Tuesday, 12 March 2024 - 1:31pm

Sniffing out success in the Pacific

7 min read

News article photos (2 items)

Fiji detector dogs go about their business in these photos from Fiji Police.
The Fiji detector dog teams who graduated from Trentham in November 2023.

SPECIAL REPORT: Two recent drug busts in Fiji are just a couple of numerous examples showing the success of New Zealand Police-led Pacific dog programmes and their importance to the Pacific region.
We've done some sniffing around to find out about our dog programmes in the Pacific and what's ahead for them. INSPECTOR TODD SOUTHALL talks to EMMA INWOOD.

We start with the Fiji drug busts in January, of 3.1 tonnes and 1.1 tonnes of meth.

“That’s massive for any country,” says Inspector Todd Southall, National Coordinator Police Dogs.

“It’s a worry. The consumption, while some of it’s for Fiji, you know it’s probably destined for other Pacific Island countries, New Zealand and Australia.”

New Zealand-trained detector and patrol dogs and handlers were called to the jobs, showing exactly why New Zealand Police is involved in supporting dog programmes in the region – protecting borders, fighting transnational organised crime and increasing capability across Customs and Police services in the Pacific.

Detector dog teams from French Polynesia Police and Customs, Fiji Police, Tonga Police and Samoa Customs graduated from Trentham as part of the PDDP in November 2022.
Detector dog teams from French Polynesia Police and Customs, Fiji Police, Tonga Police and Samoa Customs graduated from Trentham as part of the PDDP in November 2022.

The Pacific Detector Dog Programme (PDDP) is based at the Dog Training Centre in Trentham and supported by New Zealand Customs Service.

Through the programme, New Zealand Police works closely with Police and Customs staff in Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Fiji, and has done for the past five years. There are now 18 New Zealand-bred and trained detector dogs at work across the Pacific.

However, the Dog Training Centre has been working with Pacific countries for much longer than the PDDP has been running, says Todd.

“About 15 years ago we started to work with some of the Pacific countries – initially the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga, then later Fiji. The PDDP officially started in 2018, funded through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

Now, the Dog Training Centre breeds and supplies the dogs, brings the handlers to New Zealand for their training, and sends New Zealand Police and Customs training advisors to the countries to check certifications and skills maintenance.

An equally important part of the programme is developing leadership, policy and communication, as well as targeting and profiling for effective deployment.

“From year one to year five of the PDDP, we’ve seen a significant increase in the dog teams’ capability, and they’ve all really grown in terms of their skills, knowledge and experience.”

Another key benefit for each of the countries involved, says Todd, is how the programme has brought their Police and Customs organisations closer together.

“Before the PDDP started they were very siloed, they’d never worked closely together. But I was very insistent the PDDP is both a Police and Customs programme – that way you cover all the enforcement powers across the border and in the community.

“That’s led to a lot of the successes they’ve had, so it’s more than just the dogs.”

The PDDP’s very tangible results have been an eye-opener, says Todd. “There’s no question that what the programme has assisted with in terms of seizures has been quite staggering.

"We never realised the amount of narcotics, cash and firearms in those countries and that’s been highlighted to the Police and Customs and governments of those countries as well.”

The successes have been noted further afield, with New Caledonia and French Polynesia (Tahiti) approaching New Zealand Police and Customs for assistance with detector dogs.

“We’re in French Polynesia now,” says Todd.

“We’ve trained three detector dog teams from Tahiti, two Customs and one Gendarmerie. They are operational, and we’re about to train a Customs handler in New Caledonia.”

Some of the drugs seized in Fiji in the operations of 14 and 20 January. Photos from Fiji Police.
Some of the drugs seized in Fiji in the operations of 14 and 20 January. Photos from Fiji Police.

The actual use of the dog is a small part of the bigger picture, says Todd.

Understanding targeting and profiling and getting good intelligence is a specific outcome of the PDDP and using that intelligence to best effect.

“Instead of searching every aircraft, every passenger, every container, you use intel to target the highest probability of where the drugs, firearms or cash will be coming in, then we deploy those dogs to those particular flights, packages or containers.

“That’s where we’re having a lot of our success now, but we have realised we must also be vigilant, monitor our successes and be adaptable as things change.”

With the size of the Pacific Ocean – the world’s largest – the biggest risk to the region through transnational organised crime comes from the maritime environment and small craft, so the plan for the next five years is to focus on improving the screening and profiling of small craft to achieve better intelligence on what’s being trafficked across the region.

“For example, last year 400kg of cocaine was picked up in a yacht coming out of Papeete,” says Todd.

“With targeting and profiling as an important outcome of the PDDP alongside other outcomes such as leadership, training, policy and procedures, and good communication, we are in a really good position to keep building capability across the region.

“Ultimately, we want to build succession planning for these countries with less input from New Zealand, and we are making good progress in that direction.”

Some of the drugs seized in Fiji in the operations of 14 and 20 January. Photos from Fiji Police.
Inspector Todd Southall and Sergeant Wally Kopae with the team outside the new Fiji Police Dog Unit after the patrol dog graduation in October. The handlers are, from left: PC Isikeli Bola (Fi); PC Maciu Temo (Ngakau); PC Aminio Koto (Storm); PC Valevatu Rabuku (Wren); CPL Jone Wainiqolo (Scully); PC Maciu Sevutabua (Patrick); and PC Michael Peter (Hazza).

In October last year, seven New Zealand-trained Fiji Police patrol dog handlers graduated in Fiji with their Dog Training Centre-bred dogs.

It was a fantastic occasion, says Todd, that was the culmination of a lot of work beyond the breeding and training, to ensure the right infrastructure – a large new kennel complex in Suva and plans for another facility in Lautoka – and personnel were in place to support the Fiji Police Dog Section.

“Fiji’s previous police commissioner was a strong supporter of the Dog Section and wanted to improve their performance – the staff were passionate but needed better dogs, facilities and more expertise.”

Now, with the Fiji Patrol Dog Programme set up as a workstream of the Fiji Police Partnership Programme that is run through our International Service Group, the Dog Training Centre continues to supply the dogs and training.

Sergeant Wally Kopae – a Dog Section supervisor from Invercargill – heads up the Fiji Patrol Dog Programme and has carried out the training for it in New Zealand and Fiji.

Although only fully operational since October 2023, the New Zealand-bred patrol dogs have been very successful, says Todd, and the Fiji Police Commissioner wants to develop the programme further.

Other Pacific countries are watching with interest and are keen to have a similar patrol dog programme. Todd says he’s currently looking at their actual demand and how their needs could be met.

A kava ceremony at the detector dog graduation at Trentham in November symbolised New Zealand Police and Customs' ongoing commitment to the PDDP.
A kava ceremony at the detector dog graduation at Trentham in November symbolised New Zealand Police and Customs' ongoing commitment to the PDDP.

Across 2024, the Dog Training Centre will continue regular visits to Pacific countries.

Certifications and maintenance of skills and operational deployment and capability will be checked, along with the dogs’ health.

The detector dog teams will grow too, with six new teams to be trained this year covering attrition and providing an extra four teams to Fiji and two extra teams to Tonga.

The extra teams to Fiji are part of a long-term aim to develop Fiji as the Pacific regional detector and patrol dog hub for the future, says Todd.

“For instance, it’s not sustainable to put a detector dog into Tuvalu due to the size and population so we’ve provided extra resources to Fiji for screening flights and ships that leave Fiji to go to Tuvalu.

“They’ve had success already, so that’s a really good relationship where we can use the resources we have in Fiji to support Tuvalu.”

Success breeds success – within New Zealand and across the Pacific, the Dog Training Centre’s dogs and training are in hot demand.

“Five or six years ago we were breeding about 70 dogs per year, now we’re breeding 105 to 110 per year (80 percent German Shepherds, 20 percent Labradors), and we’re looking at increasing the Labs to 30 percent of the breeding.

“We’ve almost been too successful! Everywhere we go in the Pacific, everybody talks about the detector dog programme because it’s tangible, it’s successful, and we’ve developed respect and trust in those countries.

“We have an amazing team on the PDDP that includes DTC and ISG staff, as well as the assistance from New Zealand Chief Customs Officer Dave Huff, our New Zealand officer Sergeant Wally Kopae and all the New Zealand Police staff based in the Pacific. This makes the programme a success.

“I know our colleagues across the Pacific are very grateful for those efforts.

“It all adds up to interesting times for us at the moment as we look forward to our work this year.”