Labrador Lovers, Australian Border Force are on the lookout

By Hayley Ralph

Volunteers are being sought by Australian Border Force in Melbourne’s north and west.

A loving home and plenty of activity is required to raise an Australian Border Force pup, so long as you enjoy some exercise, have a secure backyard and most importantly, love dogs.

Hayden Cooper has been a foster carer in the Detector Dog Program for over two years now. He’s devoted the majority of his time to the program, trained pup’s from nine weeks old, and lost the majority of his outdoor furniture.

And he’s loved every minute of it.

“I’m chuffed to be able to raise these dogs from such a young age and help them grow into capable working dogs. To have such a good-natured companion to foster, especially one who will hopefully go on to patrol Australia’s borders, is just such a satisfying feeling.”

Now, the Australian Border Force (ABF) is on the hunt for foster carers like Cooper to offer a home for the next generation of working detector dogs. The Detector Dog Program allows families or individuals to make an important contribution to the security of Australian borders, while at the same time, enjoy the fun of raising a puppy.

Many foster carers who join the Detector Dog Program are repeat carers or foster multiple dogs. Cooper is currently fostering his second pup, and says it’s been an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

“When the time comes to give it up, it’s hard, for sure, but you know the dog’s going on to do great work for Australia. You get great satisfaction out of seeing these dogs develop from a puppy to then go on and do their job.”

The ABF Detector Dog Program plays a vital role in the enforcement capability at the Australian border. Working in a range of environments across the country, they are routinely on duty to search luggage, mail, parcels, cargo containers, sea and air cargo, vehicles, vessels, aircraft, structures and people.

Joining the Detector Dog Program and becoming a foster carer is a way of evading the costs associated with dog ownership while still enjoying a canine companion. Carers get them used to the smells, sights and sounds of their suburban areas, priming them for working in the busy ABF environment, and also providing a safe home for the pup. In return, ABF covers all costs associated with caring for the pup, including veterinary needs and equipment as well as food, while also providing expert training and advice.

The Australian Border Force’s Detector Dog Program has been protecting Australia’s borders for 50 years; an incredible achievement of continuous service that contributes to security at the border and the protection of all Australians.

ABF Detector Dogs are trained to search for narcotics, currency, explosives, firearms and tobacco. An ABF Border Operations Release reported that last year, Detector Dog teams made over 2000 detections of prohibited items and illicit substances across airports, postal gateways and seaports.

The foster care program is continually evolving and expanding to meet emerging threats at the border and has grown from modest beginnings in 1969. The first detector dogs were trained to detect drugs, but 50 years on, 60 detector dog teams across the nation are dedicated to detecting drugs, firearms, explosives, currency, and tobacco.

The breeding program began in Melbourne in 1993. Now, over 3000 pups have been bred and developed to be trained as detector dogs.

The founding stud dog was named Ajax. Ajax worked as a detector dog for three years before becoming the first ever stud dog of the breeding program. In Bulla, Victoria, a statue of Ajax stands proudly at the front of the National Detector Dog Program Facility.

In order to produce a dog that is bold and outgoing, highly driven, thrives on play reward and possesses a strong hunt drive, breeding pairs are carefully selected. Development activities include hunt and retrieval games, manual handling conditioning and exposure to different sounds, surfaces and sights. These development and assessment activities are designed to provide each pup with the best possible opportunity to reach their genetic potential as detector dogs.

The Detector Dog Program continues to develop detector dog capabilities. According to the World Customs Organisation’s 5th Global Canine Forum, the 2018-2019 financial year alone had over 800 illicit narcotic detections, detected over seven million dollars of undeclared currency and prohibited over four tonnes of tobacco products in the air and sea cargo environments.

Detector dog teams around the country completed over 24,000 targeted operations in support of ABF priorities in 2019. These operations included the mass screening of passengers, cargo, postal items, and arriving vessels and aircraft. The program also supports operations with the Australian Federal Police and various state police forces.

Canine Development Officer Ricki Boyd says it’s nice to know that we’re all working together to contribute to the safety of Australia.

“We are very proud of all the ABF and Customs staff who have helped create our world-class Detector Dog Program and I congratulate all those who have contributed to the protection of our borders for the past 50 years.”

“The Detector Dog Program has evolved over the decades to become a global frontrunner in detector dog training and breeding,” says Boyd. “Our Labrador Retrievers are in demand from both domestic and international law enforcement agencies.”

The National Border Force Detector Dog Program Facility in Melbourne is a purpose-built, world-class facility for breeding and training detector dogs. The facility can house up to 200 dogs and provides the ABF with all their operational detector dogs.

In addition to breeding and training dogs for the ABF, the program has provided hundreds of detector dogs for domestic and international law enforcement agencies including the Australian Federal Police, Corrective Services, Japan Customs and Singapore Police.

The Detector Dog Program currently has a network of over 200 volunteer foster carers who are integral to the development of their future detector dogs.

Pups are fostered out to safe and loving homes from nine weeks of age. Foster carers enjoy the rewarding experience of raising a pup, providing them with social and environmental experiences which grow their confidence and independence in preparation to become working dogs.

Teaching Australian Border Force dogs the skills required to become a working dog is a process that begins long before the commencement of a formal Detector Dog Training Course. The development program for their juvenile dogs consists of regular assessments by their team of Development Officers, in combination with all the work performed by the foster carer community.

By the age of 12 months, all dogs will have developed basic detection capabilities that enable them to systematically search for and detect a learned target odour. There is a focus on environmental conditioning, allowing dogs to train and work assuredly, in a wide range of challenging situations. This foundation training is vital for their future as working dogs. Only the dogs with the strongest temperament and drive will go on to become ABF Detector Dogs.

Australian Border Force detector dog training is a highly technical and challenging course. Each detector dog team requires approximately 8 months of formal and rigorous training before becoming operational resources. It takes more time for these dogs to become fully proficient as they continue to expand their search and detection capabilities. During the formal detector dog course, which runs for 12 weeks, dogs are trained to detect a range of target odours including drugs, explosives, firearms, currency and tobacco.

The training focuses on developing independent search and decision-making abilities. Fully trained dogs have the capacity to work in a wide range of work environments, and the independence to follow their own instincts.

The dogs have a working life of about six to eight years. When they retire from their detector dog role, they’re placed into loving homes. In many cases, it’s with their former handlers.

Australian Border Force officials are currently urgently searching for foster carers to provide homes for some of their newest and cutest recruits. Volunteers are being sought in Melbourne’s north and west to welcome a puppy into their home for up to 18 months while it’s assessed for suitability to become a detector dog.

“For a lot of foster carers, it actually does suit their lifestyle,” says Kate Azzopardi, a Canine Health and Early Development Supervisor.

“Having a dog for 14 to 18 months does suit a lot of people if they can’t commit to 12 plus years of a dog’s life… they might be travelling, or moving soon.”

To become a foster carer, you need to live in the Melbourne or Geelong area, undertake three socialisation activities each week, take the pup for daily walks and have access to a vehicle. All vet, food and equipment costs are covered by the program, and trainers will even pick them up from your home when they’re required for training days each month.

But, if you think handing back a best mate sounds unbearable, the experts are assured it’s actually that moment that makes it all worthwhile.

“It’s like the kid going off to college analogy where you’re just so proud and happy to see them going off, doing what they’re born and bred to do. And if you love the program, then you can always put your name down and get another puppy,” Azzopardi says.

You can experience the joy of raising a pup for up to 18 months, with the knowledge that someday, your dog may grow up to defend Australia’s borders.

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