Meet “Maja,” the Ponoka RCMP detachment’s new police dog service trainee.
Maja (pronounced M-ya), an eight-week old female purebred German Shepard, arrived in Ponoka on Jan. 27 and began her training right away.
She was born at the RCMP Dog Training Facility in Innisfail. RCMP German shepherds are not your typical North American domesticated house pet breed, but come from ancient bloodlines in Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Maja is so fresh from Innisfail that she still sports some paint on her back, which is how the pups are differentiated from their litter mates at the facility.
For a couple more weeks, other officers are allowed to pet Maja in order to socialize her, but then tactical training starts in earnest and only her handler, Cst. Patrick O’Neill, is permitted to touch her at all.
O’Neill is her handler, in addition to his full-time day job as a member of the General Investigation Section (GIS) which broad investigations that reduce crime and get drugs off the street.
O’Neill currently works with younger dogs, imprinting and teaching them the basics of police dog skills. It’s his goal to ultimately become a full-time member of the RCMP dog service training program.
Maja’s training will start with the fundamentals, as she’s still a baby, says O’Neill.
For now, caring for her is a full-time job all on its own, with a very regimented routine. O’Neill wakes up every hour-and-a-half every night with Maja, much like having an actual newborn baby.
This is the fifth dog that O’Neill has started for the training program.
Ponoka residents may be accustomed to seeing him or other RCMP officers out walking a much larger dog, Lucas — O’Neill’s last canine trainee.
Lucas was in Ponoka for 15 months and O’Neill was his handler for that entire time. Lucas has graduated from that stage of training and has moved on to the final stage of selection for being put in the field.
O’Neill typically works with each dog for 14 to 18 months, although it isn’t a set amount of time, but is dependent of each dog’s progress and when they meet certain benchmarks.
You may see Maja and Cst. O’Neill out around town soon, taking short walks.
Although it’s perfectly alright to say hello, service dogs aren’t pets and can’t be touched or approached too closely.
Staff Sgt. Chris Smiley says the public was “fantastic” with Lucas, respecting the boundaries of a working dog and giving him space.
Smiley says he knows the public will continue to respect that boundary and observe Maja from a suitable distance.
The hope is for every dog who goes through the training program to become an RCMP dog, although not all have the aptitude for it.
To be suitable for police work, a dog has be in perfect physical condition and have particular traits such as an even temperament, hunting instinct and sound character.
Fewer female dogs are selected for police dog service. Females may have the same projected aggression in confrontations, but not all have the same prey drive as their male counterparts.
All RCMP dogs are trained to protect their handlers and themselves, as well as apprehend and hold upon command. Any dogs that display any reluctance to do so are not selected for police work.
The females who do make it into the field tend to be superior “standouts,” says Smiley.
Those females who are still exceptional and physically strong, but don’t pass the final stage of training are usually selected for the service dog breeding program.
Other dogs that don’t make the final cut as police service dogs become service dogs in other capacities.
For more information visit rcmp-grc.ca/depot/pdstc-cdcp.