Finn’s Law: The Hertfordshire police dog who survived a knife attack
PUBLISHED: 16:15 03 June 2019 | UPDATED: 16:15 03 June 2019
Ruth Downing (Rural Pictures)
Stabbed in the chest and head during an arrest, police dog Finn underwent a five-hour operation to save his life. It was the start of a much longer fight, for justice for service animals across the UK
At an open day at Catford Police Station, 12-year-old Dave Wardell was smitten with the police dog handlers, and decided that one day he would be one. He never expected his dream would come true, let alone that he would be instrumental in changing the law with his partner, Police Dog Finn.
On October 5, 2016 Dave and Finn were working a night shift when they were called, as part of a Hertfordshire Constabulary team, to an incident in Stevenage. Hearing noises from the back of the house they had been sent to, armed officers stayed at the front, while Dave retrieved Finn from the police van to investigate.
'I heard someone jumping the fence at the back of the property, and a young man appeared in front of me,' explains Dave.
'I had Finn on a lead and shouted "Police Officer. Stop!".'
The teenager briefly did so, looked Dave and Finn up and down and then made a run for it. Dave unclipped Finn and sent him after him. When Dave caught up with them, he was just in time to see the suspect break from behind a bush and try to climb a fence. Finn took hold of his lower leg and pulled him towards Dave, as he was trained to do.
With the suspect now lying on his back underneath Finn, Dave tried to explain to him that he had to stop fighting so he could be released from Finn's grip. The suspect, just a boy of 16, instead thrust forward towards Finn.
As he withdrew, Dave saw a 10-inch blade being pulled from Finn's chest.
'I had just witnessed the biggest knife I'd ever seen go into my best friend,' said Dave. 'It was clear to me that as he thrust the knife again, this time towards me, that he had made his intentions clear. He was prepared to kill both of us to get away.'
With the second thrust of the knife, the suspect caught Dave's hand. Finn positioned himself to protect his handler and his head was sliced by the knife. Unbelievably, Finn kept hold of the suspect until he was disarmed and apprehended, even though he must have been in terrible pain.
'We went to the vets on blue lights,' recalls Dave, 'and when we arrived the pristine white of Finn's cage was now soaked red with blood.'
Feeling utterly helpless, all Dave could do was to lie on the floor with his best friend, trying to keep him calm as he struggled for breath. 'I was terrified of losing him,' he says.
The four holes in Finn's lungs needed hours of emergency surgery. Dave was reluctantly sent away to get his own wound seen to before coming straight back to the vets to spend every moment possible with his canine partner.
The then seven-year-old German Shepherd had some extremely rocky moments, but after recouperation at home in Buntingford with Dave and his wife and children, just 11 weeks after the attack Finn let Dave know in no uncertain terms that he wanted to go back to work. The pair returned to night duty together. It was such an emotional time for Dave that the first suspect they apprehended led to him bursting into tears as he cuffed him.
Finn's days of duty were numbered however. 'Although Finn was keen to continue his working life, I had decided to retire him at the age of eight anyway, which occurred the following March,' Dave, 42, explains. 'It was incredibly hard going back out there without my best friend and saviour.'
Dave now works alongside a new partner, a German Shepherd named Hero-Diesel. 'Finn taught her everything he knows. She has very big shoes to fill.'
Unbelievably, the knife attacker from Lewisham, who could not be named because of his age, showed no remorse. Charged with four offences, these lead to two months in a young offender institution and two months rehabilitation. The near-fatal stabbing of Finn was classed only as criminal damage.
'It amazed me that some people have the attitude that dogs are a piece of equipment,' says Dave, 'especially as you spend more time with them than your family sometimes!'
The court's low value on the lives of service animals led Dave to a decision to try to change the law. With the help of Oliver Heald, MP for North East Herts, who he met at an awards ceremony, along with many other supporters, Dave set out to change the Animal Welfare Act. The proposal was to increase the maximum six month sentence to five years. The case was put to the House of Commons in a Private Member's Bill by Sir Oliver.
'As a natural pessimist, I doubted that the amendments would go through,' recalls Dave.
He had reason to doubt, there have only been eight successful Ten Minute Rule Bills made in 19 years. Everyone on 'Team Finn' ploughed ahead though, and Finn was at every reading of the bill in both the Commons and the Lords. As the third reading was passed in the Lords, backed by Standon's Viscount Trenchard, Finn barked from the public gallery, causing belly laughs from the campaigners and peers.
With Royal Assent given in April the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill, better known as 'Finn's Law' becomes legally binding this month. It importantly no longer deems service animals 'property' and allows courts, in certain circumstances, to disregard a defendant's claim of self-protection in harming a service animal.
'From the date of the offence it's taken two and a half years but Finn has now changed history, and Finn's Law is official,' smiles Dave. 'What a wonderful legacy for Finn and the job that he loved to do every day.'
Sir Oliver told the Comet newspaper, 'These animals have previously been treated as property by the law and it was looked at as criminal damage or damage of property when these animals were hurt or killed. I am delighted that service animals will now have the protection they need and will not simply be treated as property like a police radio.'
Dave still feels guilt about what happened to his dog, but Finn is fully recovered and incredibly well loved. He has won many prestigious awards including at Crufts this year, holidayed in Miami, learned to surf, been on tour to promote a book of his life, Fabulous Finn, met one of his owner's heroes, Queen guitarist Brian May and most recently captured the nation's hearts on Britain's Got Talent, making Simon Cowell cry.
So how is Finn taking to his new celebrity status? 'In his stride,' Dave laughs.
The vet who battled for hours to save Finn's life has the last word. Rob Adams, of Davies Veterinary Specialists in Shillington near Hitchin, says the new law for service animals is long overdue.
'Finally these amazing animals now have the protection and recognition they deserve under the law. Whilst what happened to Finn and Dave was truly terrible, the one consolation is that something really positive has come out of it.
'Finn is by far the bravest dog I have ever had the pleasure of treating, but it is what he did after his recovery that is his greatest achievement. It is a great testament to not only the bond between police dog and handler, but also to all those who, as a strong team, have inspired to change the law. Their legacy will live on and protect the valuable lives of working animals for generations.'
Finn's Law explained
The successful ammendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in England and Wales means the penalty for harming a service animal carrying out its duties is no longer classed as a criminal damage offence, meaning courts have tougher powers to deal with attackers, as of June 9.
The defence of self-defence can also now, in certain circumstances, be disregarded.
Conservative peer Hugh Trenchard who took the bill through the Lords after it was introduced by Oliver Heald MP for North East Herts said, 'The bill will make it easier to prosecute people… who are suspected of causing unnecessary suffering to service animals, chiefly police dogs and horses and dogs working for the Prison Service.'
The campaign continues in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.