I have lost count of the times where people have approached me with a request for advice regarding the training or use dogs of volunteer residents to assist in the location and apprehension of suspicious individuals who run away when challenged by local citizen patrols. After all, most people are well aware of the value of a dog in the tracking, subsequent chasing and eventual arresting of criminals.

Of course, this is true, but what most people don’t realise is that the use of a dog to arrest a person, is fraught with numerous legal implications as well as, depending on the terrain and other local conditions, many significant training and handling challenges.  It has similar ramifications as the use of a firearm to make an arrest.

Perhaps the first sobering factor is that, should a dog bite and apprehend an innocent trespasser, who may or may not be drunk, or merely lost and disorientated, then, any arrest could prove an expensive mistake on the part of the dog owner or those who made use of his/her services!  So, unless there is irrefutable proof of the imminent commission, or actual commission of a First Schedule Offence (the only circumstance where a citizen can legally effect an arrest), such an arrest can be challenged and compensation sought and the person responsible for the illegal arrest prosecuted. There is also the vicarious liability factor which may be applied to the people or organisation making use of the dog and handler.

Regarding the practicality of using a dog to track, follow up and/or arrest a fleeing suspect:  One has two basic choices when tracking or doing a pursuit with a dog.  One, is using a harness and tracking line, usually around 20-30mtrs long and the other is to let the dog free track. In other words let the dog go, without any control and chase the suspect, ultimately hopefully arresting him. In the case of a harness and line controlled follow up track, the pace can be very slow, especially at night as the dog and indeed the handler try to negotiate fences, including electric ones, and a host of other obstacles. Line tracking, in anything other than open terrain, needs lots of practice as well as an almost instinctive ability on the part of the handler, to “read” the dog as it progresses. It also has, in the case of inexperienced handlers, the drawback of a temptation to out think or correct the dog.

Then we have the option of free tracking. Although the animal may well be advised to have a harness with a cyclist type strobe flasher or gps device attached, the highly motivated dog can easily outrun a criminal. But never forget the inhibiting factors such as electric fences, incidental plot dogs that they may happen to come into contact with, as well as other animals with their variable distractions!!  All these are potential land mines!!  The other downside is that unfortunately, they also outrun the handler!  In such circumstances, it is highly unlikely that the handler/owner will be present at the point of arrest.  So, if the dog is an aggressive attack motivated tracker (rather than food orientated), anything could happen before the handler arrives. Consequently there is a much greater legal liability risk for the dog handler/owner in the event of serious injury to any subsequently established innocent suspect.

Most tracking dogs are trained making use of their strongest motivating factors.  Some are trained using food or a desire to locate their favourite article such as a ball. For the sake of argument, let’s call these the slow but sure trackers.  As the label implies, such dogs are usually slow but sure, who can be placed on the scent several hours, even days after an incident and relied upon, not only to follow a trail diligently from start to finish but detect and indicate any evidence left on the trail.

On the other hand, we have dogs who have a strong prey/bite drive, who are trained to track using the excitement of a good chase and a nice bite/kill at the end as their prime incentive!!  These dogs, let’s call them, attack dogs or at best, more urgent trackers, are most effective when placed on a trail that is relatively fresh, and they tend to follow up tracks with much more speed and gusto!. This is because they are more driven.  They naturally tend to rely on wind and human fear scenting skills rather than on the more reliable ground scenting ones. They move so fast, that they often neglect to “indicate” the existence of relevant evidence.  The latter may not result in as much diligence and accuracy as the sure trackers but, at the end of the day, where speed is of the essence, they are by far the best option in a community policing environment

So, in the case of any plot or neighbourhood watch dogs, one would have little doubt that dogs motivated by a chase and bite would be the best material to use for training.  However, there should be strict protocols in place for the deployment and release of such dogs.

The primary guiding principles should be, that the dog should only be deployed when there is strong enough evidence that a suspect has just committed, or is about to commit a serious crime. In other words, in any future court case, one would need to be able to justify such an arrest and also that it took place where the handler has a reasonable prospect of reaching the scene of the arrest before too much damage has been done to such suspect. 

This means, that in the training process, provision needs to be made for a remote “release” or “stand- off” safety mechanism.  With most police dogs around the world, as well as in all local and international working trail/police dog competitions, attack or “protection” dogs, for want of a better word, are trained, so that when any resistance on the part of the suspect ceases, the dog automatically releases and then stands back, guarding the suspect and barking till the handler pitches up.

This process of course fits in totally with the generally accepted international legal principles surrounding the use of minimum force.  I.E.  The use of force must be commensurate with the resistance offered and, when such resistance ceases, so does the use of that particular level of force.

In conclusion therefore, I believe that whilst we must not dismiss the value of the dog in the general neighbourhood policing context, one needs to conduct a full legal risk assessment in every location where such an option is considered viable, and then assess the sustainability of the resources available in terms of dogs and suitable owners/handlers for training.  Remember, very few people make effective dog handler/trainers.  Training takes time and effort.  One will find that, out of every 100 dog lovers with very good intentions, who join a dog club, anywhere in the world, once they have fully understood the level of commitment involved to “fully” train a dog, most throw in the towel after a few weeks..

So, many may express an initial interest, but one will invariably find, that few will have the commitment to sustain the initial onerous and repetitive training regime, as well as the regular follow up continuation training needed to keep their dogs up to standard.  If things are quite for a time in the community, training scenarios/ incidents must continue week after week.  Just like the drug sniffer on the escalator at the airport that needs to find something at least once per shift, you can’t afford to have a dog that finds and arrests nobody in any given week!  This brings us to another issue.

One final word re cost and other implications:   When training dogs for follow up, search and arrest activities, one needs training equipment and other, often increasingly scarce resources. This includes padded arms, padded suits, harnesses, dog muzzles and the like.  These are available, but prices are surprisingly steep.  There are only a few recognised/ approved suppliers of such equipment in South Africa.  

Perhaps more importantly, one also needs qualified and competent “volunteer criminals” for initial and ongoing training. This could be costly if one does not have access to such skills in the community, not only initially, but going forward, if there is no facility for transfer of training skills.

One may hope that it time, there will in fact be a skills transfer from the initial “trainers and so called criminals” so that a community can sustain a “dog” arrest resource, but, without being too pessimistic,  a community will require a dedicated special committee to manage this resource effectively.  It is in the nature of the beast, that as knowledge and skills are passed on, they tend to be diluted in their quality, unless one is lucky enough to have, amongst one’s residents, access to a consistent and reliable source of enthusiasm, experience and discovers a latent talent.

Of course, we assume that a well- trained dog in one’s designated and fence yard is a different kettle of fish, and provided one has taken reasonable precautions to fence off the property and warn potential intruders of all the possible adverse consequences of their ill- intentioned activities, we should be ok. Not so? 

Sadly not. The practice of dog poisoning has become quite a topic of debate including what we can or should try to do about it to protect our pets. Dogs are only poisoned as a means to enable criminals to more easily access out property.

But this is another subject.

John Cox.

Aug 2016