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.


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