Having a partner willing to make the ultimate sacrifice could mean the difference between life and death.
As a handler with the RCMP’s police service dog division, Const. Matt Noel and his canine partner Blackie will often be on the front line in emergency situations.
And the most vulnerable.
“Just knowing that dog would jump into the fight and that dog would essentially give their life for you, I hate to say it, but not a lot of human beings would do that,” said Noel, 29, who came to Penticton six years ago after graduating from the police academy.
“But the dogs do it no questions asked, and because of that bond they’re willing to lay down their life for you.”
He and Blackie are among the country’s newest certified teams following their successful completion of the grueling, five-month training program in Alberta.
Just by the nature of the calls they respond to — the fact someone is fleeing from the police — increases the risk level of the job.
“You don’t know what they’re running from, whether they are high on drugs or whether they’ve just murdered someone and they’re willing to do anything they can to get away.” said Noel. “Sometimes the bad guy will have the element of surprise and will jump you. We’ve had handlers killed in the field for that very reason.”
Building that bond between dog and handler usually happens quite quickly, especially when they spend virtually all their waking hours with each other.
Although having only been on the job together for a short time, the officer has already noticed a difference in the way Blackie is able to read his mindset.
The sound of the siren or the elevated tone of his voice on the radio immediately changes the dog’s demeanor from his normally easy-going manner to work time.
“You wouldn’t think he’s a police dog because he still has that puppyish mentality, but when it comes down to doing his job it’s like flicking a light switch. He’s ready to go, works hard and doesn’t get distracted from the task,” said Noel. “And this bond is only going to get stronger the longer we are together. We learned a lot in training but this is a continual learning process, you never stop because there is always something new, something different.”
While it’s not something he likes to think about, the potential of losing his partner is a very real possibility he has had to come to terms with.
“It’s definitely my biggest fear. But when you sign up for the training you know that even though the dog is like a family member, unfortunately the job demands that they go in, and if they don’t come out at the end of the call that’s part of the job,” he said.
“You do everything you can to mitigate that but you have to be prepared. Every call you go to you try and think operationally and tactically so you and the dog come home safe at the end of the day.”
Originally from Kamloops, Noel decided on his career choice when he was a teenager after going for a ride-along one night with an RCMP dog section member.
But getting to this stage in his police career has not been easy.
While the actual course itself is only a few months, he estimates it’s actually been over five years of commitment to achieving his goal, and most of it on his time.
Initially, potential handlers are assessed for their ability to do the work, are taught how and required to raise the puppies to the next level and spend many hours training in the field with established teams.
Often that means doing the dirty work such as serving as the “quarry” in the take-down scenarios which, no matter how much padding is worn, results in plenty of bumps and bruises.
While they have only been on the job for a short time, the pair have already snagged their first culprit, which Noel admitted was a real confidence builder.
“The first one is always the best one, so they say. Even with all the training, you never really know 100 per cent how it’s going to go down,” said the officer. “Luckily enough I had the right call at the right time and the dog worked hard and did what he had to do and we ended up getting the bad guy. It cements everything you’ve learned and just makes it all feel worthwhile.”
For the immediate future the pair will continue to work out of Penticton, but his next posting to Burnaby has already been determined.
While leaving the Peach City will be hard, Noel is looking forward to the challenges he and Blackie will face in the coming years of duty.
“It’s been awesome. I love living here, but like any chapter it has to end and a new one begin,” he said.