A trip to the National Canine Defence Centre by Averil Cawthera-Purdy

Created: 11/08/2011

For me the highlight of this year’s Yong Kennel Club National Camp had to be the visit to the Ministry of Defense National Canine Defence Training Centre.What a superb insight we were given into the training, from puppyhood to qualified dog, of both search and defence dogs. The Centre had designed the half day really well with lots of hands-on and demonstration, to show how they achieved their aims. It was an early start from Brooksby with a coach ride to the centre where we were split into groups to go round the various types of work and training.
My group started with what I suspect was the favourite of all: the puppies. The centre had seven puppies just beginning their socialisation programme. All this initial training is based very much around play and, as these are potential search dogs, all were working Cockers. Now that’s a good posting to earn your living!
Our next stop was with the assessment and procurement officer.  This was fascinating as we learned that although some dogs do still come through the route of rescue, these days most are either bred specifically for the various types of work and bought or donated to the MOD. Some dogs are even imported from Europe.  The main breeds are working Cockers, Belgian Shepherd Dog Malinois and the German Shepherd Dogs with a sprinkling of other breeds.
The dogs/puppies are assessed initially in their own environment and if suitable move to the centre for a further training and assessment period. At the end of this the dogs will either pass or fail. Those who pass are either bought or kept, the ones who fail returned to their breeder or are rehomed. 

Specialist training

We moved on with the further groups showing how initial training is developed into the specialist types of work the various dogs will carry out during their careers. The play-based training is built on using toys and rewards, with the favourite toy for all the trainers being the Kong and the most common reward being frankfurter sausage. We saw line search training, building searches, car searches, tracking and defence dog training. All the demonstrations and information we were given created a really clear picture of how playful, well socialised puppies can be developed by these first class trainers, who are also soldiers, into a life-saving resource for the armed forces.
What also became very evident was the care, rapport and respect that all the personnel working at the centre showed to their dogs. While the dogs are in training they are quartered in local boarding kennels but soon new kennelling will be ready and the dogs will be back on base. In their working lives they can be posted anywhere and we were shown mock-ups of the types of kennels set up on tours of duty but it was clear from the stories we were being told that many of the dogs end up sleeping with their handlers in their quarters. 
Dogs trained here are used by all the armed forces and also the military police. After training the dogs can be posted anywhere but currently the most common posting, as you might expect, is Afganistan. We were privileged to see a newly returned dog, who was at the centre for rest and recuperation, work with a newly returned army handler, wearing the kit she would be wearing in Afganistan, and conducting a search in the way she would on duty.  The dog wasn’t the one she had done her tour of duty with as this dog was still in Afganistan. She explained that the dog had been requested to do a back to back with a second handler, which was something for her to be proud of even though saying goodbye and leaving the dog had been hard. The paperwork had been put in for her to be the dog’s retirement home so they would be back together again eventually, this is the case with many of the dogs and handlers.
Dogs will also play a big role in ensuring that the London Olympics are trouble-free. Even in our technologically advanced age, a trained dog’s nose is still the most effective at seeking and a trained defence dog will make most stop and think.
We don’t hear much on the news about the valuable and lifesaving work these dogs do but the fact that the centre can’t train dogs and handlers fast enough at the moment to meet the demand says it all.