The Rise of the Police Dog

Military Police 1942.
World War II Today
1946 Policeman and dogs in training.
Metropolitan Police History
Front cover photograph showing two London policemen with the first Metropolitan police-dogs in 1938.
Metropolitan Police History
The first sentry dog of the British Army trained by Major Richardson of Harrow, was purchased by the 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry, stationed at Colchester.
Between 1914 and 1918, a French sergeant and a dog, both wearing gas masks, on their way to the front line
National Photo Company Collection

Some argue that the first ‘real’ police dog was used in1859 by police officers in Luton who employed a bloodhound to help track down a murderer. Be that as it may, those animals that we would recognise as true police dogs didn’t really appear on the streets of Britain until well after World War II.

Germany as early as 1896.

Dogs had been used to control crowds and gangs in Germany as early as 1896. And it was the Germans and Belgians who first began to train, breed and recognise the value of different breeds and the functions they could usefully perform. The Germans selected the German Shepherd, also known as the Alsatian, as the breed best suited for the tasks they had in mind. The Doberman Pinscher was a close second choice and through films is often associated with the German army.

After World War I a training school was established in Greenheide, Germany, in 1920. In this school police dogs were trained to be obedient, to attack, and to find objects by smell. From these early beginnings many of the training methods and techniques have become part of modern approaches to dog training. The achievements of police dogs in Ghent, Belgium and the success of German dogs during the Great War prompted Britain to take an interest in using police dogs during the 1920s. An experimental school was established to examine training and to see which breeds had the most aptitude for police work.

Within a few years the British borrowed the techniques practiced at Greenheide and began formally training dogs. The attitude in the UK was very much that dogs were beneficial as long as they did not cost money or require special training.

1920s and 30s

Continued success with dogs by Continental police forces in the 1920s and 30s finally sparked an interest in the Home Office in Britain.

In order to establish the best breed to be employed as a police service dog, the 1934 committee set up an experimental Home Office dog training school in Washwater near Newbury. It concluded that finding a multi-purpose dog trained to perform several tasks was unlikely and that different breeds should be employed for different tasks. The committee reported in 1937 that the experiments at the dog training school showed that the best breed of dog for following a scent was the bloodhound, and the best breed of dog for general patrol purposes was the Labrador.   As a result of the committee’s conclusions, recommendations were made that Chief Constables should ‘consider’ the value of dogs in police work, but it was once again left to the individual chief police officer to decide on the worth of employing dogs in his force.

An interesting excerpt from The Times dated 15 January 1938 gives an interesting insight into the thinking of senior police officers of the time in regard to the use of dogs. Colonel Hoel Llewellyn, Chief Constable of Wiltshire:

‘A good dog with a night duty man is as sound a proposition as you can get. The dog hears what the constable does not, gives him notice of anyone in the vicinity, guards his master’s bicycle to the death, and remains mute unless roused. He is easily trained and will go home when told to do so with a message in his collar.’

Bearing in mind that this was a statement from a pro-dog man of the times, is it any wonder that the authorities failed to understand the true worth of the dog in the role of law enforcement for a number of years to come?

Metropolitan Police Force 1938

Two specially trained Labradors were officially introduced to the Metropolitan Police Force in 1938 and were based in South London with the idea of accompanying police on beats in the countrified suburbs. The coming of World War II in 1939 shifted attention away from police dog training towards military requirements.

The end of World War II brought a crime wave to the streets of British cities. Returning servicemen appear to have acquired many of the skills necessary to a life of crime and once again the role of the police dog came to the fore.

1946 saw the formation of a small dog section within the Metropolitan Police. Six Labradors were purchased from Yorkshire farmers and deployed in South London, quickly proving their worth when on their first night on patrol they were used in the arrest of two American servicemen after a purse snatch. In 1948 a new breed of police dog was used on the streets of London for the first time, the German Shepherd had arrived. The first of this breed in London was called ‘Smokey’ and such was the impression that he made that a further twelve Alsatians together with another seven Labradors were purchased. The Metropolitan Police Dog Section was growing so rapidly that a central dog training school was established at Imber Court and by 1950 the total number of trained dogs in the force numbered 90.


By the 1950s various police forces were experimenting with dogs and in 1954 a standing committee was formed to co-ordinate the breeding, supply and training of police dogs throughout the UK

The popularity of the police dog was being echoed all over the UK with police forces both large and small employing dogs and  handlers on their strength and setting up dog training schools to cater for the ever-increasing number of dogs being used. The value of the police dog has been recognised by all to such an extent that there are over 2500 police dogs employed amongst the various police forces in the UK.

You may have heard that police dogs are trained with German commands so only the handler may order them to attack and no one else may accidentally give them this crucial command. While this may seem to make perfect sense, in reality it’s a myth.

Historical Consultant David Rowland

International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice

Police Dog Facts Leah Waldron

Metropolitan Police History

Dyfed Powys Police


Comments about this page

  • Thank you for this wonderful account of Police Dogs. I am former Met-Police and from 1986 Durham Constabulary where I served from 1993 on the dog section. I now run my own dog training and behaviour business and do provide often free of charge to charity events talks on dog sections and sometimes actual presentations with a dog [ GSD x Malinois]. This document has been extremely useful.

    By David MG Davies (07/09/2018)

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