For more than 100 year, dogs have been part of law enforcement activities in the United States, and have been used in Europe and other parts of the world for even longer. Many police departments — large and small, urban and rural — rely on their canine officers (K-9s) to assist in tracking suspects, finding illegal substances, and reducing the need for physical confrontation. A dog’s sense of smell is 50 times more sensitive than a human’s, making them far superior to any other method of tracking and detection, and their very presence can act as a deterrent to any further escalation of physical violence or resistance.
Most of the breeds used for law enforcement are task-specific based on their capabilities. Breeds commonly used by police and other emergency responders include German and Dutch Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Labrador Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers, Beagles and Bloodhounds.
As important as K-9s can be to a department, many agencies are unable to provide this service due to the cost involved in purchasing the dogs, training them and their handlers, housing and feeding the animals, and outfitting patrol vehicles to accommodate a dog. Most K-9s have a career of only around six years.
Obtaining a K-9 from a European source, which would include not only the dog but also their initial training, can cost more than $8,000. Even purchasing from a local K-9 breeder can run into thousands of dollars per dog. But there are other sources of finding a good candidate for a K-9 officer, which could include a trip to your local animal shelter.
Even if purchased at a reasonable amount, however, the cost of training programs can run between $12,000 and $15,000. It starts with assessing the dog’s ability to be an effective K-9 officer (including testing their endurance, agility and natural aggression), then basic obedience training. Specialized training, such as that for drugs, bombs, guns, arson, search and rescue, and cadaver search, can add to these costs. Officers assigned as handlers for the dogs will also need training, and training for both partners is an on-going process.
Other considerations include legal liabilities for injuries caused by a K-9, and ensuring that clear and concise use-of-force protocols are in place and followed. Realistically, though, use of K-9s in many situations can actually reduce liability through a decrease in injuries to responding officers as well as suspects. But these legal factors do need to be considered.
So, how do you start a K-9 unit? If not part of your agency’s annual budget, financial support will probably involve a using a variety of resources.
For federal or state grant opportunities, you may be able to tie in the K-9 unit as an important component of the project being funded. This may take come creative thinking, but since K-9 units work with patrol, detective, and corrections functions, you could design a program that fits the needs of the grant while providing you with necessary funding for the unit. Just make sure to clearly state how the dogs will be used and why they are important to your project.
You could find a grant from a private foundation (there are several out there that specifically support K-9 units), but most will not cover all of the costs involved and may require you to do some fundraising on your own.
But that doesn’t have to be bad news. Often, communities will come together to fund raise for their local K-9 unit. Think about scout troops, schools, business and fraternal organizations, or even local businesses, particularly those with a history of community support.
Donation sites can be set up on your Facebook or other social media accounts, perhaps to support a specific goal such as buying bulletproof vests for the dogs. Let’s face it — a lot of people love dogs and, if asked, will probably be willing to donate to the cause.
The value of a K-9 unit to a law enforcement agency is obvious. Financially, creating one — and sustaining it — may take a lot of effort, but it will be well worth it in in terms of increasing public safety.