Reconsidering K-9 attic deployments
Don't be swayed by cool equipment or videos; some attic searches simply are not well suited to K-9 deployment
By Rex W. McKinney
Every apprehension K-9 handler will eventually be asked, “Can you deploy your dog into an attic to search for the bad guy?” Attic deployments present special concerns and hazards for you, your dog, your cover officers, and the suspect that are different from those associated with a ground deployment.
As with any call, the handler should always ask himself, “Is this a dog deal?” You have to take into consideration the seriousness of the crime, age of suspect, mental condition, possible weapons involved, safety of your canine partner, and a host of tactical considerations. If you have an armed robbery suspect who can be seen sitting on the far end of an attic holding a gun, this would not be a situation that would be acceptable for a canine deployment.
Likewise, if you have a 12-year-old unarmed shoplift suspect who won’t come down, this likely is not a good deployment for an apprehension ca-nine either. However, if after arriving on scene and deciding that the suspect search does meet your department’s directives and legal standards for a canine deployment, then you have to consider several tactical and safety questions.
A Personal Anecdote
Early on in my K-9 career I was asked to do just such a deployment and being eager, as most young K-9 handlers are, I jumped at the chance to deploy my partner. It was unknown if the suspect was in the attic, but they wanted me to search with my partner.
The access to the attic was a folddown ladder with a steep angle. I cradled my 75-pound partner in my arms and wiggled up the ladder with both hands full of dog; it was quite a balancing act to lift him high enough to get him into the attic. This little maneuver left my head sticking up in the attic like a gopher and my hands full of police dog, all while entering a dark area from a well-lit area. It violated so many of the officer safety tactics that we have all been taught. Thankfully, there were no suspects in the attic that day who wanted to cause me harm, because I was a sitting duck. This did have me start considering the issues involved in attic deployments.
In the deployment described above, one of the first things one would need to consider is entry into the attic. Attics have many different configurations for entry. Some are entered from a fixed staircase or a hinged, folding staircase. Some entries are cut into ceilings or high walls, and others are from an upper finished floor into an unfinished area through large or small access points. I’m sure there are also others that I have not listed. In most new construction, the entry is likely to be through a high wall or ceiling.
Hedge Your Bet
One of the primary tactical guidelines we follow in my department in these types of calls is that a lethal shooter should go first or at the same time the handler is moving. If I’m going to deploy my dog into an attic by carrying him, then I need to have a lethal shooter enter the opening and hold while I carry my dog up the ladder and deploy him. Most attics are small and you have to consider if the first officer in will be holding near the entry point while I get my canine partner into the attic, could that officer search the small area quickly instead of sitting still waiting on the handler getting the dog up and deployed.
Another option, developed by a Nevada tactical team, is one in which a dog is placed on a shield and lifted to the attic opening so the dog can deploy into the attic first. While this is an option, there are some important questions to consider. This brings up one of the deployment principles I strongly believe in: have you trained for this type of deployment? If you haven’t, the first time you try it should not be during an actual criminal search in an attic.
Before you attempt a new deployment technique, consider the following: Is your dog going to be stable on the shield? Are the officers who are helping to lift the dog familiar with the technique and used to the movement and feel? Will the dog be effective at searching after being lifted into a new environment for the first time? Will he understand that he is supposed to go into search or apprehension behaviors right away? Do you have shooters who can cover you when your hands are full of shield lifting the dog up?
Other tools that may be used include: a harness you can lift with, ramps if they are acceptable and available, dogs that have been trained to climb ladders, or rappelling gear to lift the dog into the attic. All of these methods will require some training prior to attempting them on the street. Several of them require you to be in the attic with your attention on getting your canine into the attic, so cover officers will need to be used.
One of the biggest considerations is whether the structure will support your dog. Many attics consist of little more than joist construction with drywall ceilings and some insulation between the joists, and when a dog steps off the joist then the dog’s weight is right on the drywall ceiling. If a dog finds and engages a suspect, there is a strong likelihood that this will stress the already weak drywall ceiling. Then if the suspect is located, to complete the arrest you will have the dog, a handler, a lethal shooter, and at least one hands-on person all standing on a structure that was not built to support that kind of weight. Trying to find your footing on the joists that are covered by insulation is another challenge.
A recent request from our tactical team for an attic search involved a large apartment building in which the attic area was open, covering more than 16 apartments. The entire attic used the joist and drywall ceiling construction. We would not be able to get to the canine quickly and possibly allow the suspect access to kitchen weapons or residents in those apartments.
In my agency, we have had two dogs fall through ceilings; one of them engaged on a suspect and the other was walking across a weak ceiling. Fortunately, neither of these dogs was injured but others out there have not been so lucky.
There are many schools that advocate the use of dogs in these situations. The equipment and the application look slick and awe-inspiring, but in an actual street situation, would this technique give you the best chance of success? Have all the tactical and safety issues been considered?
Regarding the aforementioned issues, it is my opinion that canines should not deploy in attics. This is not an absolute rule and a handler should evaluate each situation to see if it is suitable for a dog deployment. A number of attics have solid floors and easy access. There are other tactical and officer safety situations in which the use of the dog may be the best option — but with many of these requests you have to ask yourself: “Is my dog trained for this? Is the use of the dog creating more officer safety/tactical issues than a different option? Is the risk to the canine greater than the benefit?” Finally and most importantly, ask yourself: “Is this really a dog deal?”
Rex W. McKinney is the Sgt. of his K-9 Unit. He is a PSP Patrol dog judge, current handler of a dual purpose (Patrol/Bomb) Dog and the past trainer for his agency. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.