There is little doubt that properly trained and deployed K-9s have a direct impact on reducing crime in the areas where they are deployed. A dog’s olfactory capability to locate hidden contraband, as well as dangerous hidden suspects, can save officer’s time and exposure to potentially life threatening situations.
Studies have shown that dogs search faster and more accurately than humans. Detection K-9s can locate hidden contraband more quickly and more accurately than hand searching, and as the size of the search area increases that efficiency becomes even more pronounced. K-9 narcotics and drug money seizures keep contraband off the streets and provide funds for key equipment purchases. No matter how large or small your agency may be, a K-9 unit is an integral part of today’s law enforcement package for your community.
Getting a new K-9 unit started, however, requires a complete understanding of the issues involved and the options available to the purchasing agency.
1. A police dog isn’t just a dog
Before you get the dog, talk to someone who knows about police dogs. Just because it is a Belgian Malinois, or a German shepherd, or a Labrador, doesn’t mean it will make a good police dog. Also, beware of breeders (or citizens) who are willing to donate a dog or puppy to you. Most of the time, despite good intentions, these dogs do not have the temperament for suitable for K-9 work. If you are not experienced with working dogs, you will not be able to raise a puppy properly for K-9 work, so a puppy is a bad idea even if its parents are working dogs. The days of donated dogs are officially over.
You should instead consider imported or professionally raised dogs from European breeding stock. Look for imported dogs between 11 months and 3 years old from an established K-9 vendor with extensive references. At this age, you can select a dog with the needed temperament and drive to be fairly certain it will successfully complete the required training class. Make sure to first assess what your community needs and what options are out there for training the dog.
2. Dog options
Police dogs come in a lot of varieties. If a vendor talks about a “green dog” he is talking about a dog that has been evaluated for its potential to be a police dog, meaning it has the appropriate instincts (drives) and nerves (courage) to do the task. Some vendors have higher standards and a better eye for dogs, so don’t believe everything you are told. An experienced trainer should assist you in evaluating the dog (for a copy of a K-9 Test of a green dog you can e-mail me at the address beneath this article). Some green dogs are deemed suitable for dual-purpose – meaning the dog has the ability to be trained for a detection specialty like narcotics or explosives, and patrol functions (e.g., tracking, apprehension, handler protection, and building and area searches). Single-purpose green dogs are dogs deemed suitable for only one or the other: either a detection-only dog, or perhaps a patrol-only dog. Tracking can normally be trained into any single purpose detection dog as well.
Fully trained K-9s can be single-purpose (pre-trained for narcotics detection, explosives detection, or patrol) or dual-purpose (pre-trained for patrol/narcotics, or patrol/explosives).
3. Training options
Training can be done in two ways: an academy setting or through a private trainer. In an academy setting, the handler brings a green dog to the academy course (normally run by a police agency), and goes through the training with the dog for about 14-16 weeks. With a private trainer, the dog is professionally pre-trained and the owner attends a handler course of four to six weeks to learn how to maintain the training and deploy the dog. Green dogs require a full course of training – usually a 14-16 week course for patrol or dual purpose, and 10-12 weeks for a detection-only dog. Some academies run only one specialty at a time, so training time could take up to 36 weeks to get a finished dual purpose dog.
Do your research so you know how long the handler needs to be in class. Usually, a handler only needs to be away from the agency for about four weeks during the training course. This can add up to a huge cost savings for the agency. No matter whether you choose an academy course or a private trainer, check the productivity of the dogs who complete the course, so you feel certain your dog will be productive. Most academy courses do not “guarantee” the training, and some private trainers do. You should assess all your options.
4. Your community
Find out what your community wants and needs. While most handlers want a dual-purpose K-9 because the apprehension work is, for many, very exciting, the reality is that narcotics and tracking functions are the bread and butter of K-9. Your community may have fears about being liable for having a biting dog, and might not want to deal with the lawsuits that could be filed even for completely justified K-9 apprehensions. Think of it this way: If the community will approve a narcotics dog, and see the benefits, the next dog might be a dual-purpose dog. Sometimes the community needs to see the benefits first, and you have to settle for what you can get. Detection and tracking are going to make the case for a full-service dog when the command staff sees that the dog has the potential to do so much more if it were trained for patrol.
Politicians initially will only see the downsides, but time-saving in the long run, narcotics and cash seizures, increased apprehensions of fleeing suspects, improved community safety, and a known deterrence effect will change minds. Narcotics and cash seizures will be great PR because they get a lot of newspaper and Internet coverage. This will get the city on board. Success sells.
Sometimes this can be the biggest stumbling block to getting a K-9 unit off the ground. You will need to write a complete proposal which justifies the need for the K-9, going into detail, item by item, about the initial costs of the dog, training, vehicle, equipment, training upkeep, veterinary, food, parasite prevention, and possible unforeseen expenses. The next challenge is financing these expenses. Some agencies choose to propose it to the city council to get it in the budget, while others do fundraising or apply for grants.
If you go to your community, you will be surprised at how often you can get local vets to donate routine care, food and preventative medications. Insurance companies can insure your dog against injury, accidental death, and unforeseen health problems in many cases. Many businesses will donate cash towards the purchase of the K-9. On my blog, I recently updated a number of these financing options.
6. Choose a handler
This can be one of the most overlooked by departments starting a K-9 unit. K-9 is a lot of extra work. K-9 handlers must be fit enough to train with the dog, run behind their trailing dogs, as well as to assist their dogs with an apprehension. They must be intelligent to grasp the training theory, and be self-motivated to do the training and health upkeep of the dog. They need to be even-tempered, goal oriented, and open-minded.
My rule of thumb is that if you give a dog to a very productive officer, the dog will enhance his productivity by a factor of two. If you give a dog to a slug, he will be a slug with a dog in his car. Training for dogs, like people, is a fragile skill. If the handler is lazy to begin with, you can be sure he will be lazy about his training and his documentation, potentially opening you up to significant liability for not keeping the dog trained, certified and reliable.
7. Choose a vendor
Once you have gotten the handler selected and the cash to purchase a K-9 dog, and you know whether you are going through an academy class or are getting a trained dog from a training facility, the next step is to select the vendor. The first step is to check references. A good vendor is one who solves problems and stands behind their guarantees. Dogs are living beings, they sometimes get sick and die, and your vendor should have a solid health and trainability guarantee. For a reference, our guarantees at Tarheel Canine for green dogs are two years on congenital health defects, and a trainability guarantee which guarantees the dog can pass the academy class.
Normally, if a dog must be returned for either health or trainability, the vendor will replace the dog with another suitable prospect during the class. For example, if you buy a trained dog rather than a green dog from Tarheel Canine, we give the same two-year health guarantee, but we additionally give a lifetime productivity and temperament guarantee. This means we will replace any dog that is not producing for the agency as long as the upkeep training is properly logged and the handler is following the training protocols he learned in class. The keys to a solid vendor are honesty, integrity and service, both before and after the sale. Vendors should be knowledgeable about dogs whether they are selling green dogs, trained dogs, or both.
8. Agency support
Your agency must give you the minimum required 16 hours a month (four hours a week) for training and care, and under FSLA they must pay you for that. They must understand your dog’s capabilities and also realize there are situations that the K-9 should not be used for. It is the handler’s job to advocate for his dog and be the ultimate arbiter of whether the dog should be used in a given situation. Your shift must understand how you need them to behave to maximize the performance of the dog by reducing contamination of a potential tracking scene, or securing a perimeter for an area or building search.
The bottom line: a police dog is an important part of the layered approach of law enforcement today. If you do the right research, you should have a pleasant and productive K-9 unit!
Further questions on the subject can be sent via to Jerry Bradshaw at Malinois_jb@mindspring.com.