Creating an Effective K9 Unit: Part 2

Choosing the Right Policy, Training, Decoys, and Supervisor


Story By Brad Smith for Working Dog Magazine |

In my last article, Creating an Effective K9 Unit: Part 1 – Vendor, Trainer, Handler, & Dog Selection, we discussed topics that you may consider before starting a K9 unit or reviewing if you already have one. Now we are going to get to the meat and potatoes.

K9 Policy

It is imperative that your agency has a written K9 policy before activating its unit. While that statement may appear silly, agencies have fielded K9 teams while their policies and procedures were still being written. In so doing, those agencies needlessly exposed themselves to civil liability during that period.

If you’re not sure where to start, companies such as Lexipol sell formats and guidelines for creating K9 policy. Seek out an agency that has a K9 unit with a good reputation, and ask for a copy of their policy. If it has a solid foundation, use it as a guide to draft your own.

Whatever means of guideline creation you select, make sure your K9 policy covers items such as:

  • The K9 unit’s purpose and scope;
  • The chain of command and responsibility within the K9 unit;
  • Dog and handler selection;
  • Daily/weekly/monthly training requirements;
  • Off-duty responsibilities;
  • Requirements for written documentation of training and deployments;
  • When a patrol K9 can be used;
  • K9 detection standards; and
  • Guidelines for public demonstrations.

In general, K9 policies are much improved over what they were 25 years ago. From time to time, some agencies can be found that have K9 policies that appear to have been written 30 or 40 years ago. Make sure your department’s K9 policy is current. It would be wise to have an attorney who is well versed in using K9s for law enforcement review your K9 policy every two or three years.

Once the city or county attorney and the chief of police have approved the policy, the K9 unit’s supervisor should document when each handler receives a copy of that policy. The dates that policy revisions are made should be on the bottom of every revision. This will show an active and ongoing review by the agency to stay up to date with current policing.

Some agencies attempt to create a laundry list of when and where a police dog can be deployed. It is not advisable to have such a list because it’s impossible to think of every possible situation. I prefer the simple approach to K9 deployment. That is, before a police service dog is released to search for a suspect, the handler and, time permitting, the field supervisor should consider the following facts and determine whether the deployment is within policy. If these criteria are met, a police dog can be deployed during a patrol or SWAT operation. One must consider:

  • The severity of the crime;
  • Whether the suspect poses a threat to the safety of law enforcement or others;
  • Whether the suspect is actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest; and
  • What other means, if any, could be used to make the arrest.

Basic K9 Training and Schools

Regardless of who does your basic K9 training, make sure there is a small student-to-instructor ratio. Many times I’ve seen basic K9 schools being taught with one instructor and 12 to 15 dog handlers. Unfortunately, there’s not much teaching or learning going on in such situations. The instructor is more of a manager than a trainer. A ratio of one instructor for every six to seven handlers would work out well.

Another reason it’s important to have a small student-instructor ratio is to make sure the handler and dog are not simply being trained to pass certification tests, but rather to handle real-life situations and for that “what if” moment. Be sure your trainer is challenging both the handler and the dog to prepare them for what they will face in the real world. This type of training can make all the difference on the street and in the courtroom.

Make sure your trainer provides written documentation of the training he or she will be giving your dog/handler team. The last thing you want to hear from your trainer is, “I’m not sure what we’re going to do today; we’ll just wing it.” To keep the training going in the right direction, there should be a set course of instruction: a basic format and set of guidelines that can be customized as needed. The trainer also should be keeping written documentation of each day’s activities and how the dogs performed, even if just pass or fail.

If your trainer’s background is strictly on the civilian/sport dog side, hopefully, he or she has hired some current or prior law enforcement handlers to assist in teaching the basic K9 course. The instructors should be knowledgeable about current case law and be able to answer any questions handlers have. Even though your department’s policy will provide K9 deployment guidelines, it’s always helpful for handlers to be able to discuss basic K9 deployment issues during the course with an instructor who has been there and done that.

It’s also important for the training staff to be knowledgeable in current dog training techniques rather than using analog training techniques and methods from the 1960s and ’70s. The last thing you want to find out during a deposition is that the trainer has not updated or modified his training practices in 20 or 30 years.

Be cautious of basic K9 training courses that have a fast turnaround. In my opinion, unless you have an experienced handler being partnered with an experienced street dog, if a vendor or trainer says he can have a dog and handler trained and ready to work the street in two weeks, you should run the other way. Depending on the dog’s experience and maturity, as well as what you are teaching the dog, a basic patrol K9 school may take as long as six to twelve weeks. An additional three to six weeks may be required to cross-train patrol dogs for detection work.

The last information you should confirm is your trainer’s certification standards. Some states have specific training standards for patrol and detection dogs. If your state does not have such standards, make sure your vendor’s certification training is up to the standards of a reputable national K9 organization such as the National Police Canine Association (NPCA), the North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA), or the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) — all of which have developed minimum training and certification standards for patrol and detection dogs. Sometimes the standards set by states or K9 organizations are minimal and basic. Preferably, your vendor is training and certifying to a higher standard.

I cannot overstate the importance of seeking a K9 expert’s opinions and guidance in starting your unit. While I encourage you to do your homework and plenty of research on the vendors you might use, an independent K9 expert can be well worth the extra peace of mind in knowing that you’re not being taken advantage of by the vendor in both the quality of the dog and the training.


To the untrained eye, decoys are considered “bite dummies,” and anyone can do the job. Nothing is further from the truth. Decoys are a vital part of the dog’s training — whether in a basic K9 course or in monthly maintenance training. When the dog is searching out of the handler’s sight, the decoy is the one who gives the dog the proper corrections and modifies its behavior to conform to the handler’s expectations, thus reaching the goal of the exercise.

Typically, a department’s decoys are officers who are interested in becoming dog handlers and who come to K9 training to learn as much as they can before they become part of the unit. For liability protection, a department should put an officer through decoy school before allowing the person to train with the K9 unit. Some departments have officers sign a waiver prior to acting as a department decoy. Even if the decoy school is an in-house overview and introduction to the techniques and methods decoys use, it should be documented as formal training for the volunteers who are attending.

K9 Supervision

In some departments, the K9 supervisor is the weakest link. It would make sense to give charge of the unit to a sergeant or lieutenant who has handler experience — or at least someone who had the desire to be a handler prior to promotion. Unfortunately, some departments don’t consider prior K9 experience a priority and assign a junior sergeant or junior lieutenant to oversee the unit. In many cases, the K9 supervisor never was a handler and had no desire to be one, doesn’t like dogs, and doesn’t particularly want to be a K9 supervisor. That is a recipe for disaster.

“In addition to a K9 supervisor frequently attending the weekly training sessions, it is paramount that they review all the written training documentation, deployment logs, and bite reports.”

Such a K9 supervisor is unlikely to attend K9 training to see how the unit is or is not performing. This K9 supervisor also is likely to deny most handler training requests because he does not see the need for more training, and when it comes to helping his handlers get new equipment, he may not advocate for them with the department’s administration.

Because that K9 supervisor lacks motivation, he will not want to attend a K9 supervisor school to learn what his duties are as well as what he needs to do to protect the K9 unit from civil liability. Moreover, if a K9 handler is not self-motivated or becomes lazy to the point where his performance levels drop on the street and in training, the K9 supervisor will not be in a position to notice or care. The results of such inattentiveness/lack of supervision can easily be regarded as negligent supervision and failure to properly supervise.

However, just because a supervisor has never been a handler does not automatically mean he will be a poor supervisor. In fact, some K9 supervisors who have never been handlers become outstanding K9 supervisors. They have embraced the supervisory opportunity and given it their all. They attend training at least twice a month, and they attend as many supervisor schools as they can so that they can learn to be the best supervisor possible.

In addition to a K9 supervisor frequently attending the weekly training sessions, it is paramount that they review all the written training documentation, deployment logs, and bite reports. To review K9 documentation, a K9 supervisor must understand terminology and jargon to have a clear perception of what is occurring. Mere paper shuffling is meaningless, and inadequate supervision will be revealed quickly during a deposition with attorneys who will be looking for such weaknesses during a lawsuit.

Hopefully, I have given you all some information to consider and review to see if your K9 unit is where it should to be. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.


About the Author

Brad Smith retired from the West Covina Police Department in southern California after 30 years of service. Brad was a handler and trainer there for 25 years and a SWAT dog handler for 18 years. Since 1999, Brad has been the national K9 chairman for NTOA and a K9 subject matter expert for the California Association of Tactical Officers. He specializes in field tactics and officer safety.

Brad is a graduate of the California POST Master Instructor Development Program (Class 5), where he designed and implemented a K9 SWAT and K9 patrol tactical school called SKIDDS and CATS. Brad is also the owner of Canine Tactical Operations and Consulting and provides expert K9 witness testimony.

Brad is the author of two books: K9 Tactical Operations for Patrol and SWAT and K9s in the Courtroom. Brad has published over 100 articles for a wide variety of publications on K9 SWAT deployment and training.



Join the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association and proudly display your support for your local law enforcement and Missouri sheriffs.
Your tax-deductible contribution will go a long way to ensure the office of Sheriff in Missouri remains a strong, independent office answerable to those citizens that it is sworn to serve and protect.

Creating an Effective K9 Unit: Part 1

Story By Brad Smith for Working Dog Magazine


Vendor, Trainer, Handler, & Dog Selection

Agencies that have or are thinking about starting a K9 unit should step back and make an honest assessment about whether such a unit is truly needed. I realize that driving around in a K9 vehicle is cool, and it has the CDI (chicks dig it) factor, but unless there is a real need and a careful selection of handler and K9, a department may be biting off more than it can chew, no pun intended.

In this article, we will discuss what each agency and supervisor needs to consider when it comes to the selection of a vendor, trainer, handler, and dog. Other important topics you will need to consider to ensure you have a successful K9 unit will be discussed in a future article.

As we consider the inherent potential for civil liability commonly associated with having a K9 unit, we must acknowledge and purposefully put into play the essential elements that create K9 success stories. One of the key aspects of a K9 operation, which a plaintiff’s attorney will evaluate in deciding whether to file a lawsuit, is the unit’s training program. Barring an absolute criminal act by the handler in using the dog, the facts and circumstances a civil attorney uses to construct a lawsuit are nearly always built upon a foundation of poor or insufficient training, documentation, and supervision.

The three basic areas that build a successful K9 unit are the right handler, the right dog, and the right training. To further strengthen these three essential elements, it is imperative to keep proper training and deployment records as a way to show that all three elements remain in good working order.

Good recordkeeping along with ongoing training helps prove a K9 team’s reliability. In other words, you’re recording things that help prove to a jury that you were able to perform in the manner in which you say you deployed. Continuing education and additional training will be an important ingredient and help support the idea that your K9 unit meets or exceeds the current state and national minimum training standards of 16 hours a month.

K9 performance on any level and in all disciplines is built upon the theory that every K9 skill is perishable, and that performance levels will decline without frequent training, hence the need for both training and evaluations to help prove reliability.

Creating a successful K9 unit isn’t like purchasing a fleet of patrol cars or new pistols for everyone in the agency. You can’t just read up on the latest trends and go with the lowest bids and expect the team to perform like every other team across the country. Prior to establishing a unit, your education should come from a reliable source, such as a well-established consultant whose advice is not influenced by third-party vendors. The consultant should be someone who will help guide the department in the right direction both for purchasing a dog and for training a team. The best way to beat a civil lawsuit is to do what you can to prevent one from ever being filed.


Selecting a Vendor and Trainer

Once you have decided to start a K9 unit — whether for patrol, detection, or tracking — you’ll then have to decide where to purchase dogs and who will provide training for the K9 teams. Don’t assume that just anyone can supply your department with the quality dogs it needs. When it comes to selecting a K9 vendor, it’s critical that you do your homework and research the vendors carefully. Don’t simply select the vendor closest to you, the one that gives you the best deal, or provides the lowest bid. Does that reasoning sound familiar?

Shortly after 9/11, numerous new K9 vendors emerged across the United States. Many offered unbelievable prices and said they could provide trained dogs within a few weeks. A number of departments purchased dogs without doing their due diligence. Within six to nine months, many of those new vendors had made a lot of money, but because they could not consistently deliver what they advertised, they had to close up shop and go elsewhere to offer their fraudulent claims, leaving their law enforcement customers with less-than-optimal quality and poorly trained K9s.

Therefore, it’s important to select a K9 vendor who is reputable, knowledgeable, and experienced in the law enforcement K9 arena and guarantees their dogs. Be sure you ask about the owner’s background, as well as the backgrounds of the instructors – they should have training or service in law enforcement. A civilian instructor can teach a police dog handler a lot, but there are many things – such as tactics – that a civilian instructor cannot teach. Also, instructors must be up to date on current K9 search techniques.


Selecting a Handler

When it’s time to select a new handler, a department must determine whether it has viable in-house candidates for the position. Many people think that the dog determines how good the K9 team will be, but in reality, it is the handler who makes or breaks the success of the K9 team. We have a saying in the K9 world: “It goes right down the leash.” Pair a mediocre dog with a good handler and that handler will make the dog better than anyone thought possible. However, pairing a good dog with a mediocre or poor handler will result in the dog having poor or mediocre street performances.

Another key to a smooth-running K9 team is to ensure that the dog and handler are a good fit. The last thing you want in a K9 team is a 90-mph dog paired with a 30-mph handler.

So what should you look for in a K9 handler? The ideal handler is an officer who is a hustler, a go-getter, and who is not afraid to work. A person to avoid is one who is happy being average. I don’t know about you but I don’t want an average handler on my team. The ideal handler is one who is always trying to improve themselves and their dog. I believe it’s important to review the officer’s annual performance evaluations to determine what previous supervisors think of him. I also believe that it’s important to review the officer’s background to see whether they have sustained any use of force complaints.
Other important attributes of a desirable handler are those who have a strong character, leadership ability, and good communication skills. It’s also important that the handler has experience working in the field – patrol – because when a situation arises, officers at the command post will look to the handler to formulate a plan, communicate that plan to everyone, and then execute the plan. If you select a young, inexperienced officer, he or she will likely be overwhelmed in such a situation and the K9 team may be doomed to fail.

When it comes to actually selecting a new handler, in addition to the standard procedure of writing a memo and an oral board, some departments give the potential handlers a physical fitness test to determine whether they are capable of performing the job on a daily basis and working with department K9s on obedience training and bite work. Be sure you don’t lower the bar and increase your agency’s exposure to civil liability by selecting a mediocre to average handler. I would rather leave a K9 handler position vacant than fill it with someone I know is not physically or mentally capable of top-notch performance.

The handler also needs to understand that his partner is not a pet, but rather a law enforcement tool. If you take anything from this article, it should be that we as K9 handlers must look at the bigger picture when it comes to our job. Think in more than one dimension by stepping out of your shoes and into the shoes of your bosses, other officers, and those who want to take money out of your pocket by suing you.

Remember, pets have very few rules and humans set expectations in their lives. As a result, they have very few responsibilities and fewer performance measures to achieve. The life of a police dog is completely geared toward performance. The responsibilities that accompany and measure that performance rest squarely upon the shoulders of a K9 handler. Always remember that your police dog is your responsibility all the time. Structured, monitored, and controlled socialization should be a handler’s goal.


Selecting a Dog

Back in the early days, handlers wanted the biggest, baddest, meanest dog around. They thought those characteristics would make a good patrol dog. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In many cases, the handler got what he asked for but was unable to control the dog and make it do what was necessary to successfully work the street.

As I mentioned previously, you don’t want that 90-mph dog paired with a 30-mph handler. It’s extremely important to find a dog that suits your law enforcement needs and is compatible with the handler. Over the years, I have learned that it’s not necessarily the dog with the highest drive that makes the best patrol dog. Often, a medium-drive dog will work better on the street – do more and do it better than a higher-drive dog – because the handler will be better able to control the dog.

In my opinion, it’s important to have a highly socialized dog. Some people think that a social dog won’t engage on the street, but I’m here to tell you that is a false assumption. All three of the dogs I worked on the street over a 20-year period were extremely friendly: I could let them run around the police department and expose them to a lot of kids during school demos. Because of their sociability, I never worried about doing demos or neighborhood watch meetings. I’m always amazed when I run into dogs that have an extremely high defense drive that want to growl and bark at everyone who approaches them.

A strong, dominate dog placed with a handler who is unable or unwilling to take control of the dog and manage the strong personality, will inevitably have accidental or unintended bites, resulting in lawsuits against the agency.

Make sure you select a dog you can control with the drives and courage you need, but one that also has the temperament to work well with trainers, handlers, and the general public. You never know when you might be asked to bring your dog into a courtroom so a jury can see him. The last thing you need is for the jury to hear your dog growling and barking at everyone in the hallway before you even enter the courtroom.

One of the biggest questions you must answer is whether you will buy a green dog versus a titled dog. A green dog is the term we use to describe a dog that has limited or no training. Such dogs typically are very young, but if they make it through law enforcement training, they will likely will have a long career.

The term titled dog refers to one that is two or three years old and has earned a Schutzhund (protection dog) or Koninklijke Nederlandse Politiehond Vereniging (KNPV) title.

In addition to the training issue, another consideration in buying a titled dog versus a green dog is cost. Believe it or not, green dogs are usually only a few thousand dollars less than a titled dog. The one advantage of purchasing a titled dog is the initial basic K9 training typically takes less time; sometimes as little as six weeks until the dog is ready to hit the street.
When considering a specific dog, you should test it before purchasing. I normally like to test the dog’s obedience, walk the dog on slippery floors, see how it reacts to gunfire, determine whether the dog will go into a dark room, and evaluate his endurance and agility.

When testing several dogs, document each evaluation to ensure you select the best one for your department. I believe it’s important for the K9 supervisor to be present during the selection process. Even if the supervisor relies on the trainer’s recommendation to make the selection, in the chain of command, the K9 supervisor ultimately will have final approval.

Some agencies will test many dogs in one day. The testing can be video recorded for review at the end of the day. Some agencies also document each dog’s review by using a preprinted worksheet that has a specific checklist. Such written documentation also can be reviewed to refresh your memory should more testing or evaluation need to be done prior to the final purchase.

Hopefully I have given you a few things to think about. In my next article, we will discuss such topics as K9 policy, K9 training and schools, decoys, and the ever-popular role of the K9 supervisor.

About the Author

Brad Smith retired from the West Covina Police Department in southern California after 30 years of service. Brad was a handler and trainer there for 25 years and a SWAT dog handler for 18 years. Since 1999, Brad has been national K9 chairman for NTOA and a K9 subject matter expert for the California Association of Tactical Officers. He specializes in field tactics and officer safety.

Brad is a graduate of the California POST Master Instructor Development Program (Class 5), where he designed and implemented a K9 SWAT and K9 patrol tactical school called SKIDDS and CATS. Brad is also the owner of Canine Tactical Operations and Consulting and provides expert K9 witness testimony.

Brad is the author of two books: K9 Tactical Operations for Patrol and SWAT and K9s in the Courtroom. Brad has published over 100 articles for a wide variety of publications on K9 SWAT deployment and training.


Story is reprinted from Working Dog Magazine.


Join the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association and proudly display your support for your local law enforcement and Missouri sheriffs.
Your tax-deductible contribution will go a long way to ensure the office of Sheriff in Missouri remains a strong, independent office answerable to those citizens that it is sworn to serve and protect.

Cadaver Dogs: How Canine Noses Help Find Dead Bodies

Story By Mara Bovsun for the AKC Family Dog Magazine

Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Hurst reached down to his 140-pound partner, Radar, and slipped a collar decorated with skulls and crossbones around the Bloodhound’s neck.

“Where’s the Napoo, Radar?” he said.

Radar ran around the item in question—a car in the police impound lot—his nostrils quivering. When the big red dog came to the trunk, which was closed, he sat.

It was his signal to Hurst, “This is the spot. I found it.”

What Radar had pinpointed in those moments was the unique bouquet of decaying human bodies. Radar is a “decomposition dog,” also known as a “cadaver dog” trained to pick up the scent of death.

The car was part of an investigation into the May 2013 disappearance of David Noren, 49, of Lakewood, Colorado. Noren was not likely to run off without a word. Even more troubling, he had left behind the most precious thing in his life—Olivia, his 12-year-old black Labrador Retriever.

Something bad had happened to him, everyone was sure of that, but there was no way to even guess what it was or where to start looking.

Police had nothing until Radar sat in front of the trunk of Noren’s car.

Lakewood officers had thoroughly examined the trunk before, but their eyes did not pick up what Radar’s nose had—two specks of blood.

Investigators looked in the trunk again, this time with a luminescing chemical. “It lit up like the night sky,” according to Radar’s winning entry for the 2016 AKC Humane Fund Award for Canine Excellence. It was enough to convince police that foul play was involved and to press an investigation.

A hiker later found Noren’s body, dumped along the side of a wilderness road. The killer, Noren’s roommate, is now serving a life sentence.

Legacy of Vietnam

For centuries, humans have relied on the extraordinary power of the canine nose for patrolling, tracking fugitives and missing persons, or identifying bombs or illegal substances.

Their ability to pick up odors is a true superpower. Dogs have about 200 to 300 million scent receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans. Scent regions of their brains are roughly 40 times larger than ours.

Nevertheless, organized attempts to use this natural wonder in homicide investigations is relatively new, dating back only to around the 1970s, wrote Cat Warren in What the Dog Knows. It all started when Vietnam War-era Army researchers began musing how many jobs dogs could perform at home and in peacetime.

In the early 1970s, New York State Trooper Ralph Suffolk Jr., a Bloodhound handler, worked with the Military Animal Science program at San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute to test the concept. Suffolk trained a yellow Labrador Retriever as the first “body dog.” (Today, they are referred to as “decomposition dogs” or “cadaver dogs.”)

Concrete Case

Andrew Rebmann, a co-author of the classic textbook Cadaver Dog Handbook, was among the first handlers in the U.S. He developed training programs for the discipline.

Before he became involved with sniffer dogs, Rebmann was a Connecticut State Police trooper. The department put out a recruiting call for K-9 handlers. Although Rebmann loved dogs, he didn’t apply for the program because he wasn’t sure he was qualified.

Cleo, his family’s pet Newfoundland at the time, changed that. Rebmann and Cleo competed in AKC obedience and, one day, the trooper brought his big fluffy pal to work and showed off some of her moves. Before he could say, “good dog,” Cleo had launched her owner’s career as a police K-9 handler. Since the 1970s, he has participated in thousands of cadaver-dog searches.

Using cadaverine and putrescine, chemicals produced by decomposing corpses, Rebmann trained his first body dog, Rufus, to pick out the scent of death. These chemicals are among the many tools trainers rely on to teach dogs how to distinguish the telltale aroma.

One of the team’s first major finds was the body of a woman murdered by her husband. Rufus found her buried in the couple’s yard, even though she was down more than four feet, covered in lime powder, and entombed under a brand new concrete patio.

Silver of Evidence

In 1986, Rebmann and Lady, another German Shepherd Dog, helped solve a baffling high-profile case in which a Connecticut flight attendant, Helle Crafts, vanished. Police suspected her husband, but without a body, they had little to go on.

Then a snowplow driver reported seeing something weird around the time Mrs. Crafts disappeared—a woodchipper by the side of a river, operating during a raging snowstorm in the middle of the night.

Lady led investigators to tiny fragments of human tissue, including a sliver of a fingernail with nail polish on it that matched a color the missing woman used.

This physical evidence, only about three ounces, was enough to suggest that Crafts had not run away from her bad marriage. The tiny items the dog found contributed to a murder conviction and 50-year sentence for her husband.

The “woodchipper murder” marked the first time Connecticut prosecuted a homicide case without a complete corpse.

“Lady played a really important part,” says Warren. The use of educated sniffers has become a common practice in missing persons and homicide cases and disaster recovery. “Well-trained cadaver dogs are a really good tool,” says Warren. Although finding a body or parts often requires several different methods— some as high-tech as ground-penetrating radar—dogs offer a unique perspective. In a drowning case, for example, bodies can be deep below the surface and trapped in debris. “A dog can say, ‘This pile of debris here is worth tearing apart.’ That’s where dogs shine,” she says.

Another important role they play is in resetting the perceptions of their two-legged partners. Human brains tend to get stuck in a groove, says Warren.

But dogs have no preconceived notions; they don’t limit their searches based on crime-scene tape. They know only what their millions of scent receptors tell them.

“As humans, we get an idée fixe about something. The dog can say, ‘Silly people. Look over here.’ ”

Dogs are able to pick up a scent within minutes of the death or years later. In some studies, they have found 25-year-old skeletonized remains, buried in an area of 300 by 150 feet. Hurst works with a volunteer group, NecroSearch International, Inc., that brings together specialists from many disciplines—everything from botany, anthropology, and entomology to computer analysis—to help law enforcement solve decades-old cases. Canine sniffers are important in many of these searches.

Warren points out, though, that while they provide vital clues, what dogs find is only one part of an investigation. Another problem is that the information they provide can be hard to interpret. In many cases, they can tell you if a dead human has been in a place, but all the other essential questions—who, how, and when—will require additional digging and analysis by humans.

“Dogs aren’t perfect like people aren’t perfect,” Warren says. “I’d be horrified if someone ended up in prison based only on the word of a dog and handler.”

Gotta Sniff

What kind of dog excels in this serious work?

A “jackass,” was a trainer’s assessment of Solo, the German Shepherd puppy who launched Warren, a North Carolina State University English professor, into her second life as a cadaver-dog handler.

Solo was a singleton puppy, Warren recalls in her book, and so obnoxious she dubbed him the “Little Prince of Darkness.” Warren had experience with both the breed and competitive obedience. Still, this wild child was more than she could handle.

But he was just hours old when he started “working scent,” as the breeder proudly reported to Warren.

Hurst describes Radar as a “nose on four legs,” which is not unusual for a Bloodhound. “They were built for it,” says Hurst. Everything about them, including their long ears, the folds in the skin of their faces, and their “nasty drool” is designed to help them pull in odors.

But being a sniffing machine is just part of the picture. Solo was pushy, aggressive, and had unstoppable drive. All of these characteristics suggested to the trainer that he might be a good search dog.

Radar’s temperament is also ideal for this work. “You look for a dog who is not afraid to leave the whelping box, a pretty bold dog,” says Hurst. Radar was running tracks at 9 weeks old.

When Radar’s on the scent, nothing gets in his way. “He’s like a 140-pound bowling ball. … He pulls me around, and I’m a pretty hefty guy,” laments Hurst, who outweighs his big red partner by 100 pounds.

“He has dragged me down mountains.”

Both Radar and Solo would make less than ideal household companions, but obsessive drive is what you need when someone goes missing. Radar is trained to search for the living—lost children, Alzheimer’s patients—as well as the dead.

To switch gears, Hurst replaces the body harness used in live searches with the skull-and-crossbones collar and gives his command to seek death scent. “Where’s the Napoo?” is popular among cadaver dog handlers. It’s a bit of World War I British/Australian slang for “finished, done, dead,” says Warren.

Does the job of seeking victims of murders and disasters depress the dogs? Not at all, say the handlers. In fact, they often find it too much fun.

Dogs can get so charged up when they catch the scent that they run wild or start digging like crazy. There was at least one account of a dog urinating on the spot. That’s why one important part of training is teaching a calm, reliable signal, like a sit.

For these four-legged detectives, death is just another aroma, and tracking it down, just another game.

This article originally appeared in the award-winning AKC Family Dog magazine.

GAC Family Announces ‘K-9 Hero Awards’ Veterans Day Special

GAC Family today announced “K-9 Hero Awards” as the network’s first-ever Veterans Day special, premiering November 11 at 8pm ET/PT.  The special presentation is created in partnership with Project K-9 Hero, an organization dedicated to recognizing our nation’s top performing Police and Military K-9 Heroes. 

“K-9 Hero Awards” showcases the incredible achievements and devoted service of Police K-9s, Military Working Dogs, Fire Department K-9s and Search and Rescue K-9s at the Local, State and Federal levels.  Members of U.S. Congress join the awards presentation as K-9 Heroes are crowned in seven categories: Patrol Apprehension, Narcotics Detection, Tracking and Trailing, Firearms Detection, Search and Rescue, Accelerant Detection, and Explosives Detection.  Award winning K-9s in each category will receive free medical coverage for life from Project K-9 Hero. 

Project K-9 Hero is a national nonprofit 501c3 organization, whose mission is to provide medical care, food, and death benefit assistance for our nation’s retired Police K-9s and Military Working Dogs. Project K-9 Hero also helps K-9s who need a home after their service, through rehabilitation and adoption. Project K-9 Hero is actively engaged with Members of Congress to pass a law that grants federal funding towards the medical care for retired working dogs through the K-9 Hero Act.

GAC Family is set to launch on September 27 under the tagline “Stories Well Told” and will feature programming that celebrates American culture, lifestyle and heritage with original holiday-themed, family-friendly movies and series.  



GAC Media, LLC is home to Great American Channels: “GAC Family” Stories Well Told and “GAC Living” Life Well Lived. As the flagship service, GAC Family celebrates American culture, lifestyle and heritage with original holiday-themed, family-friendly movies and series. GAC Living is the unscripted companion to GAC Family that celebrates Great American family-friendly traditions every day and every season. GAC Media, LLC was established in June 2021 and was organized by Dallas-based Hicks Equity Partners LLC and Bill Abbott. Its ownership primarily consists of US-based family offices.  

Applying Science to the Art of Detection Canines: Surface Area and Concealment of Targets

By Battelle Staff Members: K. Good, N. Knebel, S. Lawhon, L. Siers, D. Winkel for Working Dog Magazine

When establishing training scenarios, it is common to vary the amount (i.e., mass) of target used. One session may involve several ounces of the target material, while the next session involves several pounds. Although this is good practice, it has resulted in narrowed thinking: Many canine trainers and handlers think solely about target mass when attempting to vary odor intensity. In reality, surface area and concealment of the target are much more important factors.

During olfaction, canines are detecting the gaseous molecules and/or microscopic particles that are released from the surface of the target. If environmental factors (e.g., room temperature) are held constant, the larger the surface area of a given substance, the greater the number of molecules/particles being released. Consider, for example, a drinking glass filled with water. Evaporation occurs only from the surface of water exposed to air. When sitting on your kitchen counter, that glass of water will take weeks to evaporate. If that same glass is spilled onto your kitchen floor, however, the surface area of the resulting puddle is many times that of the water in the glass. As a result, that same amount of water evaporates overnight. In the context of explosives detection work, one pound of black powder in an open bottle has significantly less odor than that same mass of powder distributed across several scent bags.

Furthermore, for detection to occur, those molecules or particles released from the surface of the target need to be physically transported to an area the dog will sniff. The distance and degree of obstruction of the path to the dog’s nose will have a marked impact on odor intensity. As these factors increase (e.g., deeper hides and/or forms of additional containment), odor intensity is reduced. This reduction occurs because the molecules/particles are diluted by the (larger) encompassing volume of air, and some are even “lost” due to chemical or physical interactions with surrounding surfaces.

Understanding the role of surface area and concealment is valuable, as it allows handlers and trainers to better manipulate standard targets and common training exercises to expose their canines to a greater range of target odor intensities, ultimately better preparing the team for the infinite number of scenarios they may encounter operationally.

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Applying Science to the Art of Detection Canines: Blind Searches

By Battelle Staff Members K. Good, N. Knebel, S. Lawhon, L. Siers and D. Winkel for Working Dog Magazine

When training, do you slow down your search when you know a target is present? Do you present the area containing your target more thoroughly? Do you change the grip on your leash as you approach the target location? You may be answering “No,” but your canine partner may answer differently…

Handlers must realize that the elimination of subtle, unintentional cues is nearly impossible when target hide location is known. These cues are problematic because dogs, and animals in general (do an internet search for “Clever Hans” sometime), are excellent at recognizing patterns and cues, which quickly become part of their conditioned response. Since these cues will be absent during actual operational searches (where target placement is not known), it can lead to confusion, nervousness, missed targets, and an increase in false identifications.

To avoid such issues, it is essential that training exercises frequently be conducted “blind” – the condition in which the handler has no knowledge of target placement.

To incorporate blind exercises into your routine, develop a buddy training system, and take turns in the lead role. As the lead, you will be responsible for establishing an exercise that includes some combination of targets, controls, and distractors – the number and location should be unknown to your partnering colleague(s).
In some cases, the training area should be void of targets to ensure that there is no expectation of finding something. While establishing the scenario does require more effort/time for the lead person, the partnering handler(s) can simply arrive and conduct the training. Thus, the overall efficiency of training for the group as a whole is greatly improved.
The lead person should accompany each team during the search and provide assistance when necessary (e.g., prevent the “blind” handler from inadvertently removing the dog from target odor). At the end of the blind searches, the lead person is still able to use the established scenario for critical training; he will be conducting it as a “known” problem, but such situations are ideal for correcting previously identified issues or deficiencies.
Blind searches are one of the most powerful and impactful tools available to detection canine programs. Only under such conditions can trainers/handlers fully eliminate cues, understand true level of competency, and make improvements to real-world detection capability.
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Applying Science to the Art of Detection Canines

Minimizing Contamination & Extraneous Odors


By Battelle Staff Members K. Good, N. Knebel,  S. Lawhorn, L Siers, D. Winkel  | Working Dog Magazine

Use of improper or lackadaisical techniques when handling items in a training exercise can have disastrous effects on your canine’s real-world performance. If your targets are tainted with a different target odor, a distinct nontarget odor (e.g., that sandwich you had for lunch), or a unique human odor, your canine can be inadvertently conditioned to respond to that contaminating odor instead of the actual target odor. As a result, they may perform superbly in your training only to miss actual threats in real searches. Fortunately, the problems associated with contamination and extraneous odors can be minimized when personnel are mindful of the issue and employ appropriate practices. The key is to always think critically about your handling, set-up, and storage protocols.

The strict use of disposable gloves, such as polyethylene food service gloves, is essential for reducing contamination. Wear clean, new gloves every time you handle a target; even one occasion of mishandling can ruin an aid. Don gloves and use them quickly. If you put on new gloves but then get distracted (e.g., answer your phone or make a note in your log book), replace those gloves before touching the target. When done handling the target, immediately discard that pair of gloves. Also, think critically about the handling of unused gloves. Store them in a suitable container; never co-locate them with targets or distracters; and do not transport them in your pocket, because they too are subject to being contaminated.

As another precaution, keep target and non-target (e.g., distracter) materials isolated from one another when establishing training exercises. Separate work areas/stations should exist for these two general categories of training articles. Furthermore, if you are going to use multiple targets in the same exercise, take measures to ensure that the designated target work area does not contribute to cross-contamination. Do not open two containers of different targets next to each other. Also, if you will use a surface in the preparation of targets, cover it with clean barrier paper before target preparation and replace the paper before preparing a new target.

Incorporating these suggestions and others that you identify on your own into your routine training will ensure your canine maintains the real-world, real-threat detection capability you require to be successful.