.”
The most satisfying call says Cpl. Sansome is to assist in locating a missing person. One experience in particular stands out, he says.
“We went to a call in Nipawin. A lady went missing on a Thursday and they called us on Sunday because they finally located her car. We found her five kilometres in the bush, so this was several days later. We were lucky enough to find her.”
As for the missing woman, Sansome says, “she was fine, just cold and dehydrated.”
In cases like this, when it comes to tracking, Cpl. Sansome says “the dog is much more effective at covering a larger area than people walking the field and even than a plane or a helicopter. The dog nose is an amazing thing when you really get into the physiology and what he’s capable of doing is pretty phenomenal.”
Of course, Diego’s skills are more attuned than the average dog’s. The puppies born in Ininisfail are the result of selective breeding and, even then, not all are suited to life as a working police dog. Some of these dogs are sold to work for private companies and trained to search for drugs at airports or to walk buried pipelines to detect oil spills. With the RCMP, Sansome says, they operate with the belief that working police dogs are not worked until they die. Diego’s retirement is already planned for the spring of 2018, when he reaches the spry age of seven — that’s 49 in human years.
After working RCMP dogs retire, there isn’t a set guideline that must be followed. Some dogs are adopted, says Sansome, but Diego will be staying put with him. Sansome says he expects a bit of a change in pecking order in the future when the next dog comes home, but Diego has always been more than just a working dog, he’s a part of the family.