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Becoming a BTP dog handler

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Unlike his cartoon namesake, Scooby the British Transport Police (BTP) dog runs towards danger. The English springer spaniel and his handler, Mark Sayer, are one of 13 pairings in the force’s specialist explosive search dog unit that put their lives on the line stepping into the country’s most dangerous situations.

In 2017, the duo were dispatched to the aftermath of the Westminster terror attack, the Manchester Arena bombing and the Parsons Green bombing. They helped to assess the threat of further attacks, conduct hi-visibility patrols to reassure the travelling public and ensure there were no secondary devices to allow the bomb squad to proceed.

Wherever there is a potential threat from explosive devices on or around Britain’s railways, Scooby, or one of the gang, will be there. It is an unenviable reality of the job that means they’re often on the frontline during the country’s darkest hours.

Not your typical hiring process

Preparing for such a demanding role is tough. Applicants – that is any BTP officer who has passed their two-year probation period – have to pass through the typical recruitment process. If they progress, the process changes a little from your standard job application and induction.

First of all, their home is inspected to ensure their garden meets requirements. The dog not only becomes an integral part of the officer’s work life but their personal life too, living in their homes and becoming part of their families. The garden must be enclosed, have a six foot secure fence around its perimeter and adequate room for the dog and its supplied 10ft x 5ft kennel. If the candidate doesn’t have a garden, the application ends there.

Photo: BTP.
Photo: BTP.

Putting them through the mill

A two-week residential “suitability” course then follows at the police dog training centre. Candidates are quizzed on pre-released material on the first day and if they don’t meet the expected standards, they’re removed from the course.

Those that progress are “put through the mill”, as BTP chief dog training instructor Steve Palmer explains. Long days consist of exercising, cleaning, feeding and grooming dogs in the morning and a range of activities during the remainder of the day. This includes fitness tests – officers have to achieve a bleep test score of 5.7, slightly higher than BTP’s standard of 5.4  – assessing their voice modulation – going from high to low pitch to reward or discipline a dog – and tasks that test their ability to interact with and control dogs of various sizes.

“This is where we have a look at the person to see if they have the attributes and the ability to become a dog handler,” explains Steve, who is responsible for ensuring the correct dogs are sourced, trained to the correct standard and have the correct handler.

“A lot of people think anybody can do it but it’s not the case, we have quite a high failure rate,” he adds.

“They don’t actually understand what it entails. You’ve got that dog with you 24/7, 365 days a year. When you’re off at the weekend, your dog is with you. You need to walk it, feed it, take it to vets. I always say its not a job, it’s a vocation.”

Licence to work

The final stage is a 12-week course with the handler and their paired dog to ensure they can work to the expected standard. This course covers control and command of the dog and introduces it to the scents they will have to detect and locate in buildings, big open areas and vehicles.

Upon the successful completion of this course, they are granted a one-year license. However, the hard work doesn’t end there.

As well as an annual two-day licensing test by a police dog instructor, which both have to pass, the pair must attend two four-day refresher courses run by the dog school each year, and a minimum of 10 continuation training days, which take the dog to live environments such as train depots to expose it to the materials they’re meant to find, but aren’t assessed.

“The training is very intense” says Mark Sayer, who patrols mainline stations in London with his dog Scooby.

“At the end of the day, if my dog is not performing correctly and not finding what it’s supposed to find, in Scooby’s case explosives, the ramifications are deadly,” he adds. “So we really have to be hot on training to make sure the dogs are up to the required standards.

“In the world of explosive searching, the hardest thing is what we call a safe systematic search. If I’m searching a building and I start from the main front door, I can’t leave anywhere behind me unsearched as I go through because if I find a bomb, I need to know that the route I’m taking out has been searched and that I’m not walking past further bombs on my way out. That’s probably the make or break thing that people would cause people to fail on a course.”

Photo: BTP.
Photo: BTP.


The explosive search unit isn’t BTP’s only dog unit. It also has 30 general purpose dogs and previously had a separate drugs dog unit, but that has been integrated in recent times.

A number of BTP’s dogs and handlers have been applauded for their work over what has been a particularly tough year – including Scooby and Mark.

With a certificate of achievement from Gloucestershire Constabulary’s chief constable and a commendation from BTP chief constable Paul Crowther in recent months, the pair have certainly earnt their Scooby Snacks.

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