Const. Justin Neufeld’s life has gone to the dogs, and he wouldn’t want it any other way. Called an "imprinter", the Steinbach based RCMP officer works and lives with his latest recruit, a German Shepherd named Pixel. The six-month-old dog could work for the RCMP in the future, but Neufeld said that’s still a long way off.
Working with the Police Dog service as an imprinter is an important job, and is one that falls short of being considered a "police dog handler".
"As an imprinter my role is to introduce the dog to every and any experience they may encounter as a working dog," he said. "During the early years of the dog’s life they undergo many critical periods in which their ability to perceive the world and build confidence is challenged. My role with the animals is to introduce them, and develop them, to a general indifference to many things to do not make sense to them."
Neufeld said that can include exposure to machines, flooring, stairs, loud noises, slippery surfaces, reflective surfaces and many more.
It’s important that those experiences remain positive for the dogs.
That experience of exposure also means Pixel must meet a variety of other animals.
"This includes anything from commonly found animals, rabbits and squirrels and dogs, as well as other larger animals such as horses, cows and other barn animals," he said.
While the dog’s life is a constant discovery of new experiences, training does take place as well.
Neufeld said at eight-weeks he begins teaching the puppy to track a human. He also works on "grip development" which is the beginnings of training to fight with a human when instructed.
And there’s no clocking out at the end of the day. Both Pixel and Const. Neufeld spend every day together. "Part of the bond that we have includes me caring and nurturing for the dog," he said. "This type of work is a 24 hour a day commitment."
Neufeld has always wanted to become a police dog handler, but admitted he knew very little about what was required when he first expressed interest. "I thought it looked cool," he said. "I had no real understanding of the complexity and difficulty of the position."
That knowledge has grown through training dogs, with Pixel now being his fifth dog. He’s trained Jammer, Lincoln, Midnight and Marc.
Having his first potential police dog enter and graduate the Police Dog Service offered a boost of confidence.
"It confirmed everything that I had been taught and my ability to teach and imprint a police dog," he said, adding it feels good to see his former dogs being posted to new areas, and then learning about their success.
"I have seen many news articles with the hard work that he has been doing which have included removing drugs from the community and apprehending criminals who participated in some violent crimes," he said. "In short, the value the dog gains from me, everything he learns and observing measurable success is the same motivation for a parent, teacher or coach."
So far Pixel has been up to the challenge and Neufeld spoke of him in glowing terms.
"He is a very energetic and intelligent dog," he said. "The bond that has formed with this dog has been very natural as he is a very affectionate and loving animal."
Neufeld said Pixel is friendly around all age groups and is a genuinely happy dog. "He is very confident which is important for police dogs and has the ability to work when required and be a dog and play like a puppy should."
And while Pixel is indeed working, one of the challenges for Neufeld is ensuring it feels more like play. "As he gets older and matures through the months the tasks will become more difficult, however he should always feel excited to identify his task and complete it to receive his reward," Neufeld said.
The dog will advance to formal training in Innisfail, Alberta, but for now Neufeld is responsible for the fundamentals.
The earliest a police dog advances for training is the age of two. However Neufeld said dogs advance at different rates and operational requirements may also affect the timing.
That also affects what Pixel will ultimately be trained to do. While Neufeld teaches socialization, bite development and fundamentals for tracking, once in Innisfail, Pixel could be trained for explosives, narcotics, or search and rescue.
Both Pixel and Const. Neufeld can be spotted in the area doing exercises. Neufeld said he will often lay a path for the dog, and the dog handler and Pixel will try to follow him. He’ll also act as a person fleeing police, and wear a protective arm or suit to allow the dog to fight in a way that protects Neufeld and the dog itself.
Those exercises take place with Sgt. Chris Browne, an experienced dog handler who’s been involved with the police dog service since 1999. He formally became a trainer at the RCMP’s national training centre in 2014 and returned to the field this year.
He said working with dogs like Pixel is incredibly rewarding, while bringing unique challenges.
"Dogs are honest and true so their responses to our training reflect that," he said. "As they do not speak English or French, you really have to become a great read of body language to interpret how they feel in any moment."
Browne said police dogs share much in common with police officers.
"We look for the same traits in our dogs as we do in our people: drive, courage, boldness, determination and work ethic," he said.
While the police dog isn’t always the star of an investigation, Browne believes they have an important role to play.
"In some cases we may be the crucial piece to helping resolve a case, or we may be a big part for much larger, complex investigations," he said. "I do know that our members genuinely appreciate when we arrive after they have called us."
With training ongoing, members of the public may encounter Sgt. Browne, Const. Neufeld and Pixel in the community. Browne said they are welcome to stop at a distance to observe training. "Once we are done, or if there is another member available to answer, they are certainly welcome to ask us a question or two," he said.
Police dogs are members of the family according to Browne, and said the bond is unique.
"An old dog handler once said to me: ‘There is nothing like having a police dog for a partner. They always want to go to work with you. They are always excited to see you, no matter what time of day, and jump into the truck. They always listen. They think everything you say is fantastic. And you can tell them anything you want and they will never tell anyone else.’"