Police K-9s have come a long way from their humble beginnings. K-9s are used in ways never imagined only a few decades ago, and their innate ability to search for and locate hidden suspects during SWAT operations is an excellent example of that evolution.
K-9s have proved to be a valuable tool in law enforcement — key word being tool. Dogs are not perfect. They can make fundamental mistakes, based largely on their training. Their performance can sometimes be hampered by the environment in which they are deployed.
Not everyone is convinced that K-9s have a place in SWAT operations. When SWAT tries to incorporate dogs into an operation without proper training and exposure, failure is guaranteed. All it takes is one negative experience to create the attitude that K-9s are more trouble than they’re worth.
Reasons for Failure
There are three reasons why K-9s fail during SWAT operations. The first and most significant reason is inadequate education and training. SWAT teams generally know relatively little about how K-9s work, and basic handlers typically don’t have an in-depth SWAT background. The lack of education and training on both sides can paralyze the components of the group, creating frustration and lack of confidence.
Police dogs are like any other tool the toolbox: you need to train with them. I’m not aware of any agency that allows officers to deploy with tools such as pepper spray, batons, bean bags, or Tasers without first receiving proper training in using those tools. However, at some departments, K-9s are deployed in SWAT operations with no prior training and, as expected, failures and accidents are frequently reported.
The second reason problems occur during a SWAT operation is the equipment the SWAT team wears versus what patrol officers wear during a high-risk patrol operation. Dogs are used to seeing standard patrol uniforms, but when dogs are suddenly thrown into a tactical situation in which SWAT officers are dressed quite differently, some dogs become confused. Dogs are pack animals, and they are used to their pack looking a certain way.
Suddenly, members of the pack are dressed in large bulky tactical vests, helmets, shoulder and arm protection, and they look just like a decoy wearing bite equipment. It doesn’t take long to accustom the dog to his new SWAT pack, but when that is not done in training ahead of time, problems will occur.
Another reason K-9s often fail to perform adequately in a SWAT operation is the historical difference between SWAT and patrol searches and movement. In basic K-9 school, the dog and handler are always in front of the search team. Patrol dogs become accustomed to seeing officers walking behind the handler, using little or no cover, which is starkly different from SWAT movements.
On patrol, the dog is usually allowed to roam free and search wherever it wants to. The freelance search pattern creates a problem for SWAT, because if the dog finds someone hiding deep in the search area, more than likely the rooms closest to the entry point have not been cleared. SWAT must then decide whether to recall the dog from a known suspect or leave it in place and quickly move up to the dog’s location, risking the possibility that other suspects might be hidden nearby.
Finally, in a patrol operation the handler normally is in charge of the search; conversely, in a SWAT operation, the SWAT team is in charge of the search and the handler is there to assist. Some handlers have a difficult time relinquishing their leadership position and working in a structured group while deploying. My hope is to help both K-9 handlers and SWAT team members understand the benefits of cooperative effort.
Early Challenges Incorporating K-9s and SWAT
In 1981, my department decided to get into the K-9 business. We purchased our first police dog, and within a few years we had three police dogs that would respond to critical situations in our city and surrounding jurisdictions.
Like most departments, we did not understand how K-9s could benefit a SWAT team. Initially, dogs were put on the perimeter or made part of an arrest team in case the suspect fled on foot from the location. Now don’t get me wrong — those are legitimate uses for a dog in a SWAT operation, but there are many more uses for a dog.
In many K-9 SWAT deployments in the early 1980s — and even today — dogs have been thrown into the mix at the last minute without any formalized training. During the planning stages of a SWAT operation or just prior to deployment, someone on the SWAT team remembers that there’s a dog on the perimeter. As an afterthought, they call the dog and handler over to the SWAT team and incorporate them into the search. We can do better than that.
The few times we used a dog to search with the SWAT team in the early years, we saw some unfavorable results.
Back then, K-9 SWAT deployments and K-9 patrol deployments were thought to be two different operations with very different tactics. I’d like to make one point perfectly clear: K-9 SWAT deployment tactics should also be used in a patrol environment. That way the dog is searching the same way, every single time. K-9 teams need not transition from one search style to another, and the search method becomes more effective, efficient and tactically sound. Consistency in search deployment will save lives.