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A police unit that nose the value of teamwork

Meet the dogs and their handlers who make up the OPP canine units for Collingwood/The Blue Mountains and surrounding regions.
OPP Canine Units Constable Chris Halverson with Nash and Constable Cam McCrae with Kato outside the Collingwood police detachment. Nash is being trained as a search-and-rescue dog and Kato is a general service police dog. Erika Engel/CollingwoodToday

It’s hard for some police units to maintain cool, calm professionalism when there’s a bright orange ball just out of reach.

But, that’s part of the job for the OPP canine units, and they manage as working dogs do.

Kato, a lean, pointy-eared German Shepherd does, however, fully enjoy that ball once it’s tossed his way.

Kato works with Constable Cameron McCrea as a general service police dog for the OPP, the two have been paired up since 2015.

In fact, they were the team who found a four-year-old boy who went missing in Bracebridge last year. Kato discovered the boy sitting in a gully at 2:30 a.m. and police returned him safely to his family.

Kato stayed on his leash once he discovered the boy and let the police do the rescuing. He received his reward from McCrae (treats and a bright orange ball) and the two went home together as they always do.

“We keep a low profile,” said McCrae. “The important thing is that I work my dog. We just go in silently and do our jobs.”

The job of a general service dog includes tracking down people who may or may not want to be found. Apprehension is part of it, but it’s not always used and the dog is trained to tackle and bite only on command by its handler.

“In the end, dog biting for apprehension is used where no other means [of apprehension] exists, or other means have been tried and failed,” said McCrae.

McCrea has spent half of his 30-year police career as a dog handler. He estimates he and his dog have been deployed on about 3,000 calls. He and Kato are the canine unit assigned to Collingwood and The Blue Mountains, and his territory extends to five detachments from here to Caledon.

The OPP have two types of police dogs. General service dogs have been part of the canine program since 1965, and for the last two years, the OPP have also been using Search and Rescue dogs.

Each canine unit gets a specialized vehicle with built-in kennels in the back. There are two kennels in each vehicle, both equipped with water and food for the dog. The truck’s temperature is regulated by computer to make sure it’s always comfortable for the dog. The canine units are always on call and the handler and his or her dog are always together.

Constable Chris Halverson has been working with the OPP Canine Unit for the last eight years. His territory includes Middlesex, Oxford and Elgin Counties, but he started his career as a police officer in Collingwood. He has two dogs. Kilo, a Belgian Malinois, is a general service dog trained in bite work and has been on Halverson’s team for a year. Nash is an excited lab mix that Halverson got about one and a half months ago. Nash is being trained as a search and rescue dog.

A general service dog is trained to put its nose to the ground and follow a scent. They do most of their work on a leash and are only let off the lead as a last resort when a person can’t be caught by a pursuing officers. They are trained to bite when they locate their target, so they have some aggression training as well. They can be used in search and rescue as well.

“General service dogs are the journeymen of the unit,” said McCrae. “They do so many different things.”

In some circumstances, the pointy ears and alert posture of the dog are enough to deter potential criminal behaviour.

Kato certainly looks strong and ready to do what he’s asked to do, but he loves pets, his ball and treats as much as the next dog. Kato lives with McCrae and gets some socialization, but not on the same scale as a search and rescue dog.

Halverson is experienced in the search-and-rescue canine unit. He said OPP tend to use labs and retrievers for that role. He has travelled the world for the OPP in search of the perfect pups for the program and for the general service dog program.

“Search and rescue dogs are more trained to find a scent in the wind,” said Halverson.

They work off-leash and tend to be used to find people who want to be found, so they tend to be the kinder-looking dogs.

“There’s this fallacy out there … people see pointy ears and assume that means the dog is mean,” said Halverson. “Nobody is scared of a lab.”

Whether a lab, a shepherd, or a malinois, the OPP look for dogs that will work hard.

“They are strong hunting breeds,” said Halverson. “They have a strong sense of smell and work ethic.”

All the training is rewards-based, and once a dog has performed the task asked of it by its handler, they receive their reward - almost like a paycheque.

“They get paid for doing what we want them to do, they work for a reward system,” said McCrae. “At the end of a call I give Kato his ball, and he thinks that’s the end of the game.”

Gone are the days of dominance or training by force. According to Halverson and McCrae, a reward system works better.

Search and Rescue dogs can further specialize as cadaver dogs, trained to find bodies or body parts during an investigation.

In the current investigation into murder allegations against Toronto-based landscaper Bruce McArthur, police are using cadaver dogs to find bodies allegedly hidden by the accused.

For Halverson and McCrae, the job of finding people is exciting and important.

“I love emergency service work, it’s something different every day, and you’re working with a living, breathing animal,” said Halverson. “Finding people, from my perspective, is the most exciting thing you can do as an officer.”

Halverson recalls a day while on duty in Sioux Lookout where he and his dog were called in to help find a man with dementia who had gone missing. He and his dog were called in two hours later and quickly found the man unresponsive in a nearby swamp.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he wouldn’t have made it through the night if we didn’t find him,” said Halverson.

While it’s clear Kato, Nash and Kilo have strong admiration for their OPP handlers and are eager to play the next game of search and find, the officers share the admiration for their animals.

“We have very extraordinary animals,” said Halverson.

“If the dogs could drive, we would be out of a job,” jokes McCrae.

Later this year, you can buy a calendar from the OPP online store, which features photos of the OPP canines in action.

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 15 years of experience as a local journalist
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