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animal training in the SPVM
written by Evan Dent and Jessie Marchessault| Photo by Shane Murphy

Instead of batons and boots, some members of Montreal police force have tails and hoofs. They don’t speak French or English, and are incapable of understanding the basic norms of human interaction. The reason? They are animals.

The Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) currently uses both dogs and horses to help police officers with their tasks. This use of animals is widespread across the island. The cavalry unit was deployed as backup patrol during some demonstrations throughout the student strike last year, and the canine units are frequently used for substance detection.

How are these animals trained before they are taken to the streets?

Canine unit

The canine unit was first created in the mid 1960s, but later shut down in 1972, with the SVPM citing “administrative reasons” to explain the project’s sudden abandonment. 23 years later, in 1995, the canine unit was reintroduced. Currently, there are nine dogs on the payroll; two are specialized in explosives detection, and the other seven are trained to detect narcotics. Being a police dog isn’t easy - all must acquire a base set of skills over the course of their training in addition to their respective specialties.

All the dogs the SPVM uses are of the German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois breed, and are selected based on their health, agility, sociability, courage, and instincts. With the exception of some older outliers, most dogs begin their training in the SVPM foster program when they are around eight to ten weeks old. The dogs are given to an SVPM member, who familiarizes them with the environment they would encounter in the field. When they are eight months old, the dogs are tested for their instincts, familiarization and socialization, and courage. If they pass the test, they are returned to their foster program for around seven additional months.

After this maturation period, the dogs are assigned to a specialized handler. Each dog receives 18 weeks of general training after the test taken at eight months of age, as well as five additional weeks of specialized training, such as narcotics or explosives detection. During general training, the dog is taught to search, track, detect, and apprehend targets. The dogs are also taught to handle the harsher aspects of the job, through desensitization to the sound of gunfire and the effects of chemical gases (meaning the dogs are not affected by pepper spray or other gases used by the SVPM). After completing the training, the dogs officially become part of the force, and live full-time with their handlers. Dogs typically begin their operational career when they are two to three years old, and work for five to seven more years, after which they are retired.  

Cavalry unit

The SPVM stables are situated on Mount Royal on Chemin Remembrance, about five minutes east of Beaver Lake. The only cavalry unit in Quebec, it consists of eight horses, nine officers, and one sergeant.

Officer DuFont told The Daily that two horses will be retiring this year, necessitating the recruitment of two new animals.

As DuFont explained, the cavalry unit uses the national “Canadian” breed. They use the Canadian breed because of their “calm temperament, and because they are well adapted to the climate.” These animals are a thicker breed, or, as DuFont put it, “hardy.” In order to give the impression of uniformity, all of the police horses are approximately the same size, and are black in colour.

With each officer assigned to one horse, close relationships are inevitably forged between rider and steed. These relationships are useful: as DuFont explains, this closeness “creates a more comfortable and trustworthy bond.” Officers are intimate with their own horse’s personality and quirks: “Lets say one horse is less comfortable with flags; while on duty they know to keep that horse farther away.”

The SPVM relies on horses to go places that squad cars cannot, such as the mountain and Montreal’s many parks. For this kind of patrol, the horses and officers go in groups of two to three and typically walk to their destination. However, if the cavalry unit is needed for larger events, like parades or demonstrations, the officers and horses will be trailered down to the location where they are needed.

The horses are bought from private owners, and the unit usually prefers mature animals - their life experience aids in the training process. There are two steps to training: first is a riding test to determine if the horse can obey basic commands and isn’t too temperamental. The second step is desensitization, which aims to familiarize horses to things they might encounter on patrol or at events. They accustomize horses to any and all visual and auditory stimuli - balloons, flags, brightly colored tarps, horns, whistles, et cetera. They also have the horses walk over different types of terrain, such as plastic, tarps, or litter, in order to minimize the horse’s reaction to difficult ground conditions.

The process of becoming a mounted officer is long and thorough as well. All officers start as patrol. In order to join the cavalry unit they must have a physical, medical, and riding evaluation, and go through an interview process as well. The decisions of who will become a cavalry officer is usually dependent on seniority once the group has been narrowed down.

The cavalry unit is usually placed as backup to police officers on foot - their position is carefully considered, with all potential risks to the animals considered well in advance. Its the sergeant of the unit who is ultimately responsible for the unit’s behaviour during events.