Meet the police dog really getting his teeth into his new job in South Yorkshire

Leaping up to nuzzle his handler or lounging in the sun, snapping playfully at flies, Police Dog Bear looks like every animal lover's dream.

Wednesday, 28th August 2019, 15:22 pm
Updated Wednesday, 28th August 2019, 16:59 pm

But this is one German shepherd you don't want to get on the wrong side of, as criminals across South Yorkshire are quickly learning to their cost.

He's only been in the job for a few months but has already earned plaudits for taking down a knifeman and successfully hunting a suspected violent offender who had fled through dense shrubbery, shaking the police helicopter off his trail.

Bear and his proud handler, PC Matt Aris, form a formidable duo - and the special bond between them is palpable, despite their only having been paired up in April.

PC Matt Aris and Police Dog Bear

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"For my first dog, I couldn't have asked for a better companion," says Matt, who joined South Yorkshire Police's dog unit in spring after 18 years as a response officer, attending everything from assaults to burglaries.

"He's only two next month and is new in service but he's motoring through and showing all the attributes you would expect from an experienced dog aged four or five.

"He's so confident in what he does and he's always champing at the bit to get to work.

Police Dog Bear after tracking down a suspect in Canklow, Rotherham (pic: South Yorkshire Police)

"Everything's a game to him, and tracking and chasing criminals is like a big game of hide and seek. He loves it."

Bear is an all-rounder, who is equally adept at sniffing out drugs, weapons and explosives as he is keeping crowds of football fans under control, but it is his skill at pursuing and tackling offenders which has really caught the eye so far.

On the night of Monday, August 5, he helped officers pin down a knife-wielding robbery suspect in High Green, Sheffield.

When a scuffle broke out between the knifeman and the officer trying to arrest him, Bear dashed to the latter's aid, locking his jaws around the suspect's leg and holding on despite being grabbed by the neck.

PC Matt Aris says he couldn't have wished for a better first dog

"He got ragged about quite a bit by the guy but he didn't let go. He did what he's been trained to do," said Matt.

"Thankfully, he wasn't injured. He was slightly subdued afterwards but he carried on working the rest of the night and seemed to take it in his stride."

Only the day before, he had sniffed out a man wanted on suspicion of serious assault, who had given officers the slip by fleeing into dense undergrowth in Canklow, Rotherham.

"We would almost certainly have lost him were it not for Bear, who found him hiding among thick vegetation on the riverbank, beneath a jacket," said Matt.

Police Dog Bear after tackling a knifeman in High Green, Sheffield (pic: South Yorkshire Police)

"I hadn't noticed anything but Bear just sniffed around the man before lying down next to him, which was a sure sign he'd found something."

Matt and Bear completed an intensive 13-week training course earlier this year, alongside two other new canine recruits and their handlers.

Matt was initially partnered with another dog, who sadly failed to make the grade, and Bear only joined him as a replacement six weeks into the course but quickly made up for lost time.

"He soon made up the ground and after two or three weeks he was smashing it," said Matt, who emerged from the training with a 'few nips' which he said was par for the course.

Bear lives with Matt at his home in Rotherham, along with the officer's two young children and two Dalmatians, with whom he says Bear 'gets on like a house on fire'.

But despite Bear's friendly disposition, Matt remains mindful of the damage he could do should he turn unexpectedly.

"The children are never left on their own with him. I have to remind my family these aren't pets, they're working dogs," said Matt.

When Bear does take a dislike to someone, his fearsome bark is a reminder of the damage he could do, though he is trained to detain offenders and not hurt them unnecessarily.

Matt describes how even usually fearless armed police officers often find Bear intimidating, and the fear factor can be a useful tool when policing football matches.

"There are very few people who want to get on the wrong end of him when he's barking, and crowds at football matches always take a step back when they see the dogs, which they should," he said.

Matt and Bear's duties are wide-ranging, from pursuits to drugs and weapons searches or anti-terror operations at locations from Meadowhall shopping centre to Doncaster Sheffield Airport.

They are attached to the force's roads policing team, which, as Matt puts it, deals with everything from uninsured cars to drug trafficking, human trafficking and gangs breaking into people's homes to steal cars.

"I can't praise my team enough for being so proactive in hunting down the criminals using our roads to commit crimes," he said.

"There have been several cases where they've pursued stolen cars, recovered them and returned them before the owners even realised they'd been taken."

Matt grew up in Hampshire and joined the police force there on his 19th birthday before transferring to South Yorkshire Police when he moved north.

The 37-year-old always fancied working with dogs but the opportunity never arose until now because it's such a sought-after role and the number of handlers on the force was slashed by three quarters from 48 to 12 between 2014 and 2016.

But a raft of retirements and fresh investment in the unit - with numbers set to rise again to 16 - provided the opening, which he snapped at.

Police dogs usually work for around seven or eight years before retiring, with most handlers choosing to keep them as pets once they leave the force.

There is no naming convention, with the dogs keeping the monikers given by their breeders or original owners - in this case two police officers - because that is what they will respond to.

The training never stops, with any downtime spent honing their skills.

Matt explains how he will send fellow officers out on a field 45 minutes before letting Bear loose, and Bear will be able to follow their route exactly, 'turning on a dime'.

He's never measured Bear's speed but a colleague's dog was clocked at nearly 30mph, which is more than the 28mph maximum speed recorded by Usain Bolt.

I meet Matt days after the death of PC Andrew Harper, who was dragged under a vehicle while investigating a reported burglary, sparked national outrage.

"It's shocking. No one expects to go to work and not come home," he says.

"We talked about it as a team but you can't let if affect what you do because if you come to work thinking about that sort of thing you wouldn't be able to do your job effectively."

Finn's Law, which is named after a police dog who was stabbed, and prevents those who attack or injured service animals from claiming self-defence, came into force in June.

"Police animals should have the same protection as officers, because we're asking them to go above and beyond what normal dogs and horses would do," he says.

"I'm pretty sure if I get into any sort of trouble Bear will keep fighting for me until he can't do any more, which is nice feeling. Having him by my side is like having 10 men.

"You have to have 100 per cent trust in your dog's ability, which I do with Bear, because if he says the criminal's gone that way you go that way."

Bear's exploits and those of his fellow canine law enforcers, which are regularly shared on Facebook by the force's Operational Support Team, have earned them legions of fans - but Matt insists he's not jealous.

"Sometimes it feels like I'm just the chauffeur and he's royalty but Bear deserves the attention," he says.

"He's the one who tracks and stops the criminals. I'm there to hold the lead."