x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The 'dog man' who polices training

Portrait The founder of the RAK Police dog division is as passionate about his team of four-legged officers, and their invaluable work, as the day he started with five pups.

Lt Col Khalid al Merri, the founder and head of the RAK Police dog unit, with one of the latest recruits. The new dog is an descendant of Dinah.
Lt Col Khalid al Merri, the founder and head of the RAK Police dog unit, with one of the latest recruits. The new dog is an descendant of Dinah.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // In a corner of a rough-looking patch of land in Ras al Khaimah stands a tomb built out of tyres and bricks that a casual visitor could be forgiven for thinking it is of little importance. In fact, it marks the final resting place of an RAK pioneer.

The tomb contains the remains of Dinah, the emirate's first police dog. Painted in the division's colours of red and white, it will soon carry a plaque bearing her name along with an outline of her distinguished service record (regulations prevent details of specific operations from being revealed). "It all began with her," says Lt Col Khaled Hamad al Merri, the head of the RAK Police dog unit. Known as "the dog man", he and Dinah were the original members of the division, which Col al Merri, 42, set up almost 16 years ago. Back then, there was little to suggest the unit would amount to much.

"It was a barren piece of property, with nothing more than a pit of sand and clumsily built wooden shacks that were to be the headquarters of the trainers and members of the police force," he recalls. Today, Col al Merri's offices look out on to a well-equipped dog-training ground and obstacle courses. Nearby are a recreational yard and comfortable kennels. A veterinary surgeon is on call 24 hours a day to deal with any problem the squad of 35 animals may have.

About 20 trainers look after the dogs full-time and accompany them whenever they are called in by the regular police to assist in an operation. The walls of Col al Merri's office are covered with rosettes and certificates his dogs have won in agility competitions. There are also numerous official citations for his "great efforts" in running the division. In the beginning, Col al Merri gained the knowledge and experience he needed to run the division by visiting established police dog units abroad.

Indeed, among the citations is a plaque bearing his honorary qualification as a "specialist" in police dog-handling, awarded to him by police in Britain. When any new dog arrives at the unit, Col al Merri trains them personally for the first few months. On his desk sits a container packed with colourful dog treats. "They call me 'the dog man' here, so whoever has a dog or comes across any dog-related story, they like to come here and tell me about it," he says, smiling broadly.

A box in his desk drawer contains hundreds of photos documenting the progress of the division. In many, he is pictured surrounded by dogs of all breeds and sizes, in others he is seen encouraging the animals as they jump through hoops and fetch sticks. Col al Merri holds one picture particularly dear: it is of Dinah sitting obediently next to him, seemingly mirroring his smile to the camera. The RAK Police dog unit began its life in 1993. Col al Merri, a young officer at the time, was working in the investigations department when he was summoned by his superiors and ordered to launch a dog division.

"My only qualification was that I liked dogs and that I used to be known for raising and taking care of them," he says. A few days later, five puppies arrived at police HQ. Among them was a particularly affectionate black Labrador who took a liking to the young policeman. He decided to call her Dinah. "I know this sounds silly, but in many ways, she helped me become a better dog trainer by giving me her trust and letting me teach her to become a police dog," he says.

"The division has come a long way and we are now an essential part of the police force." Animals have long been a part of Col al Merri's life. "Animals can be of great help in almost every aspect of our lives if we treat them with respect," he says. The police dog division's canine officers and their handlers are divided into specialist groups. One group works as trackers, another specialises in detecting explosives, while the third seeks out illegal drugs.

There is also an elite "smart dog" group, where the animals operate as a policeman's partner. They can be used to enforce public order by chasing and holding suspects. The dogs are also trained to protect officers and handlers who are in danger. Dinah, says Col al Merri, was the original smart dog. "I have trained and had many police dogs since Dinah, but have yet to come across a dog like her," he says.

She died of old age in September, 2002. Her puppies, fathered by a dog from Sharjah's police dog division called Drum, now also work for the force. "We are a family here, where the trainers are attached to their dogs and vice versa, and if we lose a dog during an operation, we treat the dog like we lost a police member," he says. He admits he is "overprotective" of his four-legged staff. Col al Merri can recall numerous incidents at airports and during raids that he says prove just how adept at their job the dogs are. "I learn something new every day when I supervise the training and when I go out on patrols with the dogs," he says.

Police dogs can cost between Dh3,000 (US$800) and Dh40,000, depending on their background and breed. Like Dinah, they are given "funky names", like Ruby, Madonna and even Shakira, although there is also a practical benefit. "For some reason, the dogs respond better to foreign names over Arabic names," Col al Merri laughs. His office contains boxes of dog toys used in the animals' training, including plastic bones stuffed with little bits of plastic explosive or dynamite, while other objects contain tiny pieces of hashish or other drugs. The amount of each substance used is minuscule, far less than could be detected by a human nose.

Once trained, the sniffer dogs can pick up the smallest trace of an illegal substance. If they do, they are trained to bark and sit next to whatever or whoever it is they find suspicious. When the dogs get too old to work, Col al Merri makes sure they enjoy a pleasant retirement. The veterans live at the base until they pass away naturally. He says that, after a lifetime of service, they deserve nothing less. "Some believe that if a dog is not useful anymore and is not serving, then it should be put to sleep, which I think is horrible and unfair."

Although he obviously loves his dogs and is rightly proud of the division and its achievements, Col al Merri says many people still harbour a negative view of his work. "There is a general misconception by people here, and Muslims in general, that dogs are bad and dirty," he says. "But if you work closely with them, as I do, you will realise what a magnificent and loyal animal it is, and if you take care of it, it will not be sick or dirty.

"They can be, and most of the time are, a policeman's best friend." rghazal@thenational.ae