When Kurt Stephenson was leaving high school in 2008 he was offered a university scholarship to study viticulture.

But he turned it down, knowing he wanted to take the long road toward becoming a police dog handler.

Today that dream has become a reality, with Stephenson and his dog, Mint, becoming one of 10 dog and handler teams graduating from the New Zealand Police Dog Training Centre in Trentham.

Five teams will work for New Zealand Police, and five for Aviation Security Service.


Stephenson said even though it had taken a decade to become a dog handler, he had never regretted the decision.

"You often think back, 'I wonder what would have happened and what life would have been like.'

"Then you reflect on what you've been through and the fun you've had, and you think, 'I wouldn't change it for the world'."

Working his way up meant joining the police, getting frontline experience, fostering police dogs, and then waiting for a spot to open up.

The police dogs and their handlers who graduated today, including Kurt Stephenson and Mint (far right). Photo / Frances Cook
The police dogs and their handlers who graduated today, including Kurt Stephenson and Mint (far right). Photo / Frances Cook

Now he and Mint are headed to the South Island to help keep Cantabrians safe.

"[The dogs] are all their own characters, and they've got their own quirks.

"They make you laugh, and they also make you cry, but at the same time working together and getting to where we are now is really rewarding.

"Because you are, you're a team at the end of the day. I rely on him and he relies on me, which is awesome."


The training is nine months of intensive work to make sure both dog and handler are up to the job.

National Co-ordinator Police Dogs Inspector Todd Southall said the latest graduates had been part of a plan to change the dog training system, and had all handled it well.

"We want our dogs to be quieter, instead of barking the whole time.

"It's good for a whole range of reasons. Particularly when we're finding offenders at the end of the track, it's good if the dog is quieter so the handlers can communicate well with the offender.

"So that's good for everybody.

"We train these pups from eight weeks. So we're imprinting really desirable behaviours at eight weeks.

"They really do fantastic work. It's not just catching and apprehending offenders, it's a lot of community work as well."

AVSEC group manager operations Karen Urwin said the graduation was a chance to not only celebrate the dogs and their handlers, but also their family.

"Having a dog is a family commitment, it's a 24/7 one, you don't get to leave it at work," she said.

"On a wider scale, [the dogs] are probably the most powerful weapon that we have in fighting the people that want to do us harm.

"Sadly, there are some pretty good bomb-makers out there, and they're pretty good at finding ways to defeat clever machinery and X-ray machines.

"But it's pretty hard to beat a dog's nose."

Urwin said that the Auckland team in the month of December screened 1.5 million people, which showed the importance of the dogs.