TV tells us there's no working relationship closer than a cop and his partner. And if that partner is a four-legged, that relationship is even tighter.
In the real world, it turns out, that's not too far from the truth. "He's my best friend and he's my partner. He watches my back, and I watch his," says Const. Steve Pike, referring to his three-yearold German shepherd, Talon. "He's far more than a pet, because every day I go to work, he's with me. Every day I go home, he's with me."
Pike, head of North Vancouver RCMP's dog section, and his canine partner are the product of a years-long training program designed to create tightly knit, highly efficient crime-fighting units. He recently invited the North Shore News to the detachment to see a demonstration of what they can do.
Talon, all 87 pounds of him, comes bounding in and sits at Pike's feet. "Sits" might not be the right word - more like trembles in anticipation. Talon, panting, drooling and fidgeting, may look anxious, but Pike says his state can more accurately be described as highly alert and eager for instructions.
"He's saying: 'What's up dad? What are we doing?' He knows it's time to go to work," Pike says.
Unlike most dogs, Talon shows scant interest in the other people making their way around the busy North Vancouver detachment; he's 100 per cent focused on his master. He's also indifferent to other animals and anything else that might distract him from his duties. This is something that has been both trained and bred into him to make sure he never approaches anyone that might want to harm him.
As part of the demo, Pike hides some swabs scented with trace amounts of drug residue around the detachment's gym.
Talon literally dives into his work, huffing in the faint scent, picking it up and losing it again. He zeros in on the hidden swab by following something close to a grid pattern until he pinpoints it tucked into a weight machine. Talon signals for Pike to come collect the swab. The glorious reward for the successful find: Praise from his master and some chew-time with his treasured rubber toy.
By now, Pike's pants are covered in slobber - clearly an occupational hazard.
In the field, Talon's olfactory nerves have honed in on drugs hidden in some bizarre places that even seasoned officers wouldn't think to look.
"We did a drug search on a vehicle," says Pike. "It looked like a regular engine block, but my dog indicated to me that there were drugs in there, so we did a search and found back behind the engine block a little plastic case with magnets attached." The officer relates the story with a mix of pride and lingering disbelief.
It's an impressive feat, but it's only one of Talon's talents. In addition to being able to find a speck of narcotics hidden in an environment already laced with confusing smells, he is also an expert tracker; he can locate even tiny shreds of important evidence; he can bring down a full-grown man; and he has a knack for letting Pike know where there's danger nearby.
On countless occasions, Talon has warned Pike about a suspect trying to hide nearby, possibly saving his life.
"He alerted me to that guy being there. . . . He was saying: 'Dad, he's in here, I know it,'" Pike says, referring to one such incident. "You don't know what could or would have happened."
The two have come to be able to read one another's subtle body language.
The only thing Talon's not trained for is sniffing out explosives, so he'll never accidentally send Pike into a dangerous situation, says the officer.
"I don't want to make the mistake of casually opening up a drawer or opening up a box thinking it's a pound of marijuana versus a pound of C4," Pike says.
Getting into the dog section isn't something an officer like Pike just falls into. It's a total lifestyle change. To become a dog handler, you have to start out as a regular member and commit a tremendous amount of time helping to train other dogs - a process known as quarrying - before you're even considered.
"It can range into the thousands of hours per year," Pike says. "It's voluntary. They'll come out on their days off. They're still responsible for whatever their regular police duties might be."
As a quarry, you will also eventually be assigned a pup to raise and start training for future use by another officer. Only after a member has logged two full years of quarrying can he or she apply to the dog section - and even then, it's unlikely.
"I raised five puppies before I actually got the police dog I have right now," Pike says. "(Talon) is number six."
But if getting into dog section sounds tough for officers, the screening process is even tougher for the dogs.
The RCMP has a list of breeders who track, in detail, the traits exhibited in a bloodline and pair those lines up at the RCMP kennel in Innisfail, Alta.
The pups are literally born into their training. The pen they are kept in for the first six weeks is rigged with moving objects and cutouts of animals and people designed to get them used to enhanced stimulation and socialization.
At six weeks, when they're barely old enough to be weaned, the puppies face their first aptitude test to determine if they should be screened out of the program.
The RCMP only uses German shepherds for policing, because they have had the right traits bred into them.
"Overall, it has a little bit of everything," says Pike. "It's the best bang for the buck, if you will. Agility, loyalty, stamina, tracking ability - (the dog) may not be the best at any one profile or activity, but it (should be) well-rounded in everything."
At six months, the dogs face another test. Those found to be too sociable or reluctant to respond to commands are adopted out.
If, after a final test at one year of age, a dog appears suitable for service, they're off to "Doggy Depot," in Innisfail where they are tested every day for months while undergoing strict training with prospective dog handlers. The newly minted dog section officer and his or her canine are sent off to whatever detachment in Canada is in need of a new team. To keep the system running, dog handlers will seek out a quarry soon after.
Const. Blaise Picketts, Pike's current quarry, knows full well what he's getting into as he trains prospect canine Diego.
"It just seems like the most exciting gig in the RCMP," he says. "Obviously, the bond between man and dog is incredible. To be able to combine your work with the love of a dog just seems like a no-brainer to me."
As Picketts can tell you, raising a police dog has all the same trappings as raising any other puppy.
"I came home and he had just destroyed my brand new jeans," Picketts says, with a sigh. "All you can really do is say: 'Well, good for you.'"
It's a bittersweet assignment, as Diego could be called for duty any day.
Picketts expects it will be at least another year of quarrying before he'll have a dog of his own.
. . .
Back home at the end of the day, Talon is still Pike's No. 1 priority. Talon gets to go for a walk or swim in the park. He gets his supper before Pike has his, and the two spend some time together more like a couple of friends kicking back than as a crime-fighting team, as Pike describes it.
The lighter, less intimidating side of a police dog is what Pike wishes more people knew about. A favourite story in RCMP dog section: When the Mounties first started using dogs in the 1930s, they were called to a rural Alberta home where a young girl had wandered off.
The RCMP dog and his handler quickly found her and brought her home. Eighty years later, that same woman, now suffering from dementia, wandered off again. Sure enough, with a sniff of some of her belongings, the canine was on her trail and she was again saved by the dog section.