Their tiny tails were wagging non-stop at the grand opening of their new home Friday afternoon, but it won't be long before 11 Belgian shepherds are wearing police badges.
The opening of the Winnipeg Police Service canine unit, a 4,500-square-foot, $1.5-million high-security kennel facility, was heralded by Mayor Sam Katz and police Chief Devon Clunis as a watershed event that spells bad news for bad guys.
Located next to the East District police station, which is at 1750 Dugald Rd., it features 11 air-conditioned indoor kennels and attached dog runs, a community classroom and office space, all geared toward producing dogs that can both track down suspects and sniff out narcotics and explosives.
Sgt. David Bessason, senior trainer of the WPS canine unit, was widely credited as one of the driving forces of the new facility.
When the old kennels weren't replaced a couple of years ago, the program had an immediate capacity issue. Though the dogs accompanied their officer partners home at night, when the officers went on vacation, it was often Bessason who would go by their houses to feed and run the dogs.
As much as he believed in the canine division, he knew that situation was untenable.
"This is phenomenal," Bessason said. "The (police) service and executive have recognized the impact (the canine unit) has on the street."
Responding to more than 7,000 calls a year, the canine unit works hand in hand with the police helicopter.
"We're usually the last chance to catch (a suspect). Otherwise, there's a long and costly investigation. If we're searching a two- or three-block area, one dog can cover the same amount of ground in less time than 10 to 15 officers," he said.
These seven-week-old pups aren't just in demand for fighting crime in Winnipeg. Jeremy Halak, a canine officer from Brooklyn Park, Minn., said the WPS in-house breeding program is producing some of the top police dogs in North America. His current canine partner is a product of Winnipeg, as is another one on his force.
After having driven eight hours to take in the festivities, Halak was waiting to find out whether he would be able to take back one or two of the pups.
"It's all about the genetics of the dogs and how they raise them," Halak said. "We're looking for high-drive dogs to do apprehension work and narcotics and that will have the courage to engage a human being."
In-house breeding of police dogs isn't done much in the U.S. Many of the police dogs there are imported from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Halak said -- but the Winnipeg dogs are a cut above the rest.
"I think you're going to see these dogs all over the U.S.," he said.
There are currently a dozen canine teams in Winnipeg, with 12 officers and 23 dogs.