Out on patrol with Islington’s park guard dog team
17:58 04 January 2013
Security organisation Parkguard have been patrolling Islington’s parks and open spaces for the past 10 years, reducing crime, drug taking and anti-social behaviour. News editor Aimee Brannen went out on a recent patrol with the team and its dogs to find out more about their work.
Within seconds of burying my keys under a mass of leaves, four-and-a-half year old park patrol dog Axle has scoured the yard and has stood beside the spot where they’re hidden, barking excitedly at his handler.
The German shepherd, one of 12 dogs belonging to Parkguard – the organisation which manages security of Islington’s parks – is a general purpose dog trained to detect human scent.
It enables him to find a range of items across the borough’s open spaces, including weapons and stolen belongings – all of which need just a tiny trace of smell, like the bunch of keys which had been buried at the bottom of my handbag all day.
Next to show off his skills is six-year-old springer spaniel Toppa – who zooms around Elthorne Park in Archway at lightning speed.
Within minutes, the pro-active drugs dog has located a tiny butt from a cannabis joint beside a bench. Like Axle, his tail wags frantically waiting for his handler to pick up his find and reward him with a tennis ball.
Supervisor Jean-Pierre Rossouw, one of 25 members of staff working across several London boroughs, said: “It’s quite remarkable that the dog can find such a small amount of cannabis and we will report this today.
“Then if we find this type of stuff again we know it’s happening on a daily basis and can patrol accordingly.”
Parkguard, employed by Islington Council to patrol their parks for the past 10 years, also uses passive drugs dogs, which are much more subtle in their efforts and are trained to detect drugs carried by people.
The company’s newest recruits are puppies Amy, a 14-week-old springer spaniel and future drugs dog, and Blitz, a 12-week-old malinois training to be a general purpose dog.
They are learning the ropes from handlers Gavin Judd and Paul Murphy.
Gavin said: “The main thing we’re doing at this stage is socialising him. We want him to be as confident as he can be so we take him to shopping centres, trains stations and bus depots.”
Operations and dog section manager Paul Alison, who up until five years ago was a police dog handler, said: “We train along police dog standards and guidelines. The only thing we don’t train them to do which the police do is biting offenders – they are just using their noses.”
It will be about 15 months before Amy and Blitz are fully qualified – but if nothing else at present, they are a big hit with park-goers and the public are encouraged to interact with them.
As well as searching for criminal activity, there is much more to Parkguard’s role – including education around dog ownership.
Paul said: “A big part of our work is education and teaching responsibilities around dog ownership.
“We give advice on training, feeding and welfare, and arrange for microchipping.”
The team can also issue dog control orders for offences including not clearing up dog mess, having dogs in “no-go zones” and not keeping proper control of pooches – but most of the team’s work focuses on preventative measures.
In fact, when I joined Parkguard on patrol earlier this month, Jean-Pierre and patrol officer Johannesh Jackson stepped in to talk to a woman with a boisterous bull terrier puppy and issued advice on how to train it to walk properly with a lead. There are also “Top Dog” training days at local parks, as well as dog shows.
Parkguard’s record speaks for itself, with crime and drug taking, anti-social behaviour and dog control problems all reduced dramatically in the years they have been patrolling the parks.
Paul said: “Over the years we have had far more serious problems than we do now.
“Our continued presence in parks has definitely made them safer – we are finding less problems, less drugs and less knives.
“We do a lot of partnership work with the police. We are the intelligence and see the problems we are having.”
In Islington this year alone the team has collected around 50 bags of cannabis and more than 30 wraps of class A drugs – 19 of which were hidden in foliage in a children’s playground.
Dozens of weapons – including a machete and several nine-inch carving knives have been found in the borough’s parks.
Parkguard works closely with the police and council, and the dogs are often called upon for major weapon and drugs sweeps in the borough.
Dog handler Paul Murphy added: “It’s the best job in the world, and I’ll have nobody saying anything else.
“The thing I love is the way you are thinking all the time, trying to stay a step ahead of the dog when they are quite often 10 ahead of you. It means you have to come up with ideas and different ways of trying and testing things.”
And it’s clear that the dogs certainly enjoy their work just as much.