I visited another department’s K-9 program and had to come pound on my keyboard. I hope the following can help your department avoid or cease making mistakes that can minimize the effectiveness of your department’s K-9 program. Unfortunately, when a good training program based on proven humane training techniques doesn’t exist, the units get deployed less and other officers become afraid or unwilling to work with them. How much did you spend? Have your lawyers looked at what most of you get? Many programs are built on buying a dog, a four week training class for officer and dog, and certification all from the same company. If that raises a red flag for you, look at the Utah Post K-9 certification program.
Wendell Nope has developed a model program for K-9 training and certification based on international K-9 policing. Nothing beats a good and continual training program to diminish instances of liability, and the same should be applied to the K-9 program. Following are a few of the most common problems or mistakes concerning patrol dogs, whose direction can be changed to improve the current situation.
Many hours can be spent debating bite and hold vs. bark and hold. We cannot let that argument interfere with the responsibility the K-9 officer owes the public–the deployment of a well trained controllable animal. If the officer executing a traffic stop or apprehension without backup doesn’t have access to his dog or can’t handcuff a suspect because of control issues, how effective is the team and how useful was the money spent? Lack of a proper educational foundation and or lack of motivation in the officer to maintain this minimal level of deployment are the root causes. When control issues are solved or demonstrated, it would benefit the team and other officers to schedule regular practical exercises. This builds tremendous confidence in other patrol officers who will be deployed with the K-9 team in real life situations.
One reason regular patrol officers are reluctant to call out or work with the K-9 team is that an officer has been bitten in the past. Backup officers are most often the victim of a dog bite when the dog’s helpers in the bitework wear their uniforms. Helpers should wear street clothes during training to avoid potential risk to the other officers. Practical exercises also decrease instances of patrol officers being bitten. K-9 officers as a matter of routine should greet their fellow officers with their dog in heel position, shake hands and exchange a few words as often as possible. The exercise socializes and builds confidence through exposure to the other officers and the dog.
During a discussion with an assistant chief on the subject of “who pets my dog”, I asked him if I could see his service revolver. Without much hesitation, he reached to unholster it. I then asked him if he didn’t know me would he still allow me to see it. Of course he wouldn’t have. The service revolver is a “tool” of law enforcement and the K-9 is a “tool” of law enforcement. Neither should be touched by the public. This position doesn’t advocate dogs that can’t be petted. I advocate a dog that is so well trained he can be taken anywhere, especially during these times. Increased visibility is important. The K-9 doesn’t need the positive reward of petting from the public to be a social animal and perform his duties. Public demonstrations should consist of the dog’s capabilities and not how well he can be petted. A certain level of professional behavior is demanded from officers and there is no reason the same can’t be demanded of the K-9 unit.
Many years ago Police K-9’s started wearing electronic collars. The justification was “I might need it to get the dog off the suspect”. Unfortunately, it has become a tool of abuse and used incorrectly. Only highly skilled trainers can train a dog with an electronic collar. In reality it is only a proofing and trash breaking tool. Once again, this is another rationale to avoid actually getting out of the car and train the dog. It was incompetent electronic collar training I witnessed that motivated me to write this. The scenario was a practical exercise – extracting a perp from a vehicle. The head trainer for this particular department brought out his dog off leash wearing an electronic collar. The officer commanded his dog to heel. As the dog crept forward out of the heel position, the officer yelled heel and began to deliver the correction to the dog. The dog continued to creep forward while screaming toward the perp until he was approximately 12 feet in front of the officer. The officer continued to deliver the negative reinforcement and yell his command as the dog went into the down position 12 feet in front of the officer. That was a perfect example of incompetence using an electronic collar to train instead of proofing the desired behavior. This officer was trying to cut corners, and the dog was not ready to be trained or deployed without a leash. The dog now thinks heel position is 12 feet in front of the officer in a down position instead of at the handler’s side, thanks to the collar. This particular officer was in charge of the training for six other K-9 teams in a large city.
How will you know if your program has problems? Schedule a training session or two for you to observe, and trust your common sense. I also wish to give my thanks to the many professional K-9 Teams with excellent training programs across our country keeping us safer.