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.



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