K-9 History

An in-depth post by Jim Engel at Angel Place about the origins of Police dogs…


I have been an active police service dog handler and trainer for the past 16 years and have, during this time, given numerous presentations on police service dogs to school children, civic groups, and other interested organizations. One question which is always asked is the one concerning the origin of police dog programs. When I began this interesting and rewarding specialty in 1968, I decided to do some research into its history, anticipating such questions during my presentations and not wanting to appear overly ignorant on the subject. In one informational booklet, I read that all organized police service dog programs originated with a program established in Gent, Belgium, in 1899. Although I could locate no further information on the Gent program, I continued to convey this fact during the course of my presentations. A few years ago, I began corresponding with Sgt. Erik Verwilst, a Belgian gendarme stationed in Gent, and was fortunate enough to be able to visit him at his residence in Gent last summer. Since the mystery behind the Gent police dogs had been in the back of my mind for many years, I decided to ask Sgt. Verwilst to locate for me any available documentation on the subject from the Gent Police archives. In response to my request, I was presented with numerous photographic reproductions of original photos and photocopies of original documents on the subject in English, French and German, including a booklet in French written by the founder of the first police dog program himself, Chief Commissioner (Chief of Police) Ernest H. P. Van Wesemael in 1910. All of this documentation was provided through the courtesy of Chief Inspector Roger De Caluwe of the Gent City Police, who obtained this information through his departmental archives and the Gent Public Library.

It is doubtful that these original dog-handler pioneers had any idea that the concept they originated in 1899 would still be a vital part of world law enforcement nearly 90 years later. Every citizen who has ever had his stolen property recovered by use of a police service dog, every parent who has ever had a lost child found by a police service dog, and every police officer who has ever been protected from serious injury by a police service dog, owes an everlasting debt of gratitude to these 10 men who had the fortitude to initiate a concept, which, at the time, was unheard of in the law enforcement field. This, then, is their story as I have condensed it from over 15 contemporary booklets and newspaper articles written in three different languages. Chief Van Wesemael, Gent Police Chief from 1888 to 1915, even then was faced with the same problems which plague most police a dministrators today, that is a rising crime rate, numerous unsolved major crimes, and a lack of funding to hire additional personnel to combat this rapidly deteriorating situation. When the Gent burgomaster (mayor) refused him additional funds, Van Wesemael made the statement, “If you can’t give me more policemen, then give me some dogs.” The mayor agreed, since the cost of the dog program, as outlined to him by Van Wesemael, was substantially less than the funding of an additional 100 policemen, as was the original request. It remains unclear just how Van Wesemael had gained experience in training dogs. It can only be assumed from what little information is available on Van Wesemael’s personal life that he was at the time actively engaged in breeding and training Belgian herding dogs and felt that if such dogs could be trained to herd cattle and sheep, they could likewise be easily trained to “herd” criminals. Perhaps he had been experimenting with this theory in private and was convinced that his concept would work. So, in March of 1899, three dogs of the Belgian herding variety, resembling our present-day Bouviers, were acquired for Chief Van Wesemael by the Gent city veterinary officer, and the training of these dogs, along with that of their policemen handlers, was personally begun by Chief Van Wesemael, who eventually turned this training task over to qualified subordinates. Shortly before Christmas of 1899, 10 dog and handler teams were at work. The dogs were initially utilized at night in the city’s high crime neighborhoods, along the waterfront, and in the wooded outlying sections of the city. Their success in diminishing the problem at hand was nearly instantaneous. Night crimes, previously both numerous and serious in these sections of the city, fell off two-thirds simply because the employment of the trained dogs was enough to render doubtful certain nefarious plans.

the article continues here…


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