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July 14, 2014

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A nose for police work ... and celeb status

TO live near a Metro station, win praise at work and loll around with colleagues in the sun on your day off; some Metro police force members are indeed lucky dogs.

In this case, it’s Labrador retrievers and springer spaniels. They are residents of the Meilong training center near Jinjiang Amusement Park Metro station — home to part of the 100-strong team of police dogs used to sniff out flammable liquids and explosive objects on the city’s Metro lines.

The Shanghai Metro police sniffer dog team was established in 2006, the first of its kind in China. The team is split between Meilong and another center in the Pudong New Area.

Labradors and springers are especially suited to the job. They are clever, generally good-tempered and have finely tuned noses. After six months of training, they are ready for duty.

 “A handler has to show a lot of love and companionship in order to forge a good working relationship with the dogs,” said Zhao Long, one of the trainers on the dog team. “Patience is of the utmost importance.”

Zhao is a graduate of the National Police University of China and joined the team because he loves dogs. His current “partner” is a 4-year-old yellow Labrador named Wei Kenan, nicknamed Alo.

The dog joined the team when he was 6 months old, and since then he’s been under the care and training of Zhao.

Basic discipline

According to Zhao, every dog is identified by its parents, taking its mother’s surname and its father’s name as the second name. The dogs typically are chosen when they are between 6 and 18 months old. It’s important that they live within earshot of the Metro system because that gets them used to the noise of trains.

“They first undergo basic discipline training for obedience,” Zhao said. “For example, a dog isn’t allowed to excrete anytime it wants when on duty. After that, the dogs are taught scent recognition and how to function in different environments, especially in big crowds.”

The dogs usually work in pairs, sniffing commuters’ bags and packages for banned items. They are always accompanied by a handler. When a suspicious substance is detected, the dogs automatically go into a sitting position to let the handler know something is amiss.

“Barking or any fierce reaction is not allowed because it might cause unnecessary panic,” Zhao said. “The dogs always get an affectionate pat from handlers as acknowledgement that they have done well.”

Qiu Fei, captain of the Shanghai Metro police dog team, said the police dogs have sniffed out banned flammable items like alcohol, paint and lacquer thinner, but no explosives have ever been detected.

“Shanghai’s Metro stations have been equipped with scanning machines for luggage since 2010, and that’s saved a lot of work for the dogs,” he said.

Although Metro stations are the primary beat of the dogs, the canine force is sometimes dispatched for security at high-profile events in the city.

Labradors and springers are pretty lovable breeds, so it’s not surprising that many commuters take a shine to them and want to take their photographs or feed them tidbits.

“One of their obedience lessons is to reject food from strangers or anything else not given by the handler,” Zhao said.

It’s a tough lesson to train an ever-hungry canine not to eat, he said.

“I would put a large plate of food in front of Alo but forbid him from eating,” Zhao recalled of the training sessions. “Then I would place myself some distance from him or even hide out of sight. At first, he couldn’t control himself and would eat, but now he just sits staring at the untouched food, drooling.”

Hearty meals

The canine brigade certainly doesn’t starve. The dogs are given high-energy dog food together with milk, beef and eggs. They get one to two hearty meals a day.

Alo is smart and always curious about his surroundings, Zhao said. That outgoing character means he is a quick learner but it also means he can lose concentration sometimes. Zhao said he does his best to keep the dog focused while on duty.

Qiu said the dogs normally work for eight to nine years before they go into pampered retirement.

“We always let the trainers take the dogs home as pets if they want them,” Qiu said. “That way, they don’t have to break years of a close relationship. We even let them keep the retired animals at the training center so they can see them every day.”

Trainers aren’t alone in their admiration of sniffer dogs. Metro passengers, too, love them.

Zhao and other members of the dog-handling team have set up a Weibo microblog account, posting pictures of the dogs’ daily activities. The account has attracted more than 14,000 followers since the end of 2011.

“Some of the dogs have become real celebrities,” Zhao said. “Commuters sometimes recognize ‘star dogs’ working in Metro stations and are delighted to see them.”

To satisfy all this public interest, Metro police are planning to hold a “fans’ day,” inviting some of the Weibo followers to visit the training center and get a closer look at a day in the life of a Shanghai sniffer dog.


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