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Co Down man Chris Hanlon on why he gave up finance career for detection dog training

Chris Hanlon tells Linda Stewart how he gave up a career in finance to breed and train detection dogs - and why Labradors are the best canines for the job

Chris Hanlon and his dog Tilly, who gave birth to 11 puppies recently
Chris Hanlon and his dog Tilly, who gave birth to 11 puppies recently
Chris and Bridgeen Hanlon with their animals

If you watched the recent BBC series Mountain Vets, you've already met one of Chris Hanlon's dogs - Tilly the cocker spaniel, who was giving birth by C-section at Downe Veterinary Clinic to a litter of 11 adorable pups. Since filming the series those pups have grown up, completed their training at Brookvale Boarding Kennels and departed for new roles as detection dogs.

"Three are now in Singapore, where they're working for the Singapore Police," Chris says.

"And one we kept here, it's in training to become a dry rot detection dog. There are two that we know of in the UK, but the one we've already trained is the only one in Ireland.

"They help in old buildings and stately homes such as National Trust properties, where dry rot can cost hundreds of thousands to put right. Early detection can make the difference between £100,000 to fix the job or only £5,000 if you pick it up quickly.

"That was something that was completely new to me, we'd never done it before. We were really delighted when we were training him and he started actually finding stuff. It's really good because you're doing something that nobody's ever done before."

Chris grew up in the countryside near Downpatrick and says there were always lots of animals, including chickens, ponies, goats and dogs, but he could never have predicted his future career path.

Now 51 and married to Bridgeen, with four boys - Joshue (18), Darragh (16), Thomas (13) and Joel (9) - he admits he hadn't a clue what he wanted to be when he grew up.

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"I went to university and did business and finance at the University of Ulster at Coleraine - I hated it," he says.

"I came out of it and worked in a couple of jobs in different businesses. But I was made redundant from my job and I needed to do something."

By this time the couple were married and by chance he drove past the boarding kennels near Crossgar and spotted the 'For Sale' sign.

"We saw the kennels were for sale, so we took the plunge and bought the kennels. We sold the house we had, which allowed us to put a deposit on here.

"I remember thinking this will be great - 22 years on and I'm still here, so something has worked."

The kennels were an established business, but the couple quickly found it was very seasonal work and Chris began training some Labradors to supplement the income over the low time of the year.

"At the time I was training and breeding Labradors and competing in competitions with them and it just happened by chance," he says.

"I met a man who was into detection dogs and was looking for Labradors. Over a good while I met lots of people who helped me along the way and taught me how to train the dogs.

"A lot of it has to do with patience and the timing of the reward. You take these wee cute things that are just born and eventually they're going to leave you as a dog that can do a job; it takes time and patience. You have to reward the dog at the exact time that you're getting the behaviour you want."

Many of the dogs don't make the grade and Chris says it's easier to spot which ones won't make good sniffer dogs than those that will.

"I would be quite good at looking at a dog and thinking you definitely won't make it. You don't want to be training dogs that don't have the aptitude. It's principally the boldness, it's got to have the natural inquisitiveness with no nervousness and it wants to explore all that surrounds it."

One way is to take the litter into a strange environment and observe them to see what they do.

"You observe which is the first to move away from its siblings and explore the area, and you look to see which one would go and sit in the corner and wouldn't want to interact with its surroundings," he says.

One thing that might surprise people is just how many items sniffer dogs can specialise in.

"Over the years we've had dogs that specialise in bed bugs, accelerants, drugs, sim cards, mobile phones, people, even rhino horn," Chris says.

"The dog doesn't know what it's finding, it doesn't wake up in the morning and say I'd better go and find this. It's a game to the dog; the dog thinks it's finding tennis balls because that's its reward.

"It's done by association; you put the substance that you're training the dog in beside the ball that it's looking for, so over a period the dog is finding the substance with the ball. Then you take away the ball and the dog comes in and it's like a lightbulb moment when they first do it and recognise the smell.

"It learns that it always gets the ball when it smells that substance, that's the way the process works. It's a process that will take a number of months to build up."

For some substances the dog will be fully trained by the time it leaves Chris, for other, rarer substances such as explosives, the dog will have to undergo more specific training when it joins its new owner.

"For example, rhino horn - nobody has rhino horn," Chris explains.

"Those particular dogs went to South Africa and they finished their training in South Africa, and that's when they first encountered the rhino horn."

Chris estimates that he trains between 12 and 15 detection dogs a year, and owns seven breeding cockers and Labradors.

"In my opinion Labradors are probably the best because they are easiest trained and I always say Labradors don't try to bluff you or tell lies. A Labrador does the same thing over and over again and just keeps going, whereas a springer will always be trying to bluff you, telling you it's here when it's really not. They can be challenging to handle and train," he says.

"Then you get German shepherds that would be traditionally thought of as working dogs and police dogs. But in my mind they don't have the same drive for searching and finding things as a Labrador."

Dogs that have undergone training may be destined for customers around the world and are valuable.

"I've heard of a sniffer dog recently that went for £35,000. That wasn't me that sold it, I wish it had been. From dry rot to bed bugs, some very enterprising people are making a living using their dogs to sniff and the animals are very valuable assets for the people that are using them."

The demand for sniffer dogs has gradually increased over the years, he says, particularly since the terrorist attack on 9/11.

"There were a lot more governments that became security-conscious and were thinking of putting sniffer dogs into places that they wouldn't have done before. There is much more of an increased demand for the dogs worldwide," Chris says.

"One of the very first places I took dogs to was Italy. There was a friend in Italy who had a contract in Rome for security dogs, they made a connection and we ended up sending a whole bunch of dogs over for the G7, which happened to be there that year.

"The way these things work is that all these people that use sniffer dogs all go to the same training forums, they all go to the same conferences and they are all involved in the same security things.

"A lot of it is word of mouth. It's not like buying beans in Tesco, it's a very niche thing. You need to see the actual dog. The people that use sniffer dogs know it's not something that you just go to the showroom and pick them up."

The family have launched Brookvale Boarding Kennels, Brookvale Detection Dogs and their newest initiative is Northern Ireland's first subscription-model dog food delivery start-up - Werewolf Food - founded a year ago.

The online model allows customers to access a high-nutrition product at lower cost with a recurring delivery service that sends the food as it is needed.

Chris says his four boys are very involved in the family business, helping out in the school holidays.

"They've helped me with taking the dogs out and exercising the young dogs. I have some staff that work for me, but anything to do with animals, there are always jobs to do and there's always things being done. The boys are a really good help," he says.

The role has taken him all over the world, to the US, South Africa, the Seychelles, Italy, Norway and all over the UK.

"I remember going to Italy one time with a dog and he was an arson detection dog. He could find hydrocarbon accelerant and he was really good at finding lots of different things," Chris says.

He was just in the process of handing over the dog to his new team when a fire investigator arrived and demanded they bring the newly-arrived dog to a blaze.

"We arrived at this building that had smoke coming out of it and I said you can't bring the dog in, it's too dangerous. Eventually they agreed that the fire needed to dampen down first," Chris explains.

"I am feeling under a lot of pressure, because if the dog indicates and it's wrong, I'm at fault, and if he doesn't indicate and it's wrong, I'm at fault. But I just walked him in through the door and he sat right at the door and stared at a place, indicating 'here'.

"He indicated four different places through the building, two of them where petrol had been poured in and set alight and one was a white spirit store. When they did their forensics, they said the dog was right."

One discipline that's day has come and gone is training dogs to find pirated DVDs.

"Way back years ago when DVDs were all the rage, I was involved in training DVD dogs. These dogs could find DVDs. It was to counteract fake DVDs," Chris says.

"But just as we got the dogs all trained up and we got it all working, then digital downloading started, and within six months nobody was using DVDs anymore and it was all gone. You think you've got the next big thing and then it's all over!"

But the weirdest thing he's ever had to do was training a dog to find bed bugs, which meant acquiring the bed bugs to acclimatise the dogs to the scent and keeping them fed and cared for.

"You had to keep them alive and feed them, and that meant you had to let them feed off you," he laughs.

"They come in a wee vial with a metal gauze in the end of the vial and you just put it on the skin and they feed off you. It's completely gross, but you have to keep them alive. But there's a fake scent now you can get for bed bugs."

For the dogs themselves, Chris says it's not work, it's play.

"All the dog is doing is finding a ball, but it finds the ball in a situation that has been manipulated. For the dog, it has been brought into a room or building and it's playtime. It's thinking 'if I go through the steps X, Y and Z and let him know, I'm going to get the ball'. It's just putting a bit of extra finesse on it."

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