The North East Wales detection dogs with a nose for trouble

Published date: 18 November 2009 | Published by: Rob Bellis

WHEN a group of illegal immigrants were found hiding in a lorry bound for Wrexham earlier this year, the sniffer dog that picked up their scent was trained just down the road from their intended destination, in north east Wales.

The 18 men – 16 Afghans and two Iraqis – were discovered in Calais, hiding in a tanker full of gluten powder that was about to make the crossing to the UK.

There was very little air in the tanker and the men may not have survived the journey had they not been detected by the specially-trained dog from Flintshire-based Wagtail UK.

Colin Singer, a former RAF dog handler of 24 years experience, is the man behind Wagtail.

Colin and his team train dogs for a number of specialist jobs including the body detection dogs to the UK Border Agency at various ports in northern France and it was one of these that sniffed out the Wrexham-bound stowaways.

“We’ve had some good successes,” he said. “We’ve also found people hiding in some very unusual places.

“We’ve found them in wheelie bins, gluten powder of course – there wasn’t a lot of air in that tanker, they were lucky to survive – we’ve even found them hiding in dog food, I suppose they must have thought ‘If we hide in dog food the handler will think they are barking because of that and won’t check.’ But we do.”

As well as searching for people trying to smuggle themselves across the border, these specially-trained dogs can also assist in search and rescue operations such as in disaster zones.

Wagtail’s dogs – predominantly labradors, springer spaniels and cocker spaniels as well as - come from a number of different sources, including rescue centres, or are donated by owners who can no-longer look after them or by gun-dog breeders.

“The type of dogs we use are gun dogs, they have very good retriever, hunting instincts,” Colin explained. “We use the natural hunting instinct of the dog and develop a game which the dog enjoys and trains them to detect a scent. It’s got to be fun or the dog won’t do it.

“The selection process is very strict though – for every 10 dogs we probably say no to eight.”

Wagtail take on dogs between 10 months and two years old and their basic training takes about four months.

The dogs are then trained to do a specific jobs – some are trained in explosive and firearms detection and also in mine detection. Wagtail dogs have been out to Iraq and some are now working in Afghanistan.

The Flintshire company were also the first to provide detection dogs to work on the site of the Olympic Village in London and Wagtail dogs have ‘cleared’ such major sporting arenas as Lord’s cricket ground and Wembley Stadium.

Some dogs are trained in drug detection and Colin and his team work closely with the police in drugs searches such as in the pubs and clubs of Wrexham.

Fire investigation dogs are trained to identify accelerants and pinpoint where a blaze was started which can be vital when investigating cases of arson.

Wagtail also provide cadaver dogs that can detect human remains buried.

Training continues throughout the dog’s life and, through the training and work, these naturally active dogs are given a real sense of purpose.

“It’s satisfying to take on a dog that’s not wanted and give it a job that it will enjoy,” said Colin.

“Often the more lively they are the better,” he said. “The naughty dogs tend to have a mind of their own which can be a great attribute for search dogs when they are working on their own or guiding the handler.”

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