SPECIAL REPORT: Before Senior Sergeant Mark Davidson called time on his remarkable half-century career, Ten One caught up with him for one last chat...
On the last Friday of February, Senior Sergeant Mark Gregory Davidson retired from New Zealand Police after 50-plus years of operational service.
Mark is the rare example of an officer who found a field they were passionate about and stayed enthusiastically dedicated to it until retirement.
In 45 years on Dog Section, his most outstanding contribution was developing the capability of specialist groups - including Dogs, the Armed Offenders Squad (AOS), and Special Tactics Group (STG) - over many decades.
He’s well decorated. He received the Charles Upham Award, a Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal and Police Gold Merit Award for bravery – and, in 2006, the Queen’s Service Medal (QSM) for his role in leading training and deployment of police dogs and his community involvement with Kāpiti Coastguard.
This week it was announced that he will receive the New Zealand Police Meritorious Service Medal - the highest award the Commissioner can bestow - for his lifetime of service.
I was slightly anxious as I made my way to Ngauranga Dog Base in Wellington for one final conversation with Mark before he bowed out of his role as OC Wellington Dogs - a position he held for 26 years. It felt laughable to ask about highlights, lowlights, achievements, memorable jobs, regrets…how do you unpack five decades?
Mark and some of his dogs. From left: with Bede, his second operational dog; with Grizz after receipt of the Charles Upham Award; with the incomparable Ike, who Mark adopted after Ike's retirement; and with breeding bitch Vinnie, from Mark's time based at Palmerston North.
Everything tells a story
“I’ve just spent the day sorting through some stuff,” he says. “I was out the back burying a couple of my old dogs’ ashes this morning.”
He passes me a small wooden box. It’s light, with a Police crest, and embossed with the name Ike. Ike had a stellar career with handler Andrew ‘Junior’ Douglas before Mark took him on in retirement. He died, aged 13, in 2020.
“I’ve saved that one for Junior and me to bury together. Ike was his dog too.”
It was Finn and Maverick who were laid to rest up the bank, joining Grizz and Nova. Others are buried elsewhere, including Palmerston North where Mark spent some time.
The office is barer than usual. There are some photos on the walls, copies of his certificates, books, a selection of ammo, and a dog harness to be gifted to the Police Museum lying on the floor – among other things.
“It’s amazing what you find lying around the place that brings back so many memories. And then half the time, you look at stuff and you can’t even remember what’s in them.”
I ask what of the things in his office he’ll keep - what means the most?
A few deep breaths later, a visibly emotional Mark says: “It’s all memories mate. Everything in here tells a story.”
Like that darn parrot...
Look after your equipment (and watch out for parrots).
On a shelf behind Mark’s desk is a colourful parrot. This story is about the importance of taking care of equipment, a lesson drilled into him from his early days as a handler.
“I’ve always been proud of my vehicles. For any equipment the department has given us, we have a duty to look after it. Even if it’s your boots! Mine are a wee bit dirty today because I’ve been out burying my dogs.
“The older dog handlers were as rough as guts, but their gear was always clean. You never handed over a dirty vehicle and you looked after police vehicles like they were your own.”
Mark was especially proud to have a black specialist dog wagon.
Some years ago, Mark had driven to a training session in Grenada North. A man emerged and asked the officers: ‘You haven’t seen my parrot, have you?’
They hadn’t, but about 10 minutes later, the parrot flew through. They told the owner, carried on with their business – and when they returned to their vehicles, they found the owner had backed his great caravan into the back of Mark’s prized wagon.
Mark was less than pleased. “After that incident, this parrot mysteriously appeared on my desk. It has pre-recorded messages with a few cuss words on it that you don’t play for everyone. It’s a little bit funny but that’s the story behind the parrot.”
A bit of community magic
Mark and Ike were regulars at Pride and other community events.
A thick photo album brings back memories of old times - dog displays, Christmas and Pride parades, all the community events.
Out back is the dog tracksuit used at public displays, when someone would dress up as legendary pioneering police dog Dante. It has seen better days – it’s around 30 years old and was an early creation of Wētā Workshop.
“People really loved dog displays and would get into the spirit. We were there to educate and entertain the public, show them how good we are, what the dogs were capable of, and have a laugh at ourselves in the process. That’s why those engagements have always been important to me.
“It was also a hell of a lot of fun to dress up as a fairy, point a magic wand and make bikes or toilets explode.”
In 2007 Mark and his Ted Hotham wingmates celebrated 35 years' service. Pictured with then-Assistant Commissioner Peter Marshall.
“In some respects you forget how long you’ve been here. It doesn’t feel like ages ago. It never really has. Time’s just flown by and that’s because it’s been bloody enjoyable.”
Mark joined Police in the Ted Hotham cadet wing at 17 years of age. He’s kept the small commemorative wing banner. It’s a regal purple with gold trimmings and I’m amazed that the colour purple was once part of our brand. It wasn’t. It was originally a deep blue but with time has become purple.
“I’m immensely proud of the fact that I was a cadet. Cadets came into Police really young. We lived at Trentham for 18 months whereas the recruits who were older, could graduate after three.”
On completing the cadetship, Mark went to Christchurch as a temporary, probationary constable. Still too young to exercise powers of arrest - you had to be 19 to do that.
He wasn’t old enough to drink but was in pubs enforcing the liquor laws. He didn’t have any real experience in relationships but was fumbling his way through giving marriage advice to people twice his age.
In the first few weeks on the beat, Mark thought he was going to lose his job. He made a decision which in hindsight was wrong at the time. The backing from his boss at the time, Gideon Tait, provided a valuable lesson in learning from mistakes and looking after the people in your care.
He’s had many good bosses throughout his career.
Just a dog handler
Mark with Charles Upham VC after becoming the second person to receive the Upham Award for Bravery, for his heroics on the Wellington Hospital roof.
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to a lot of handlers who have gone before.
"One of the things that Alf Pickering, the handler I was teamed up with when I first joined the section, said to me was ‘Whatever you do, 'just be a dog handler.'
“You sort of had no real idea what that meant until a few years into it when you knew what the job entailed. There is a real code with the section of getting things done. Not stepping back, no matter what the job is.”
In his early years as a handler Mark put himself in considerable danger to prevent the suicide of a young person on the roof of Wellington Public Hospital in 1981. Ten years later in 1991, Mark overpowered, disarmed, and subdued a man who had shot and killed a person in the Hutt Valley.
The awards received for such incidents are, he says, “the result of me following the advice from Alf – just being a dog handler”.
And by just being a dog handler, Mark was able to lead, develop, and innovate courses both here and abroad - including an avalanche course which was the first of its kind in New Zealand.
“We had marvellous times up in the mountains doing avalanche training. Then came a couple of operations - one where we found a victim’s body within seconds of the dogs being deployed.”
He says there are not many days over the past 50 years that he hasn’t enjoyed the job.
“The times I haven’t enjoyed is when something’s happened that’s involved one of my people, and they’ve been in positions where they’ve had to do something criticised or complained about, or we’ve made a mistake. You take the responsibility of that on yourself.”
“Nowadays I prefer to listen to the stories of our young handlers. Their stories are much more enjoyable because they’re current and told with enthusiasm.
“You just have to see the enjoyment in their faces and hear it in their voice. It’s incredible!
That chapter called retirement
The final parade - Wellington Dog Section handed Mark back to wife Pene and their whānau at a formal parade at the Ngauranga Dog Base on his last day. Photo: Jed Bradley
“Coming into retirement, people have said: ‘Think of all the things you can do now!’ But being part of Police has never stopped me from doing anything.
“It didn’t stop me from racing jetboats, joining the Coastguard and getting a skipper’s qualification. It didn’t stop me from running Elite tours or being the manager at Ōrongorongo Lodge, which I used to do between night shifts.”
Mark enjoyed these ventures because they were so different to policing. But on one occasion, with the King and Queen of Sweden visiting the lodge, he turned to Police staff to help.
“Mate, who knew the best waiters you could ever have, were a bunch of Police people being hoity toity? They did fantastically!”
Last year, Mark handed over the OC Wellington AOS role and stopped being on call after many years. “The phone wasn’t going at night. It was a strange feeling, so it took a bit of getting used to. It certainly doesn’t worry me now.
“I have no bloody idea what retirement is. I know what my wife thinks it is - travelling and all sorts of stuff. I don’t really enjoy travelling, I’m too impatient to queue, and I don’t like flying - too much time spent sitting.”
One thing Mark is most certain of is that there’ll be no dogs in his retirement.
He says police dogs are magnificent in what they can do but they are working dogs and need regime and a healthy distance. And of course, he’ll miss them.
“You get so used to doing everything with the dog, even telling them stupid things and later thinking, ‘I can’t believe I just told my dog that’.”
The stories the dogs would have to tell if only they could talk.
“Too many bloody stories to tell,” Mark says.
'Time’s just flown by and that’s because it’s been bloody enjoyable.'