There have been significant reductions to UK police dog and horse units as a result of government spending curbs, figures obtained by BBC News reveal.
Since 2009, police dogs have been cut by more than 200 and five forces have disbanded their mounted sections.
Campaigners say the reductions will jeopardise police operations. The Home Office, which has cut police funding by 20% in real terms over four years, says police still have enough resources to do their work.
Forty-eight police forces in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – including the Border Force and Ministry of Defence police – were asked to supply data for five years on police dogs and horses.
Thirty-seven provided data allowing meaningful comparisons to be made; the others either did not respond or gave only partial information. Some 31 forces were able to provide details for 2009 and six others for 2010, 2011 or 2012.
In total, the 37 forces had 1,983 police dogs. By 2014, 25 of the 37 forces had cut police dog numbers, six had increased them, and in six there was no change. The total number was 1,753, a reduction of 230 or 11.6%.
However, the true scale of the cuts is likely to be greater because some of those forces that did not supply data are also known to have cut their dog numbers.
Mike Pannett, a former police officer who helped set up the social media campaign Don't Ditch the Dogs, said the cuts were “very, very short-sighted” because dogs were so effective at deterring crime. “Just the sight of a dog will put off the most hardened of criminals,” he said.
Dogs are routinely used to search for drugs, explosives, human remains, offenders and missing people. Mr Pannett said that with fewer dogs and handlers, services would be more stretched and there could be further for them to travel.
There was a risk the scent would be lost by the time dogs arrived at the scene, he said. Of all the UK forces, British Transport Police made the biggest reduction – almost halving their number of dogs to 55.
The force said a review in 2011 found that changes were needed to its dog unit to deliver more effective counter-terrorism operations, cable theft detection and policing at football matches.
Ch Supt Paul Brogden said: “These changes have resulted in a smaller, more specialist, dog unit and allowed us to make significant savings which have been reinvested in frontline policing.” He added that the force had a “long and proud history” of using police dogs to support the policing of Britain's rail network.
“Our dog unit is now better equipped to meet our policing priorities while providing value for money,” he said. Police Scotland, which has reduced its number of dogs by 70 – or 35% – since its eight forces merged into one, said it had “increased its capability at the same time as achieving efficiencies”.
Cuts have also been made to mounted branches: five years ago, 17 forces had their own police horses, now only 12 have. Cleveland, Essex, Humberside, North Wales and Nottinghamshire have all axed their mounted sections, while most of the others have made reductions.
Essex Police, which announced the closure of its mounted section in October 2012, blamed “financial pressures”, saying the alternative was to cut police officer numbers even further.
“Inevitably, difficult decisions have to be made,” said the then Assistant Chief Constable Sue Harrison, adding that it would save £600,000 per year. Mike Pannett pointed out that the closure of mounted sections and reductions in the number of horses among those that still existed meant some police horses had to travel 100 miles before they could be deployed.
Surrey's Chief Constable, Lynne Owens – the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) lead for national policing for uniformed operations – said a review was under way to assess how well-equipped police forces were to deal with emergencies and critical incidents.
“In the current economic climate, chief constables are facing difficult decisions on how to balance their budgets whilst maintaining service to the public, and we recognise that some specialist units have been cut or reformed.
“However, whilst individual chief constables are responsible for ensuring they can respond to issues in their own individual forces, we also need to be sure that the police have the capacity and capability to respond to national threats.”
Rick Nelson, of the Police Federation's operational policing sub-committee, said: “If forces are serious about improving efficiency in times of budget cuts, they should look to increase their numbers of police dogs – doing the opposite is incredibly short-sighted.
“Dogs represent an extremely versatile policing tool. They don't just provide a crucial component of public order policing but their assistance is invaluable across a range of situations from drugs and missing persons searches to firearms operations and everything in between.
“The police service should focus on efficiency savings and getting value for money, not purely on saving money. This doesn't just mean increasing the numbers of police officers but increasing the numbers of police dogs.” The Home Office said forces “must play their part in helping to tackle the deficit”.
“But there is no question they will still have the resources to do their important work,” said a spokesperson, adding that police and crime commissioners, and chief constables were “best placed to make decisions about the most effective use of resources”.