By Kristian Rasmussen
Criminals beware — a 16 pound, two-month-old crime fighting force is making her mark on the valley. Erna, a German Shepherd puppy, is in training in Invermere to become an RCMP police dog.
The cute-as-a-button young pup is currently dividing her time between training sessions and chewing the pant legs of her handler, Constable Chris Ralph — who is also in training, to become an RCMP K-9 handler.
“Some of the dogs that my friends have worked on are now working police dogs that are out there saving lives,” Constable Ralph said, explaining why the role appeals.
K-9 officers generally get to go on the most exciting calls, he added, as the dog unit is usually used for criminal apprehensions, missing persons and drug busts.
The path to earning the title of K-9 officer is not an easy one. Constable Ralph must complete a series of four different steps, two of which he already has under his belt.
He started with a “quarry period,” where he assisted RCMP officer Corporal Phil Sullivan, an established K-9 handler, to train police dog Rambo in Cranbrook.
“What you do is lay a track for him,” Constable Ralph explained. “I will hide drugs and other articles. The officer will follow and track with his dog. Your number one goal as a quarry is to keep the dog sharp.”
From there, he moved on to an imprinting course, where RCMP officers learn to train puppies. Constable Ralph passed that course in May 2011, leading him into step three, training Erna.
Now he has received his imprinter designation, Constable Ralph must complete a minimum of 24 months of puppy training before he can be chosen for the last step, a six month K-9 handler course in Innisfail, Alberta.
Although keeping a puppy focused can be tough, Constable Ralph said, his current dog Erna is no slouch when it comes to training.
“This is a dog that was born at the RCMP kennel,” the constable said. “Officers take the active police dogs, ones that they think are exceptional, and breed them with the females that they feel have the best qualities. They are genetically creating dogs that are just fantastic for the job.”
Even with the pick of the litter on his side, the dog trainer has a laborious task ahead of him.
“Puppies are very impressionable,” he said. “If you do something that the dog doesn’t want to do and scare the dog, it can wreck the animal right away.”
The officer recommends a gentle approach to animal training. Even the way that a person walks up to an animal can leave a lasting impression, he added.
“You really want to get down to its level so that you are not this big looming thing over it,” Constable Ralph said.
Another challenge of dog training is the problem of moving forward with an animal that isn’t always cooperative. Training in increments is the only way that most creatures are able to overcome their built-in fears, the officer explained.
“I won’t push a dog to climb a set of slippery stairs right away,” he said. “We always start with the basics and work with different textures, like metals or wood so that the dog can find its grip and balance.”
He said that working with dogs is also a 24-hour routine as he’s also roommates with his trainee.
“It is a puppy, and you are up all hours of the night letting it out,” Constable Ralph said. “It is a full-time living and breathing thing that I am taking care of.”
After multiple months together, saying goodbye to a puppy can be tough, he admitted. The RCMP can request any police puppy in training be moved on to another handler and facility at any time.
With no K-9 unit in the Columbia Valley, the nearest detachment where Erna could eventually end up is in Cranbrook. But for now, handler and dog are enjoying their training journey together, at the expense of Constable Ralph’s pant legs.