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Career

'I always wanted to work with animals': A day in the life of a border control customs officer

Senior customs officer Debbie Baldock (37) and Ash the Labrador have won the Detector Dog National Champs.

By Julie Jacobson
'Everyone wants to be a dog handler.
It's considered a glamorous job but I don't think people really realise how hard it is. It's not just walking around with a dog on the end of the lead. It's a huge commitment.
People say you shouldn't work with animals and kids – and sometimes you have days where your dog is just like a child, they really push your buttons – but when it's all going to plan, it's one of the most rewarding things you can do.
I was born in Kent, in the UK, and came to New Zealand with my family – Dad was a merchant seaman – when I was five.
I always wanted to work with animals, specifically dogs. I did think about joining the police, but thought I was too young to go straight out of college.
I had no life experience.
So I went to university and did a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in management and e-commerce, and a Bachelor of Arts in information systems, basically filling in time until I decided what I wanted to do.
Just before I finished my degree, I saw an ad for a Customs inspections officer, so I applied and got the job.
On my first day, I saw they had detector dogs – and that was me! I never looked back. I've been a dog handler for 12 years now.
Ash is still young, but Debbie reckons she's shaping up into her best dog yet.
You do a three-month residential course in Auckland, where the main training facility is.
You are given your dog on the first day and then you train together as a team.
All our dogs are Labradors and are bred for customs work by the Australian Border Force. They are named based on their litter, so a J litter will have all names starting with J and so on.
My first, Dallas, was a hand-me-down. I got her when she was five after her handler at the time left to have a baby.
We worked together for three years before she was retired and became a pet. I had to put her down four months ago – she was just shy of 17.
Jerry was my next dog.
I got him when he was 13 months old. Getting a new dog is almost like starting a new job.
You go from having a really experienced dog that knows exactly what to do to one that doesn't know anything.
I worked with Jerry till he was seven-and-a-half. He's at home now and has just turned 10.
Ash is four. I think she'll be my most successful dog but she's also been the most challenging.
She's a cheeky little thing. She's a bit of a bossy boots – she likes to be in charge and lets other dogs know it!
She has her own business card that I hand out to kids at the airport, or when I've done a talk at a school.
Dallas (left), who died recently, was Debbie's first partner, while Jerry (right) is enjoying his retirement.
Detector dogs are trained to find a range of illicit drugs as well as large amounts of cash.
When they find something, they show a change in behaviour – in our case, they sit. This is a passive response, which also ensures they never come into contact with drugs.
Their reward is a toy.
Dogs will have other toys but then they'll have the ultimate toy. That toy is the be-all and end-all for the dog.
It's gold, the drive for them wanting to work. My dog, Ash, won't focus on anything bar that toy. You can have all sorts of distractions going on and she won't care.
It's all about that toy.
Although I'm Wellington-based, I sometimes help out other teams around the country. If it is a greater distance we will fly, otherwise driving is the other option.
Our vehicles are kitted out to carry and house our dogs.
We search at ports, including on cruise ships, and at airports, plus we search mail and help police with warrants.
The dogs have little life jackets that they might need to wear sometimes, and they have drop harnesses that we use to get them in and out of some places, like up and down a ladder on a ship.
It can be quite a sight for some passengers, seeing the dogs in their booties, which they wear to prevent damage from their toenails or to protect them from chemicals or glass.
Sometimes you get the feeling that all eyes are on you, then you realise, no, they're not, they're looking at your dog!
People will say, 'Oh, you're gorgeous aren't you?' But it's not me they're talking about, it's Ash!"

Quick-fire questions:

You win $1 million.What will you do with it?
Probably pay off the mortgage, as boring as that sounds, give some to family and, if there's any left, definitely an overseas trip!
What's always in your fridge?
Avocado (best on toast with tomato and bacon).
What's your most over-used word or phrase?
Like.

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