When we think of police dogs today, we might think of Springer Spaniels sniffing out drugs or German Shepherds bringing down suspects during police raids. But police forces have used dogs in different ways. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Parisian police force experimented with deploying dogs to rescue people from the Seine River. It was not a success. In 1845, the police prefect (the head of the Parisian police) decided to bring ten Newfoundland dogs to Paris as rescue dogs. One newspaper reported how these ‘magnificent and courageous animals’ were trained to rescue mannequins and other objects from the river in preparation for saving human lives. But it seems that the experiment was quickly abandoned.
Nonetheless, dynamic Paris police prefect Louis Lépine revived the idea in 1902 as part of his project to modernize the police force through the creation of specialized units. Four Newfoundlands therefore joined the force’s river brigade. Named Turc, César, Medge and Paris, they were kitted out with name tags and accommodated in a kennel. But training the dogs did not go smoothly. Sending in two dogs to rescue a mannequin at the same time resulted in them ripping it in two.
More luck was had by training them to dive underwater with their eyes open using a piece of meat as bait.
The police and the Parisian press had held high hopes for the dogs. However, these were dashed when a Parisian student decided to test the dogs’ ability by jumping in the river and pretending to drown. Amidst cries of ‘Au secours’ (‘Help!’) the dogs’ guardian released them from their kennel to perform their duty.
But the dogs remained on the river banks and the student was saved by a sailor in a boat. The dog’s trainer attributed the dogs’ reluctance to jump into the water to the meal that they had just eaten.
Misfortune then beset the dogs; one died of illness, one died after swallowing a pebble and another was given away after she attacked her trainer. By 1907, the only dog left was Paris but he was no longer trusted to serve as a rescue dog.
The best thing that could be said about the dogs, according to one newspaper report, was that they had not actually drowned anybody. They had been enthusiastic, but too ‘clumsy and awkward’ to be effective rescue dogs. Another journalist speculated that the police had been sold duff dogs from the interior of Newfoundland rather than the coast.
The attempted use of Newfoundlands as rescue dogs can be read as an amusing episode in the city’s history. But it shows how we need to be wary of treating the modernization of the police force as a history of progress. The maladroit rescue dogs were a failed experiment in police specialisation and modernization. They showed that the usually competent Lépine was not infallible. It was a decidedly amateur venture at a time of professionalization of the police force. Modernization and professionalization were neither smooth nor complete processes.
The failure also shows that deploying dogs to make the city safer was not a straightforward task. Although Newfoundlands were renowned for the rescuing ability, they were not a success in Paris. Whether this was down to the dogs’ temperament or inexperienced trainers, the fact remained that it proved impossible to deploy these dogs in an effective way. From police dogs to guide dogs and from hunting dogs to army dogs, there is much talk about how well dogs and humans work together. This may often be the case and of course rescue dogs are routinely used to search for trapped people after earthquakes and other disasters. But we also need to be alive to the fact human-canine partnerships don’t always work out.