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February 05, 2009
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K-9 Trainers Police K-9 Magazine
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High-risk tactical tracking

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the pages of Police K-9 Magazine. It is reprinted by permission of the publisher and presented in partnership with our friends at Police K-9 Magazine in an ongoing effort to provide handlers and non-handlers with the best information available on issues that affect any department that has, or is considering getting, K-9 capabilities. We wish to thank the good folks at Police K-9 Magazine for this article and those they will provide in the future.

By Tracy Bowling
Police K-9 Magazine

This first part of a two-part article discusses how sufficient training for all members of a tactical tracking team can increase the margin of safety for the handler and K-9.

The term tactical tracking is relatively new in the world of civilian police K-9 training. Increasingly, in the past couple of years, we have heard the term used to describe concepts that involve tracking with a K-9 team and cover officers in high-risk deployments. This first part of a two-part article further defines tactical tracking and discusses why it’s time to review and change current training procedures.

Tactical Tracking Explained
Tactical tracking per se is not a new concept: historically it has been used by military and paramilitary special operations units in countries including the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, and others for many years. Typically, the term relates to an exercise in which small, trained, visual-tracking teams — usually five-man units — track some fleeing quarry, such as known enemies, terrorists, guerrillas, or illegal border crossers, and capture or neutralize them.

In contemporary use, the term tactical tracking is applied to a visual-tracking team, a K-9 tracking team, or both. In the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military established combat tracking teams that included both visual trackers and trained tracking dogs. The teams consisted of small, five-man units and a tracking dog — usually a Labrador Retriever. Those teams were used with much success during the war, but the U.S. military disbanded them when the war was over. Not until 2006 did the military again decide that combat K-9 tracking teams were needed for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. A pilot program was begun, and 15 teams were trained for deployment. Presently, a follow-up program is in place to train additional combat K-9 tracking teams.

In today’s civilian police world, the term tactical tracking usually refers to a K-9 tracking team and some cover-officer support that attempts to provide security for the team. The cover-officer support may consist of on-scene officers, SWAT, or special-response teams. Support officers rarely receive specialized training for high-risk rural tracking.

Urban Versus Rural Tracking
The police K-9 task of tracking has changed significantly over the past 40 years among police agencies. Due to population growth and more urban and suburban development, more K-9 officers typically are deployed on shorter, more contaminated, or harder-surface tracks than ever before. Those deployments present different challenges for the K-9 team than does the typical rural tracking deployment. Although the typical urban or suburban deployment often is more difficult in terms of challenging the K-9 team’s scent-discrimination tracking skills, often it is conducted in an environment that affords the K-9 team more cover-officer support and better perimeter support. Likewise, this environment does not provide the fleeing suspect with the same concealment and ambush opportunities of wooded, rural settings.

Although the urban or suburban tracking deployment certainly can be dangerous, the rural, woodland deployment often presents greater personal risk to the K-9 tracking team. Most departments do not have the same support officer availability in rural jurisdictions as in municipal departments. In most municipal departments, the area concentration of officers is higher, so there is greater support for K-9 tracking deployments. Adequate officer support means more effective perimeters can be maintained and more cover officers are available to accompany a K-9 tracking team. Call-response time usually is greater in rural jurisdictions, and the K-9 tracking team usually is not deployed as quickly. Assembling an adequate number of officers for perimeter duty or cover-officer duty also typically takes longer. The result is a greater opportunity for the fleeing suspect to plan and execute concealment or ambush. Finally, the wooded environment itself offers the fleeing suspect many advantages for concealment or ambush that further his escape.

A skilled K-9 tracking team always has been, and continues to be, the single most important tool that law enforcement can use to aid in the capture of a fleeing suspect in wooded or rural searches. With good perimeter or air support, a skilled K-9 tracking team can perform woodland rural tracking with a high degree of success.

The Task Has Changed
As mentioned earlier, the police K-9’s tracking task has changed significantly in recent years. It is increasingly more difficult today because of issues such as greater human scent contamination in many tracking scenarios, more vehicular traffic to disperse or destroy the track scent, and the use of cell phones by fleeing suspects to gain aid in their escape. However, the single most significant change has to do with the K-9 officer’s safety or survival: more fleeing suspects are armed.

Some statistics indicate that today’s armed criminal is more prone to use deadly force against an officer than ever before. FBI statistics show general criteria only; they do not show specific task criteria as they relate to officers felon-iously killed in the line of duty.

Although no national statistics specifically relating to tracking deployments exist, we know that the incidence of K-9 officers or cover officers being wounded or killed in tracking deployments has increased in recent years. Whether that is related to the overall increase in the use of deadly force by armed criminals, or whether it is because of an increase in the number of tracking deployments (a result of the increase in the number of K-9 teams nation-wide), is difficult to ascertain. However, from our contact with several hundred K-9 officers in seminars and training classes around the country over the past few years, we have found that all those officers agree that more and more tracking deployments involve armed suspects. Increasingly, K-9 tracking deployments are very high-risk. The wooded-area tracking deployments, especially in rural areas, expose the K-9 officer to extreme danger, and an officer’s chances of surviving an encounter with a hostile, armed suspect are not good.

A hostile, armed suspect has numerous advantages in a wooded environment. First, as mentioned previously, the quarry often has the advantage of having time to plan an ambush due to the K-9 handler’s slower response time. Second, the quarry has the advantage of surprise, because he dictates when the encounter will occur. Third, the quarry has the advantage of choosing the location in which the encounter will occur. Fourth, the quarry has the advantage of numerous areas of concealment from which to initiate an ambush. Fifth, even though the quarry may not possess fire superiority, the advantages just listed often give the quarry an overall edge.

Changing Our Training
The increased likelihood of an armed assault on a police K-9 tracking team necessitates that we must change our training and deployment methods. Other aspects of our police K-9 train-ing and deployment have evolved and changed tremendously in recent years to improve officer safety and surviv-ability. We no longer run past un-cleared vehicles when we release a dog on a traffic stop; we use tactical methods when doing building searches; we use the arrest triangle when confronting an armed subject; we teach our K-9 partners to be gunfire-neutral; etc. Yet many departments continue to deploy K-9 tracking teams with little or no training in high-risk track-ing. Some departments still allow K-9 officers to deploy alone on tracks. Others allow cover officers who have no training in tactics for high-risk tracking deployments to accompany K-9 teams. A real need exists for departments to reassess both the training of entry-level officers during basic law-enforcement training and the in-service training for duty officers on the street in terms of their role as cover officers on K-9 tracking deployments.

The typical K-9 tracking deployment in a rural area is identical to deployments in urban or suburban areas as far as the nature of the crimes committed. A K-9 team is called usually as a result of a suspect fleeing from a crime scene or from a pursuing officer. The offense may be low-level, or it may be a felony involving personal injury or death. Often, no information is available as to whether the suspect is armed, but sometimes a reasonable assumption can be made that the suspect is not armed. However, with few excep-tions, we should assume that the suspect is armed and deploy accordingly.

In most cases, the K-9 team will deploy with on-scene officers. In some instances, the K-9 team will deploy with a special-response team. In either scenario, the cover officers need to be trained, equipped, and prepared for the deployment.

On most tracking K-9 call-outs, on-scene officers will accompany the K-9 team. A tactical tracking deployment can be conducted using four cover officers. Departmental training procedures should ensure that enough officers receive tactical tracking training so that a sufficient number of trained shift officers can be readily assembled to accompany the K-9 team. On high-risk K-9 call-outs where the suspect is known to be armed or has com-mitted a crime in which a firearm was involved, special-response team members that have been trained in tactical tracking should be used as cover officers if possible. Those officers will have more firearm and tactics training and usually will have superior skills if armed engagement is required.

Increasing Officer Safety
It is impossible to conduct high-risk, rural, woodland tracking deployments in an absolutely “safe” manner. For too long, however, K-9 handlers have been exposed to unnecessary risk when conducting such exercises. Handlers were trained that their role was to be the point person on tracking deployments. Of course, as many in the military know, the point man is the first one to bleed. Too many K-9 officers have the attitude that “That happens to someone else,” and their zeal and eagerness to use their K-9 team skills results in deploying without sufficient team security or, in some cases, no team security. Some department’s policies don’t forbid their K-9 teams to deploy alone, so the handlers do so even if they don’t know whether the suspect is armed, believing that their K-9 partner offers sufficient security.

Engaging a tactical tracking team does not necessarily increase the chances of a successful track and apprehension unless the team members have visual-tracking training and can assist the K-9 team with lost-track recovery procedures. The successful follow-up and contact with the quarry is still primarily dependent on the K-9 team’s skills. A tactical tracking team’s primary function is to provide team security and enable the tracking team to conduct the operation with officer safety being the foremost concern.

Tactical training of the team members dramatically lowers the risk to officers during the follow-up and on making contact with the quarry. Formation training prepares the team to move in a manner that allows team members to provide security for each other as well as for the K-9 team. Stealth and conceal-ment training allows the team to move quietly during the follow-up. Encounter action drills prepare the team for contact with the quarry or the quarry’s assault on the team.

Police administrators, K-9 handlers, and cover officers should consider the risks involved with rural, high-risk tracking deployments, determine whether their deployment procedures are the best and safest they can be, and re-examine training practices if they are not.

Tracy Bowling has trained police K-9 tracking teams for more than 35 years, has more than 450 tracking apprehensions as a tracking dog handler, and is a nationally recognized expert in train-ing police tracking dogs. He operates Ventosa Kennel in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, providing police K-9 tracking, tactical team tracking, patrol, and detection training. Contact him at tbowling@ventosakennel.com  

About the author

Police K-9 Magazine is the only national publication dedicated to police officers who work with service dogs. The magazine provides timely features, columns, and departments written by experienced K-9 trainers, lawyers, veterinarians and law-enforcement officers.

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