Forty members of the police canine unit from across the country were competing in an Iron Dog competition in Ottawa, with the winners taking the “barking” rights for the best team.

Most of the dogs competing were German Shepherds, elite athletes, raring to go. They are eighty pounds of pure muscle, teamed up with their equally muscular handlers, who are police officers from police agencies across Canada.  

“Awesome, I feel great,” says one officer as he leads his dog to the start of the race, held at the Connaught Range and Primary Training Centre in Ottawa. The course is a grueling 4 kilometers, over rough terrain, through obstacles and water.  It starts almost immediately with a dip in a very icy pond, something many of the dogs were not particularly keen on.  But they are police dogs and their mission is to follow suspects no matter where they go.

"If the suspect goes across water, says Sergeant Jamie Soltendieck with the Ottawa Police Canine Unit, “they're sent on that water surface and the dog will pull them into the water. As you can see here,” says Sgt. Soltendieck, as a police officer leads his dog through the water behind him, “this lad here is swimming, the dog is doing the dog paddle for sure.”

The Iron Dog competition is the last leg of a week-long seminar in Ottawa for the Canadian Police Canine Association.  100 participants representing 35 different police agencies from across Canada and the United States attended the conference, including Cst. Matt Williamson, with the Edmonton Police Service, whose police dog Quanto was killed while pursuing a suspect last year.  The federal government then introduced Quanto’s Law to give harsher punishments to people who attack police dogs.

Back at the course, Cst. Jon Zielinski with the Victoria Police says the Iron Dog competition is important for both he and his dog, “It’s a learning experience and putting the dog in an environment he's not used to is good for both of us. I see how he reacts to it and see how I react to it.”

Sometimes, the dogs make it look so easy and sometimes not, as one handler tries to coax his reluctant animal into a hole filled with water. Another obstacle involves hoisting their 80-pound dog over a fence.

"They don't like being off their feet,” says Constable Cam Cooper with the Barrie Police Service, “but you make it quick and painless for them and get over and done with.”

The course is supposed to simulate real-life situations, where a good partnership is critical between man and dog.

Constable Dave Wert with the Kirkland Lake OPP says "It was very challenging.  Lots of new things for my dog.  I just can't get too flustered if things aren't going well.”

By the end of the course, the handlers may have been pooped but their pooches had plenty of energy left for a game of tug of war.