State Bomba K9 Unit: Bonding between dog and handler

Wilf gets his tennis ball reward from Maxwell

Second of a three-part series

Despite the advancement of technology that has contributed to the evolution of equipment in firefighting, canine (K9) dogs continue to have significant roles in assisting the Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) in their search and rescue (SAR) efforts as well as fire investigations.

While it is common for one to picture breeds like German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois, Bloodhound and Rottweilers at the mention of K9, the State Bomba K9 Unit consists of friendly, adorable and hyperactive English Springer Spaniels, a Border Collie and a Labrador.

The four English Springer Spaniels are Wilf, Bella, Sue and Cliff, Bailey the Labrador, and Daisy the Border Collie. The six K9 dogs have built strong bonds with their handlers which substantially contributes to the team dynamics during operations in their respective disciplines.

From his experience of handling three K9 dogs, K9 handler Kenneth Masir pointed out that activities in the bonding process must be done by the handlers themselves.

He said the handlers must be dedicated and committed in doing this by themselves so that the dogs will remember them which in turn forges better and stronger bonds.

“It is indeed a very involved process because we must do it in our daily routine. It can be challenging to bond with a dog that has a previous handler so it is important to ensure the previous handler does not interfere with the bonding process and training.

“Of course, it is easier to bond with a dog that has no previous handler. However, I believe the most important thing is to know the dog’s behaviour, characteristics and habits,” he explained.

Kenneth, who was part of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (Insarag), admitted that the process of separating from his two previous partners, Blue and Bryanne, was heartbreaking.

He added that despite the challenges in the bonding process, there were many fond memories. especially in operations where his partner successfully assisted in locating the victims.

On the challenges during operations, he said there were different circumstances that must be taken into consideration.

“The conditions during training and operation are usually different. For instance, the training sessions may be conducted in an open space but when we go on operations, the location may be at an enclosed space.

“There may be obstacles that can be dangerous such as sharp debris so we have to assess the situation before allowing our partners to do their rounds,” he said.

Meanwhile, K9 handler Maxwell Joe, who has experience in handling two dogs, stated that the bonding processes he went through with Rocco and Sue were different.

He said bonding with Rocco required more time because Rocco had a previous handler.

“It took approximately a year for Rocco to get used to me. I emphasised on physical and direct contacts with him during our bonding sessions. Dogs have good memories of their owners so it was important that his previous handler was not in sight or nearby when we were doing our bonding sessions as well as training. 

“For instance, in the beginning he could not really recognise my voice so I had to tune back and adjust my intonation. This was the most challenging part for me but I was motivated to do it because if other could do it, why couldn’t I?,” he said.

On his bonding process with Sue upon his posting to the K9 Unit in Sarawak, Maxwell said his previous experience with Rocco could not be replicated. The bonding process with Sue required a different approach.

He explained that dogs’ personalities and characteristics differed from one to another. Thus, it was the handlers’ responsibility to know what would work best with their dogs.

“One of the big differences that I notice between Rocco and Sue is that Rocco was very systematic and detailed when he was carrying out his duty. We also understood each other well. He would know what I wanted him to do just from pointing at a location for him to search. 

“However, it is different with Sue as I noticed that I had to guide her and could not implement the same thing as Rocco. It took some time but I have taught and trained her how to follow my rhythm,” he said.

Maxwell pointed out that he saw himself as a manager to Sue. He said 70 percent of the efforts and work came from the handler in determining as well as shaping how the partner would be like.

According to K9 handler Dominic Bahong, the bonding process between Daisy and him was smooth. Like Kenneth and Maxwell, he said it was a continuous process to ensure the bond and trusts were there.

He pointed out that the commitment and dedication in carrying out activities to bond with the partner must remain even when the bond and trust had been forged.

“Daisy is my first dog so I have to be close with her for our bond to form. I usually spend time grooming and bathing her.

“I honestly do not find it difficult because it has become something that we do together on a daily basis when we’re on and off duty,” he explained.

Recalling his experiences when serving in Peninsular Malaysia, Dominic said, “If we were to compare the wilderness in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak, this state is quite challenging especially in terms of its geographical factors like steep areas. As we are looking after the whole of Sarawak, travelling from our base in Serian to where we are needed can take some time.

“This year, Daisy and I have assisted in approximately 12 SAR wilderness operations,” he said.

Daisy gets her tennis ball reward and belly rubs from Dominic after doing a good job