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Celebrating 50 years of Customs Detector Dogs

11.24am 23 June 2023 | Social Media

In 1973, a report was submitted to the Minister of Customs on the advantages of using dogs to detect narcotics and to request the establishment of two dog handler positions.

This was approved, and on 20 June 1973, Customs Officers Geoffrey Wellborne and Bill Treliving were appointed with Geoffrey being assigned detector dog Jess and Bill being assigned Prince.

This was the start of the detector dog capability in Customs. They began training at the Police Dog Training Centre a few days later and became operational in March 1974. Both dog teams were initially based in Wellington attached to the waterfront team with a focus on screening vessels. In the early days, dogs didn't get deployed to airports. 

Originally the dogs were trained only on narcotics. Cannabis was the drug in the spotlight, with the emergence of the Mr Asia drug ring in 1974 bringing large quantities across the border. Quantities like the 188 kgs of Cannabis detected in an air cargo consignment within 12 suitcases by detector dog Rex and CO Ralph Chapman. The haul’s street value at the time was $5.5 million. 

It is hard to find complete records from the earlier days, but what we can report is that since 2012, our dog teams have detected significant quantities of narcotics preventing $1.6 billion of potential social harm to New Zealanders.

Over the years other risks were identified and as a result, detection capabilities were introduced to support Customs response to them.

In 2003, after the 9/11 attacks, Customs introduced an Explosive Detector Dog (EDD) capability. There were three EDD teams with one based in Auckland, one in Christchurch and one in Tauranga. The teams were mainly deployed to the cargo handling areas of Customs including mail. However, they were trained to search in all environments including aircraft, vehicles, houses, ships and shipping containers. Our EDD teams assisted NZ Police with the screening of stadiums for all major events held in New Zealand such as the Rugby World Cup in 2011. The last EDD team finished in 2015. 

In 2012, a collaborative project was undertaken between NZ Police and Customs to trial a cash detector dog capability as it was identified that there were significant amounts of concealed cash within the community and moving across the border. Two experienced handlers (one Customs and one Police) and their dogs were selected for the pilot cash detector dog training course. 

Both dogs were already proven as operational drug detector dogs and the cash odour was added to their detection capability. This proved to be a success and we maintained that dual capability. Since the inception of the cash detection capability, the dog teams have located approximately $43 million of undeclared cash.

In 2020, with the prevalence of firearms located domestically and internationally, Customs introduced a firearms detector dog capability. Our dogs are now trained to detect narcotics, cash and firearms.

Over the last 50 years the unit has grown. From the original two dog teams, we now have twenty dog team positions located across Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.  

Our detector dog teams deploy nationwide to provide screening for:

  • International airports
  • International Mail Centre 
  • Air and sea cargo 
  • Maritime craft (including small craft, cruise ships and merchant vessels)
  • Support of agency warrant activity

Our teams also get out into the community with public relations activities such as school talks and Border Patrol/Dog Squad filming.

50 years is a major milestone to reach, both for Customs, so today we celebrate the history of our unit. 

Nei rā te mihi kau atu ki ngā kuri ki ō rātou kaitiaki o DDU anō hoki, nō ngā tau ki muri tae atu ki ēnei wā i mahia ai e koutou i ngā mahi mana ārai o te paenga i roto i ngā tau kua hipa.

 Heartfelt thanks to our detector dogs and staff of Customs. From the days gone by until now, we thank you for all your work. Protecting Aotearoa New Zealand is noble and important work that DDU contributes to.