Training your K-9 for high-risk traffic stops
By Rodney Spicer
During a high-risk traffic stop, a police service dog (PSD) often is used to clear a vehicle after all visible occupants have been removed and placed in a secure area. The PSD is sent into the vehicle to check for armed or dangerous persons that could possibly be lying in wait for the officers approaching the vehicle. This article discusses basic K-9 training techniques you can use to ensure your dog is ready to perform high-risk vehicle searches.
Beginning the Training
I begin training the basics of the high-risk traffic stop by having the K-9 team a few feet away from the open door of a vehicle with the agitator in the rear of the vehicle. At this point, I ask the handler to begin a warning announcement and ask the agitator to become verbal. I don’t mind if the PSD is barking at the beginning of this training, because we are creating desire and drive to overcome the stress and pressure from engaging the agitator in a confined environment.
During this time, the handler gives the PSD the command to go into the vehicle. For example, I use the verbal command “auto.” As the PSD reaches the vehicle opening, I give the apprehension command. As soon as the PSD engages the agitator, I add tension to the long line to reinforce and maintain the grip. When I add tension to the long line, I am not pulling so hard that I am pulling the PSD away from the agitator, but I apply enough tension so that the PSD maintains his grip. During the engagement, I add slack in the long line as needed so that the PSD can re-engage his grip on the agitator. I also give verbal praise as needed.
Distance and Angles
Generally, this training can become a pattern for the K-9 team. When given the “auto” command, the K-9 generally runs to an open, driver-side door. But what happens when we change the angle and the target vehicle’s door is closed? Our goal is for the PSD to go to the target vehicle and, if a door is not open, to search for a way inside the vehicle. We want the PSD to go to and enter the target vehicle regardless of the distance or angle. If there is no way to gain access to the target vehicle’s interior, then the handler should recall the PSD. After the PSD has formed an association between the role-playing agitator and the inside of the vehicle and consistently goes straight to the target vehicle,
Multiple Role Players
The handler should make a loud and clear warning announcement as the role-playing agitators remain passive and nonverbal. When the announcement is complete, one agitator begins to comply with the warning and exit the vehicle. The handler then verbally directs the agitator to the rear of the scenario. The handler continues verbal directions to the remaining agitator, who is noncompliant.
Prior to the training deployment, the handler should always remain focused on the PSD to confirm that the PSD is focused on the target vehicle and not on the agitator who is standing at the rear in this scenario. Because we are adding the distraction of multiple role-playing agitators, I have a long line attached to the PSD to prevent contact with the agitator who is out of the scenario. The PSD must learn that all satisfaction is inside the target vehicle and in no other location.
Also, during this phase (as well as during the introduction), I have the handler either take the PSD physically from the apprehension or do a verbal recall. The reason I do that is because the PSD should not begin to anticipate a recall and leave the agitator prior to being recalled. This exercise should be repeated until the PSD’s response is consistent it is clear that he understands that all satisfaction comes from inside the target vehicle.
For example, a real situation that occurred involved an armed suspect in a car that became disabled. The suspect placed blankets over the windows so that he could not be seen. Nonetheless, the suspect eventually was taken into custody. I reenacted that scenario in training to see what would happen if the windows were broken, were rolled down, or a blanket had been placed over the doorframe and held in place by the closed door.
In most cases, the PSDs circled the vehicle because they viewed the blanket as a solid wall or object that they could not go through. Once the PSD was shown that he could go through the blanket, we repeated the exercise until the PSD clearly and consistently understood that all satisfaction came from inside the target vehicle, and knew there was a way inside. As a variation on this exercise I also have draped newspaper, towels, or construction paper over the doorframe.
Another variation is to place cardboard boxes or trash-cans inside the target vehicle so that the PSD must go through, under, or over them to engage the role-playing agitator. The PSD must know that he can overcome environmental obstacles. Such training — and staging the scenarios — may take longer and be more difficult, but will result in achieving an important goal.
You may decide that your dedicated, preplanned action should include light or sound diversionary devices, chemi-cal agents, or other options. With the dedicated responsibilities of the arrest team, that also may include less-lethal, lethal, and hands-on scenarios.
Introduce the PSD to the target vehicle from different angles and distances with the door open, door closed and window down, obstacles on and inside the target vehicle, multiple role-playing agitators, and an arrest team.
When recalling the PSD from the target vehicle during a training session, the handler may want to display a training toy as the PSD exits the vehicle to ensure that the dog takes a straight path back to the handler.
The K-9 handler should be the only one giving directions to the role-playing suspect agitators. That will prevent the PSD from focusing on another officer who may be giving an announcement and hopefully will prevent an accidental bite.
Rodney Spicer is the owner of Gold Coast K9. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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