In May, two bicycle thieves found themselves hiding in tall grass, along the pitch-black Pat Bay Highway near Elk Lake after Saanich police descended on the area.
It was a good hiding spot from flashlights, but no so much from Zeke the police dog. The five-year-old veteran quickly sniffed out $40,000 worth of stolen gear and the suspects themselves.
“Zeke located all the bikes and wetsuits stashed away and continued on the track,” said Saanich dog handler Const. Jon Zielinski. “There were speedy arrests that night.”
Zielinski and Zeke are the defending general-duty champions for the Canadian Police Canine Championships, hosted by Saanich police this weekend. More than 30 police dog teams from a dozen police agencies between Victoria and Montreal will be put through the paces in a friendly competition.
Seven scenarios emulate what might be encountered on a typical police shift: general tracking, evidence search, compound search and building search, and obedience, agility and catching a “bad guy” in a bite suit. A separate arm of competition is held for drug and bomb sniffing dogs.
Competition Friday and Saturday is closed to the pubic, as the searches are in private buildings and fenced compounds. The event is open to the public Sunday at the University of Victoria’s Centennial Stadium for the obedience, agility and dramatic dog suit take-downs.
Zielinski and Zeke train for the competition daily, dividing time between each of the seven challenges.
A session could be as simple as Zielinski walking around a park and hiding typical evidence like a wallet or a glove, and Zeke’s rubber ball.
“I’ll walk, change direction, drop evidence and hide his ball and wait 35 minutes, which represents the time delay on the street,” he said. “Zeke will follow the odour to the ball. It’s a big game for him.
“The key for any dog training is to make it enjoyable for them … it’s why I place his ball at the end of a trail. He loves his ball, it’s his favourite thing. In the absence of a real person, the best thing is his ball.”
Training is also elaborate, involving volunteers who don bite suits and hide in the bush or in donated commercial buildings. Zielinski said finding volunteers is “surprisingly easy.” Officers looking to join the canine section put in time volunteering as targets as part of learning the craft.
“Anyone in a dog unit spends time doing this, they put in hour after hour after hour of volunteer time to help the canine unit,” he said. “I did it for years before I joined. You learn to be comfortable around these dogs. It’s a lot of fun.”
Zielinski isn’t allowed to have any early knowledge of the competition venues, but he said Zeke remains a strong all-around, highly motivated tracking dog.
“Not much will stop Zeke as long as he has time to do a methodical search,” he said.
“The track is either there or it isn’t. From any crime scene with a person on foot and a short time delay, more often then not a dog will find a track to evidence and ideally, the person who did the offence.”
Fellow Saanich officer Const. Justin Whittaker and his dog are also competing.
“Saanich is the only Greater Victoria team. It would be nice to have better representation. It’s disappointing to say the least,” Zielinski remarked.
The public are invited to watch the competition at Centennial stadium on Sept. 22, starting at 9 a.m. Entry is free.