8th April 2021

Sniffing out criminal activity

Sniffer dogs provide vital support to trading standards services in their efforts to keep the public safe.


By JTS Staff
Journal of Trading Standards' in-house team
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During training the dogs are exposed to as many different environments as possible, ensuring the dog is adaptable and flexible to new situations
I love every minute of what I do, I really love my job. You just can’t beat the satisfaction of training the dogs

Trading standards success stories come about as the result of hard work, tenacity and ingenuity on the part of skilled officers up and down the country. In many cases though – particularly when it comes to detecting illicit goods such as tobacco – those officers are supported by highly trained sniffer dogs and their handlers.

Wagtail has been providing the services of its team of sniffer dogs to trading standards authorities for more than a decade. Its dogs can detect firearms, explosives, drugs, cash, tobacco and live bodies, as well as products of animal origin including ivory, pangolin scale, bat carcasses, meat and animal skins.

The company, which was founded by Collin Singer in 2003, uses mostly Labradors and springer spaniels – or any breed that has the intelligence, drive and determinations that is needed from a working dog.

“We are constantly looking for new recruits to train to be detection dogs,” says Wagtail Marketing Co-ordinator Sarah Levie. “Wagtail sniffer dogs are often described as eager, excited dogs that often aren’t good as pets because of their high energy.

“The dogs are resilient, passionate and thoroughly enjoy the challenge.”

Wagtail recruits dogs aged between eight months and three years – and many are unwanted pets or come from rescue centres.

Track record

In the past four years Wagtail dogs have sniffed out more than 120 million illegal cigarettes, 50 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco and £3.5m in cash.

That’s all money taken out of the pockets of criminals, and consumer harm prevented. And since the counterfeit tobacco trade is usually inextricably linked with organised crime, any work to disrupt their activities benefits society. Those responsible for the illicit tobacco trade are often part of the same organised crime networks involved in the illegal drug trade, including those who target vulnerable young people to courier drugs on their behalf.

According to HMRC data, up to £1.8bn was lost in government revenue in 2018-19 due to the trade and supply of illegal tobacco, with £45.2bn lost since the start of the century.

It was a desire to do some good in the world that led Singer to set up Wagtail in the first place. After a 25-year career in the RAF, he was spurred to action by the events of September 11, 2001. “That was a game-changer because I was an explosives dog handler and realised then that the RAF had given me the skills and that terrorism was going to be a major threat, and drugs weren’t going to go away either.

“When I left the RAF I knew I could train dogs but I’d never run a business before and it was a steep learning curve, but you learn from your mistakes.

“I love every minute of what I do, I really love my job. You just can’t beat the satisfaction of training the dogs.”

Happy dogs

When they are on active duty, the wellbeing of Wagtail’s dogs is paramount. From the company’s base in Wales, Levie says, “Wagtail dogs have ample spare time for woodland walks, beachcombing and adventures in the hills. When it comes to retirement, a loving home is carefully chosen by our dedicated rehoming centre, Redpaw Rehoming.

“When not working Wagtail dogs enjoy exercising in the large number of secure open spaces we have around our training school under the supervision of our trained kennel staff. Dogs are also involved in a programme of continuous training to ensure they are at their best.”

All of Wagtail’s dogs are heroes in their own right, but some of them really stand out. One such detection dog was Alfie, a tobacco and cash detection dog who was responsible for finding a record £250,000 in a single raid. Alfie became a much-loved character among trading standards officers and received a CTSI Hero Award in 2016 in recognition of his work to combat illicit tobacco.

In 2018 he was made an official SCAMbassador for the National Trading Standards Scams Team. Alfie retired from his duties in February 2020 and sadly passed away the following September.

“Alfie was an absolute pleasure with an infectious personality,” says Levie. “He will be missed by everyone at Wagtail and remembered as Wagtail legend.”

Practice makes perfect

Wagtail offers a specialised training course for tobacco detection dogs. Its Level 3 NASDU Tobacco Detection Dog Handler Course uses realistic training areas, incorporating real-life scenarios the dogs and their handlers have encountered to enrich the learning experience.

“During training the dogs are exposed to as many different environments as possible, ensuring the dog is adaptable and flexible to new situations,” says Levie. “Wagtail is Home Office approved to hold real explosive and drug training samples and has a full suite of training aids, believing that training on real substance is best practice and a superior option to pseudo scent samples.”

As well as providing training for dogs, Wagtail also offers courses for handlers. The company  established the Wagtail International School of Excellence (WISE) four years ago. The Tobacco Detection Dog Handler sits alongside its other courses in Drug Detection and Explosives Detection.

“The development of the training school happened organically.  At Wagtail we have high standards and aim to be the best in the industry,” says Singer. “We wanted pass our knowledge and skills on, maintaining these standards across the profession.”

For further information on Wagtail UK Ltd please call 01745 561166 or email info@wagtailuk.com

www.wagtailuk.com