Two RAF dogs used to protect Prince William were put down days after he left his post. Just what happens to our police dogs when they retire? Catherine Scott reports on a new charity trying to help.
AN armed burglar is believed to be holed up in a house in Leeds. Walking towards the potential danger zone is a German Shepherd. This is no ordinary pet. This is a specially-trained police dog who is putting his life at risk to ensure the safety of his handler and the rest of the policemen readying to enter the building.
“We don’t like sending them in but that is what they are trained for, says PC Duncan Matthews. “It is like sending in your best friend.”
For around eight years of their lives the country’s police dogs put their lives at risk to protect us. They could be helping disarm armed men, tackle a gang of violent football hooligans, or even search for a missing person or property.
But, when they come to retire, most of them receive very little. They become the responsibility of their dog handler, who then has to foot the potentially huge vet bills which can folllow.
Now a new charity is being launched in West Yorkshire to make sure that these four-legged friends have the long and happy retirement they deserve. The hope is one day it will be rolled out across the country and join with other charities in other Forces.
FiresideK9 has been set up by West Yorks Police Constable Duncan Matthews, an active dog handler, and the force’s chaplain the Rev Paul Wilcock BEM, who aims to help care for the brave crime-fighting canines once they are deemed too old to pound the beat.
The charity which already has a large following on Twitter, now has the support of Sky News anchor Kay Burley.
Kay, who has three Irish Red Setters and is a lifelong animal lover, has just agreed to be patron of Fireside K9 which is officially launched on October 20.
“I wholeheartedly agree with Fireside K9’s ethos – these dogs have put their lives on the line for us, so now we need to say thank you and treat them in their retirement with the respect they deserve.”
There are presently 22 retired police dogs in West Yorks being cared for by their former handlers, all serving police officers. PC Matthews, a dog handler for five years, says the dogs who have served in West Yorkshire are among the luckier ones as the force gives a one-off £500 payment to the handler for their care.
“But it’s taxable which reduces it to about £370 so it really only would cover a couple of vet bills at the most,” he says.
“These dogs have had a hard-working life and you can’t get insurance for them because they are deemed high risk.
“So a police officer could be faced with a £2,500 vets’ bill they can’t pay and have a difficult choice to make.
“I never want an officer to have to be faced with that terrible decision of possibly having their dog, their best friend put down.”
In America these dogs are regarded as sworn police officers. If they are assaulted, the perpetrator is charged with assaulting a police officer. The dogs also receive a life-long pension to cover their care and food bills after having served their duty.
It is something the Rev Wilcock would welcome in this country.
“These dogs are more than just tools to do a job. That may apply to our vehicles, our helicopter and our kit – but our dogs are more than that,” explains Rev Wilcock.
“They are partners, loyal colleagues, and trusted friends. An officer may spend as much time in the company of their dog as with their family. It is essential that when they retire there is support and care made available to them until the natural end of their lives.”
As a serving officer. PC Matthew’s trusty partner is a German Shepherd PD (Police Dog) Tia, replacing PD Kiro who has just retired and lives with the officer at his Wakefield home and plays with his five-year old child,
“The dogs are my job. If we get called to a situation which could be too dangerous for a police officer to go in, the PD and I often have to venture in first. Or the dog may go alone to clear a room and give officers an early indication that there may be a suspect, possibly armed, in hiding. There is no doubt that these dogs save human lives.
“A really close bond develops between officer and dog, they are like a best friend and part of the family, and when I get calls from officers saying they can’t afford vet bills for their much-loved dogs, it is heart-breaking.”
When officers were faced with a large vet’s bill they could apply to the charity for a grant towards the cost of treatment.
Kay says she was shocked to learn how poorly the hardy animals are treated after they retire.
“When Duncan approached me to be patron, I was honoured and immediately said yes. I have always had a huge respect for the vital work these brave police dogs perform to keep us humans safe. I was shocked to learn there is no funding when they finish their working lives and I am determined to help right that wrong. I think it’s great that dogs in the US retire with a pension – we need to cherish our police and military dogs with the same respect. Yet we leave handlers struggling to feed and care for sometimes two retired dogs as well as the serving animal – and we know how expensive vets’ bills can be.’”
Kay has been a dog owner for more than 20 years.
“I have three Irish Setters – Gordon, Alf and Dill – and they mean the world to me. They are always devastated when I leave the house, delighted when I return,” she says. PC Matthews compares police dogs to his human colleagues.
“They are hard-working, highly trained four-legged crime fighters.”
Dog charity hopes to go national
FiresideK9 will be officially launched at a special event at Nostell Priory on October 20.
There will be police dog competitions throughout the day which starts at 9am where dogs from six forces will compete against each other in areas of agility, obedience and then criminal detection.
The charity, whose patron is Kay Burley, hopes to go national eventually and link up with other police force dog sections.
“We aren’t intending on funding the day to day costs of dog ownership, we just hope to be there to support handlers should their dog fall ill or be injured and they’re faced with the most heart-breaking choice to make – one that should never have to be based on money. I know first-hand how these dogs never falter in their duty to protect their handler and the public and I think offering them this support in their retirement is the least we can do,”says PC Duncan Matthews, an officer for 13 years.
For more information, follow them on Twitter @FiresideK9 and Facebook.