Cassius: The True Story of a Courageous Police Dog

Cassius: The True Story of a Courageous Police Dog

by Gordon Thorburn


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Cassius was a truly exceptional police dog whose career became the stuff of legend and the gold standard for all dogs coming after. In just five years he scored a century of arrests, saved lives, bit half a dozen policemen, and gave his handler, PC Joe Sleightholm, the most exciting, exhilarating, and nerve-wracking times of his life. Things did not go according to plan in Sleightholm's first years as a police dog handler. The difficulties of finding and keeping the right dog were so great that he was ready to give up. Then Cass came along. The two of them quickly formed a bond, graduated as stars from the training school, and became an outstandingly effective working partnership. Cass became part of the Sleightholm family, too. Car thieves, armed robbers, drug dealers, murderers, burglars—Cassius learned to find them, contain them, intimidate, and attack if he had to. Sometimes it was dangerous for him. Usually it was more dangerous for the criminal. The story of Cassius is by turns thrilling, funny, and moving, and always a fascinating insight into the freemasonry of police dog training.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781844549856
Publisher: Bonnier Books UK
Publication date: 07/29/2010
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 244
Sales rank: 1,086,786
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gordon Thorburn is the author of Bombers First and Last and Men and Sheds.

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The True Story of a Courageous Police Dog

By Gordon Thorburn

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Gordon Thorburn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84454-985-6



For a January night on the edge of the moors, it could have been colder. Even so, she was more likely to be found dead than alive. The other possibility, more likely still, was nothing. The old girl had done this before – gone missing. Someone had rung the police that time saying there was an ancient and dotty lady on the bus to Clufford, a large northern industrial town, telling everyone she was meeting her fiancé, home from the war, and he'd be taking her for a stroll along the prom to see the pierrots.

On balance, thought PC Sleightholm, as he turned his van into the lane leading to the nursing home, it was not a promising job. This would be the first find-and-speak he and Cassius had done where the item to be found was not a car thief, burglar, armed robber or other criminal type. When Cassius found and spoke, bouncing on his front paws and showing his magnificent set of teeth, criminal types tended to stand still and tremble. If they didn't, Cassius bit them hard and ripped their clothes to shreds, as he was trained to do. This would not be quite the thing for a frail 96-year-old woman with angina and Alzheimer's. Finding without terrifying would be a challenge for both dog and man.

The bad news was that the nursing-home grounds had already been searched, three times. Any tracks the missing person might have left would have been confused with those of the staff, the two section officers who had answered the original call and two from Traffic who'd turned up as well. At least the other worst enemies of scent – strong winds and hot, drying sun – had not been operating, but the obstacles were still sufficient to defeat some dogs. Most dogs, even, muttered Sleightholm to himself. But not his Cassius, at that point sound asleep in the back of the van.

The grounds would be extensive, too, he thought, as his headlights picked out the enormous and fancy wrought-iron double gates between gateposts surmounted by stone lions couchant; then they revealed a wide shingle drive that took a long, gentle, spacious curve with, on either side, grassland leading to woods, then up to a pillared portico big enough to hold a board meeting. In the old days, he thought, there'd have been footmen to answer the door to the gentry while he, a common copper, would have gone around the back to the tradesmen's entrance.

A neat and tidy girl – a bit tubby, aged about eighteen, dark hair in a bun – opened half of the oak double doors and ushered the police officer into the hallway. Panelled walls, parquet floor, paintings up the staircase; if it hadn't been changed into a nursing home it would have to have been a country-house hotel. Or maybe a pop star would have bought it.

'Supper's over and cleared away,' the girl explained, 'so most of the staff have gone, and the manager. She was the one who called you. But I'll show you round outside if you like.'

Sleightholm politely declined the offer and went back to his van on the drive. A thin, hazy layer of cloud blocked most of the light from a half moon and, with curtains drawn, little help came from the house. Behind it there were vague shapes of buildings, a barn or an old cart shed, perhaps; to the front, open expanses sloping down to the lane, and trees, plenty of trees. He had no idea how far the grounds went. It wasn't a great estate, but there seemed to be enough of it to provide a thousand places for a small person to hide. Nursing-home owners like a lawn and a few sheltered spots for the residents to sit in the summer sun and, for a home as upmarket as this, a few quid could be added to the tariff for panoramic vistas across its own parkland to the valley below.

'Maybe there'll be bluebells in the spring,' mused Sleightholm to nobody as he opened the van door without much optimism. 'Come on, Cass,' he said, softly. The dog leaped out, instantly awake, eager as ever, anticipating, ears up, tail going. His master led him to a corner and said, 'Empty.' Obediently, on this occasion, Cassius lifted his leg.

The light breeze was south-westerly, so the pair of hunters made their way into it, to the wrought-iron gates. At the boundary, a high stone wall, Cassius was told to sit at his master's side. It made sense to divide the ground up and here was the obvious first area, to the left of the driveway: roughly half-and-half mown meadow and unkempt woods. The dog would need six or eight sweeps to check it out.

Cassius was on his toes, ready to go. Had it been an urgent, difficult search with a dangerous criminal at the end of it, Sleightholm would have geed the dog up a lot more. Here it was urgent and difficult all right, but the target was a small, fragile, possibly hypothermic old lady with a bad heart. That is, if she was still alive. Thoughts of Little Red Riding Hood went through the policeman's mind. Cassius, what big teeth you've got.

Cassius listened to his orders being whispered. Normally he would have heard, 'Hey you, this is the police, come out or I'll send the dog', twice, in a loud and threatening tone. Tonight, Sleightholm cut it down to one – 'Come out or I will send the dog' – and struggled to say those familiar trigger words in a quiet, soothing way. The second trigger followed almost by way of an apology. 'Where is he?' was almost inaudible. Even the wave of the arm in the desired direction was hardly demonstrative.

What? Cassius, like all good police dogs, was a conservative. He could adapt to change but that didn't mean he liked it, and yet again his master was asking something new of him, or at least the old familiar thing in an entirely new way. Still, he knew what was required and he was off, questing this way and that, his nose sifting through the thin layer of air just above the ground that would hold any remnant of the smell that shouldn't have been there, the smell that didn't fit, the smell that said 'follow me'.

Sleightholm stayed as close to the dog as he could, also looking with his torch, giving the odd prompt of 'Where is he?' but sotto voce. Any little alteration in Cassius's demeanour might show he was on to something but, for the first search, he was going through the motions and no more.

The pair went to another starting point on the opposite side of the drive. It was similar ground, grassland rising and falling, woods towards the boundary wall. Cassius went away with his usual enthusiasm, quickly decided there was no fun to be had here and came back, as if to say, 'OK boss, done that. Next?'

Sleightholm wasn't satisfied, snapped his fingers and pointed the dog back to work. Cassius looked, saw and went. When he tried to cut another corner, because he knew there was nothing there, his methodical master, who didn't know there was nothing there, redirected him with a 'Cass. Where is he?'

The main outbuilding was a tall stone carriage-house with archways and heavy wooden doors, built in times when standards were high. Beyond that was a range of single-storey stables, also stone. These had already been searched, of course, but by people, not by Cassius.

There was a car, a Morris Minor, on blocks in the high building, and a few bales of straw, miscellaneous sacks of something or other, a workbench, a few drums and cans and some garden tools. There was a ladder up to a hatchway in the floor above, which meant that Sleightholm had to go and have a look. His torch showed the loft to be completely empty, not that the old lady would have tried the ladder anyway.

There was a sudden kerfuffle below. Trying to shine his torch down, look down and climb down all at once, Sleightholm banged his head on the edge of the hatch. Bloody dog. What's the blasted ...? The speed of Cassius's dash across the floor gave it away. Cat or rat. In here, rat.

'Cass! Aagh! No! LEAVE IT!' shouted Joe. He didn't care about the rat's survival, but such a distraction set a search back to the beginning in terms of the dog's attitude. It was the wrong kind of excitement, as one of Joe's dog-school instructors used to say. Cassius, temptation behind him, came over to Joe with that look on his face. Rat? What rat?

Cats, hedgehogs and rats – and squirrels, which to a dog are only a kind of climbing rat – could try the discipline and training of any working dog. Joe could forgive his dog for chasing a rat. They were near impossible to resist. His father had kept ferrets and the family dog, a Cairn terrier, hated the ferrets with all the passion of a wee fighting Scot. He would sit in the garden, some yards back from the ferrets' cage, and stare into it, and at them, with a pure malevolence only superseded by his hatred of rats. When Sleightholm Senior took ferrets and terrier ratting in a farmer's barn, the two species forgot their differences in pursuit of a third: the common enemy. The ferrets would seek and find, and any rats running for it were snapped up by the terrier and had their necks broken in one shake. When the fun was over, ferrets and terrier would resume normal hostilities.

An hour had passed. If the old lady was here, she must surely be dead or very near it, and there was only one part of the grounds they hadn't covered. Behind the house was some wasteland with scrap materials laid about. To the right was a yard with piles of logs, rubbish bins, gas cylinders, all sorts of stuff. To the left there were patches of hard core, a few heaps of rubble, nettles, brambles, a door, some timber, some roof tiles, as if somebody had knocked down a couple of sheds and not got around to phase two of the project.

As Sleightholm sat Cassius down, he noticed that the wind had changed around to the south-east. A little gust blew directly in their faces. The dog raised his head and a charge of the right kind of excitement ran through him, as he smelled the smell that shouldn't be there. The policeman knew immediately, the instant he let the dog go, that Cassius had found. He clambered to the top of the biggest rubble heap and shone his torch where Cassius had disappeared into the darkness. The dog was hurtling along, flat out, arrow straight – towards what? Sleightholm could see a line of trees, presumably the boundary with the wall behind. Where Cass was heading there was no gate, no gap, no anything, just brambles and undergrowth, except ... what was that? A silvery football?

Cassius stopped near the football and wagged his tail. Sleightholm bellowed,'Down!'; the dog dropped, the policeman galloped like hell over nettles and dead bracken, and there she was. Sitting in a concrete culvert with a white-haired head poking over the top, dressed in a nightie and slippers with a lacy kind of dressing gown over her, was about five stone of very old lady.

The first call to the police had been at three in the afternoon. She had been there, in the cold, for six hours at the very least. Soon, she would have fallen into a coma. Without that dog, very shortly she'd have been dead. And how long before they would have found her body, in a culvert, out there on the wasteland where nobody ever bothered to go?

She looked up when Sleightholm arrived and smiled. 'Just a single, please,' she said. 'I'm meeting my fiancé, you see, so I don't know if I'll be coming back this way.'



Joseph Noel Sleightholm (born on Christmas Day) was a latecomer to the police, having set out to be an engineer and not getting into a job he really enjoyed until he was 27. Once in, he was drawn to dog-handling and spent some of his leave days happily up at the training school, mucking out and mucking in, feeling part of the camaraderie of a very exclusive club, being fleeced something rotten at lunchtime cards, and playing the part of the criminal who is chased and bitten by overenthusiastic hounds that don't have such opportunities as often as they'd like.

As a career move, to go for dog-handling was a big decision because it meant giving up promotion through the ranks, in uniform or CID. Career dog handlers were almost all career constables if they wanted to stay as operational coppers.

Another problem was the image dog handlers had at that time, in that particular police force anyway. You called them in, a van arrived, an Alsatian jumped out, sniffed around, had a pee and jumped back in again. Then came the revolution. A dog handler called Jack Robinson arrived and, before you could say, well, anything, he transformed the unit simply by being in it. From day one, stories were running around about him and his dog Jaffa, not a great name for a police dog but so called because he had an orange spot on his nose. He was not a fabulous looker from any other angle either, conforming to the Kennel Club breed standard only in the same way that the Bash Street Kids resemble Michelangelo's David, but he certainly had presence.

The standard GSD, the German Shepherd Dog – which some people wrongly call Alsatian (being a euphemism from the First World War when things German were not popular) – is black and tan. Jaffa was black and a mucky kind of grey. He was long in the leg, far too tall for a show dog, and his canine teeth were rounded at the ends, presumably from use. He didn't prance, or do the show-ring trot. He strolled, king of the street, 'nobody messes with me'. He had the swagger of the hard man, and everyone who saw, believed. Joe Sleightholm had recently passed his sergeant's exam, but half an hour of Jaffa changed his life for good.

Constable Joe, dreaming of Sergeant Joe, was on night duty in a section car when he had a call to attend at a big house in the country. The people were away and the alarm, linked directly to the station, had gone off. Thinking that it was probably the alarm that was faulty but there just might be a burglary in progress, Joe turned up the drive with his lights off and there was a van, a white Transit van, not the sort of vehicle you would expect to see in such a drive at such an hour. He left his police car blocking it as well as he could and crept around the back of the house, where lights were showing. And there he saw something very few police officers are ever privileged to witness.

Standing at a very large sash window he looked in on a spacious drawing room, although it was more like a room in a museum than a room in a house. Well furnished with antiques and paintings, clocks, vases, and figurines on the marble mantle, it also contained several display cabinets. A housemaid's nightmare, thought Joe, as he watched two men inspecting the gear, discussing the merits of various objets d'art, putting some back where they'd been but packing others into a pair of large canvas hold-alls. It was like a scene from a play. They were quite well dressed, the men. Smart casual, you might say. They were not your usual downtown toe-rags looking for a telly and a few quid in cash.

Joe stared, fascinated, not quite knowing what to do next, when the decision was taken for him. The burglars must have sensed they were being watched because they turned, saw Joe looking through the window, put down whatever they were discussing at that moment, picked up the hold-alls and legged it through the far door. Joe set off after them, along the side of the house. Round the corner was a stretch of lawn, a vegetable garden and a high wall with a door swinging open leading to a lane and a field gate, also open. In the glimmer of the moon he could see his quarry well ahead of him. He chased, across a field with a mature crop of feed beans that kept tripping him up. They went around in a loop with the law gaining, ending back at the van. The villains were in it and starting the engine when a panting PC Sleightholm arrived.

Using tactics from the dodgems, they managed to squeeze past Joe's car but not before he'd truncheoned their windscreen into a concave spider's web and shattered the driver's side window entirely. Even so, they were away, with Joe leaping into his car, following and calling frantically on his radio for some assistance.


Excerpted from Cassius by Gordon Thorburn. Copyright © 2009 Gordon Thorburn. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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