A warning sign on the gate in the driveway indicating the presence of police dogs doesn’t quite provide a complete picture of what goes on inside the squat, steel-clad Toronto Police Service building at the bottom of Beechwood Drive in the Don Valley.
Even inside, it’s easy to mistake the easygoing staff, inquisitive barking, and constant doggie praise as typical fare for any dog kennel.
Police-issued dog collars, well-used bite suits, and safes containing narcotics, explosives, and other nefarious items tell another story. There’s nothing typical about Toronto’s Police Dog Services compound—not when life-and-death loyalties are at stake.
44 Beechwood Drive serves two purposes: it is both a training facility for elite service dogs and a police station from which TPS dispatches dogs and handlers.
Police Dog Services falls under the same administrative umbrella as the mounted unit. Established in 1989, the dog squad was originally located in a residential neighbourhood overlooking Scarborough Bluffs. As the number of dogs grew, so did noise levels. To avoid finding itself in the doghouse with neighbours, the canine unit moved to its current secluded location, sandwiched between the Don Valley Parkway and the Don River.
The six-acre facility has space for twenty-one dogs and handlers. Canine quarters can get loud, especially when lead trainer Sergeant Paul Caissie, or another handler, appears. Talk about dogged determination: when the dogs realize they’re being pressed into service, a yelping frenzy ensues.
Above a cacophony of barks and yelps, Sergeant Caissie explains, “The dogs are all sociable and have a high retrieve drive. It takes very high-energy dogs to do the work they do here.”
Recognized as a world-class academy, the facility is the only canine law enforcement unit in the country operating around the clock, seven days a week. Not even the RCMP’s canine unit can boast this.
The relationship between handler and dog is intense. On duty as well as off, officers and their four-legged partners are inseparable. By no means considered pets, service dogs nonetheless reside in their handlers’ homes. As veteran police constable and dog handler Todd Garbutt told Torontoist: “There has to be a bond between the handler and the dog, otherwise handler protection wouldn’t work. The dog has to love the handler so much it’s willing to put down its life for that handler.”
Garbutt confesses he averages more time with his dog then he does with his children.
Poop-and-scoop duty is an obvious drawback, but Caissie and Garbutt recite several benefits that come with being paired with a dog. Among other things, they say, the dog doesn’t eat your lunch, and you don’t have to buy it coffee.
Dogs range in price from free to thousands of dollars. Pricier dogs are purchased from breeders. Gratis dogs have been donated from the community. Once in a while, a citizen will contact Dog Services offering to donate a dog they believe possesses the right stuff.
The majority of offers are declined.
“99 per cent of the time,” Garbutt says, “the dog will never pass our testing.”
The other 1 per cent? Garbutt recounts the fortuitous tale of deputy dawg Eli. One day, a dog arrived stowed in the back of a pickup truck. Friendly as heck, with energy and curiosity to match, Eli was deputized after rigorous testing, going on to become an exceptional general-purpose police dog.
Matching dog and handler is a delicate process. A turbocharged dog is best paired with an officer that has a laid-back disposition, and vise versa. Out on patrol, their opposing personality types will counterbalance one another.
Toronto Police Service’s roster of dogs shouldn’t be mistaken for attack dogs. They’re never dispatched as a crowd-control measure. Unlike police agencies in other jurisdictions, TPS usually uses a method of deployment known as bark and hold—as in, hold your ground instead of a perpetrator’s limb.
Service dogs average about ten years on the force. Training for all breeds—from general purpose dogs to detector dogs, who sniff for narcotics, explosives, missing persons, and cadavers—begins in puppyhood. Breeds range from large German Shepherds to mid-sized Springer Spaniels. One feature all share is their alpha-dog personalities.
The Beechwood Drive facility also provides classroom instruction to officers, who learn when to radio for the dog squad and what to do when backup arrives. Sergeant Caissie explains that when the canine unit is called out, the scene they encounter often resembles a dog’s breakfast. Handler and dog must respond quickly and effectively. Regardless of rank, a handler never forfeits command of their dog to a superior. Not even Chief Blair can tell a handler how to deploy their charge.
In the bad old days, an officer risked injury chasing down a suspect. With canines at the ready, a general patrol dog can be called upon to flush a suspect out of hiding. This, officers say, has diminished the number of violent encounters during apprehension.
Canine crime fighters don’t always adapt well to retirement. Ideally, as Garbutt puts it, the dog “goes back to being a dog and loving it.” But because they never really lose their unwavering work ethic, even after being decommissioned, they want to accompany their human partners to work. It’s difficult for the retired dog to accept that a pup has filled its position. This affects the handler’s psyche, too. Garbutt accepts this adjustment as part of the job. He’s grown used to telling his former, tail-wagging partner, “Sorry buddy, I have to go with my other partner now.”