German dogs get English lessons as police seek canine recruits abroad

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Achtung! Burglars. Next time a police dog has your leg in its mouth, just shout, " pfui!"

Achtung! Burglars. Next time a police dog has your leg in its mouth, just shout, " pfui!"

To a hound trained in Germany, the word - pronounced "fooey" - means "stop that!" It sounds similar in Dutch and Flemish, so you'll have a good chance of being understood - because a severe shortage of suitable British dogs means that police chiefs here are having to go walkies on the Continent for new recruits. They have already been to Belgium and France in search of more German shepherds to join the 667 working alongside other specialist breeds, such as spaniels and Labradors, in British police forces.

The public was a rich source of puppies in the past, but donations have fallen since the successful prosecution of three police dog handlers in Essex in 1998 for cruelty. Competing demand from private security firms has left police dog-handling units concerned about the short supply of trainees.

The move raises the prospect of Britain having the world's first bilingual police dogs. Experts say those already trained in foreign commands will have to undergo special English classes so they can respond to phrases such as "heel" and "sit".

Some commands in German are similar to English, for example platz for flat, said Tony Lockyer, a dog trainer and behaviourist from Axminster, Devon. But any weary criminal who throws down the swag bag and yells out "All right, don't make a fuss!" is likely to get teeth marks on his crowbar, because, to a German dog, the word fass means bite.

In some areas, the police are even turning to Rottweilers, known as "Devil Dogs" since they guarded the Prince of Darkness in the Omen horror films. Only a few years ago, these aggressive hounds were high on the public hate list, alongside pit bulls and Dobermanns, but now, some are being trained to replace the missing German shepherds.

Police in Bedfordshire, Devon and Cornwall, Greater Manchester, Northamptonshire, and the West Midlands are already using the breed. Rottweilers can present problems, however. "With German shepherds, it takes eight weeks teaching them to bite and the rest teaching them to stop," says Mr Lockyer.

"With Rottweilers, you spend a week teaching them to bite and the next 12 weeks telling them to stop."