Not every dog at Shipyards Park on Saturday was there to run the Yukon Quest. For E-Jay, that Saturday in the park was just another day of school in another classroom.
The 22-week-old sable German shepherd has been in Whitehorse since the end of October. He may be only a few months old, but he’s attended both kindergarten classes and travelled through Yukon College. He’s run through the Yukon Liquor Corporation’s warehouse, and spent time at the Erik Neilsen International Airport.
These trips are extra important; they include a ride on the baggage claim where he can be weighed.
It’s all part of one course: socialization, a crucial step on E-Jay’s journey to become a RCMP police dog.
E-Jay will be in Whitehorse for another six months to a year. After that, he’ll leave Whitehorse for five months of training at the RCMP’s dog kennel in Innisfail, Alta. If he’s successful, he’ll become a police dog and could work anywhere in the country. There’s no guarantee that he’ll work in Whitehorse, though, even though Const. Dan Rouleau, E-Jay’s trainer, would like him to return to the capital. The detachment here has two dogs, and one should be ready to retire by the time E-Jay’s ready, he said.
Practically, socialization means “getting him familiar with anything with a heartbeat,” said Rouleau. That’s why the two of them visited the Quest. E-Jay can’t lose his focus when he’s tracking people. If he sees a new animal while he’s hunting for a bad guy or searching for a missing person, he may get distracted.
He did “really good,” Rouleau said of his pupil’s performance on Saturday. “I think it was the other dogs that were more crazy, so we didn’t stay too long.”
Because it’s winter, E-Jay’s mainly encountered birds, dogs and cats, along with a few foxes and coyotes. In the summer, classes may move to the Carcross cutoff, said Rouleau. But E-Jay’s been busy meeting people throughout the community. He needs to go in as many different buildings as possible so he’s comfortable working in a variety of places. Sometimes, his heavy breathing can startle female students at the college, said Rouleau. They think a man is following them, until they turn and see a 58-pound canine wagging his tail.
The weather has made training E-Jay to track a little more difficult too, said Rouleau. That skill is the most important for any police dog to learn. While apprehending criminals and discovering missing persons is serious business, it’s taught like a game.
Rouleau shuffles his feet and makes ground scent, then lays treats down to encourage E-Jay to follow the smell. If he goes off the track, he notices it smells differently – and that he isn’t getting food. So he’ll go back to the track. Gradually, the distance between the treats increases until E-Jay travels the whole track, with his only reward coming at the end.
“Basically everything has to be really fun for this dog, or he won’t do it. Because he works for free,” said Rouleau, rubbing E-Jay as the two sit on a couch at the RCMP detachment. “He works for this right here, to play with me.”
But it is work, as much for Rouleau as it is for E-Jay.
Training E-Jay is a 24/7 activity. Rouleau’s main job remains being a general duty police officer – 12-hour day shifts or 11-hour night shifts, four days on, three days off. Everything with E-Jay is “above and beyond,” he said.
The German shepherd lives with Rouleau and his wife. “My wife doesn’t see me as much, that’s for sure,” he laughed. He and E-Jay run for three to four miles a day, on top of all the running they do through different buildings.
E-Jay sleeps in a kennel outside, unless the temperature dips below -35 C. That’s a good thing, because training a police dog is completely different from training a pet, something Rouleau’s not allowed to have while he’s working with E-Jay.
“Normally, with a house pet you teach them a lot of obedience, a lot of, ‘You can’t jump up on the couch. You can’t bite this.’ He can do what he wants. So, it’s tough that way,” said Rouleau. He has marks up and down his arms from where E-Jay has nipped him.
But things will change in a few weeks. Once E-Jay turns six months old, only Rouleau will be able to touch him. And unlike dogs being trained to serve people with disabilities or illnesses, E-Jay won’t be wearing a vest letting people know he’s in training.
The only time he’ll be wearing a vest or harness is when he’s tracking someone, said Rouleau. He needs to know that when the harness is on, it’s time to track. And success is crucial.
“We don’t want to set them up for failure, because as soon as they fail, it could potentially ruin the dog.”
The dogs are rare. On average about 100 dogs are born at the RCMP’s kennel each year, said Brenda Sawyer, breeding program co-ordinator at the RCMP’s dog training facility in Innisfail, Alta. But of that, only one in four may actually work as RCMP dogs. The ones that don’t make the cut can be sold to other police forces, join search and rescue units or even become pets.
“We’re looking for the elite of the elite German shepherd,” she said. “It’s almost like looking for an Olympic gymnast.”
The RCMP has about 130 general duty dogs and 30 specialty dogs across the country, said Sawyer. Specialty dogs are just trained to detect explosives or narcotics. They may also do security. All general duty dogs are German shepherds, but most specialty dogs are golden retrievers or Labradors, she said.
Last year was the first year all police dogs trained were born at the kennel, she said. Policing is in E-Jay’s blood. His dad, Canto, worked in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and out on the East Coast, said Sawyer.
And just like the dogs, the handlers are an elite group.
E-Jay’s not the only one learning. So is Rouleau. These months are just another step for him to fulfill his goal of becoming a dog handler. Now in his eighth year with the RCMP, he’s wanted this job from the beginning.
“It’s the best job, you just chase people, catch people, and you have a partner all the time,” he said. Most RCMP officers work alone, so a dog provides constant companionship.
At first, he read a lot of books and watched a lot of videos about training dogs. Then, he worked in Whitehorse with Cpl. Rod Hamilton and his dog, Ryder, for a year. Rouleau would don the aggression suit and have the dog run at him, or he’d take off through the woods and have Ryder chase him. Cpl. Hamilton recommended him for the week-long course in Innisfail. Not everyone in his 16-person class got to socialize a puppy.
But Rouleau also has more training to do. He needs to socialize dogs for at least two years before he can go back to Alberta to take a course to become a dog handler.
By then, E-Jay could be working anywhere. He’s not sure how he’ll say goodbye – maybe with an extra bone – but Rouleau will likely be wearing sunglasses when they make their final trip to the airport.
“It won’t be the happiest day of my career,” he said.
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