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Training the tactical K-9 team

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 second installment of a two-part article explains tactical tracking formations and movements.

In the January/February 2009 issue, Part I of this article discussed the history of tactical tracking teams, as well as the definition, concept, and need for tactical K-9 tracking teams in today’s police work. This article discusses tactical K-9 tracking team training and provides an overview of why and how such training works.

The Team
A police tactical K-9 tracking team consists of a K-9 team (handler and dog) and four supporting officers who provide security for the K-9 team. Each member’s role and function contributes to the success of the team’s operation. Figure 1 (page 34) illustrates the functions of team positions in a Y formation. Each member is cross-trained in the various positions. The Y formation has been used by military and paramilitary combat tracking teams worldwide with much success. The adaptation of this formation to civilian police work is minimal, with the primary difference being the rules of engagement for the team. The formation’s movement, team security, team member roles, communication, encounter action procedures, and so on remain the same as for military combat deployments.

The Y Formation
As with all special operations units, team formation is an integral part of the training regimen. SWAT or SRT training includes various formations for varied assignments, with each formation having a particular role in specific tactical operations. The Y formation differs from typical SWAT tactical formations because the rural wooded deployment environment offers different challenges from the typical urban deployment environment. Although other typical SWAT formations can be used, our experience is that the Y formation offers the best team security options and allows the K-9 team to conduct the follow-up with minimum interference.

The Y formation movement can be rapid or slow, and it offers fluidity and flexibility to negotiate obstacles, changes in wooded density and cover, and open areas. Figure 2 illustrates how the formation changes to a half-Y when an obstacle is encountered, allowing the team to adjust and maintain forward movement.

Team Positions
The K-9 team’s task is, of course, to conduct the follow-up using the K-9’s tracking skills. Security provided by other team members allows the K-9 handler to focus more on reading his or her dog and less on personal safety. However, that security requires the handler to manage the follow-up speed to allow flankers to do forward visual scanning while tactically moving from cover to cover. The handler must focus on the K-9, recognize any behavior that indicates the dog has air-scented or is closing in on the quarry, and alert other team members to those behaviors.

The flankers’ role is to provide forward security. Moving ahead and at a 45-degree angle from the K-9 team, the flankers have an angle of view of a quarry or ambush point not available to other team members.

The controller’s role is to control formation movement and direct other team members when formation changes are needed. The controller is the communications center for the team, provides track progress information to the peri-meter officers or command center, and provides additional forward visual scanning for the team.

The rear guard’s role is to provide rear and side visual scanning and to be a floating team member. When track direction changes, the controller may direct the rear guard to move to a flanking position as a flanker moves to the rear guard position.

K-9 Team Training
The K-9 team’s role obviously is key to the quarry follow-up. The K-9 must be track-sure and able to focus on the track and ignore other members of the team. The K-9 must be scent-discriminant and able to follow the quarry track, even though other team members may cross it from time to time. Therefore, scent-discrimination training is a must for the K-9. The K-9 team should practice tracking with flankers in position, moving ahead of the team to accustom the K-9 to that distraction, and ignoring the contamination of other human odor. Most scent-discriminant dogs quickly learn to ignore the flankers and focus on the track. In our tactical tracking seminars, we find many K-9 teams are not initially able to work with tactical team members moving abreast or in front of the K-9 team. However, with very little effort, we usually find that the K-9 adapts, ignores the distraction, and focuses well on the track.

The follow-up pace of a tactical team usually is slower than most K-9 teams are accustomed to. Remember, on high-risk deployments, faster is not better. One of the primary problems we see with K-9 teams is the speed with which they track. Most tracking problems can be eliminated by slowing the tracking speed. A number of methods can be used to accomplish that without diminishing the dog’s enthusiasm for the task.

When tracking, many K-9 team members believe that to close the time–distance gap with a quarry, they must allow the dog to track at as fast a pace as possible. In theory, that is true; however, in actuality, the opposite is true. Most dogs allowed to track at a fast pace will outrun their noses and spend an inordinate amount of time casting back to find the track they have lost or overrun. Backcasting causes delays and makes it difficult to close the time–distance gap with the quarry.

It is natural for high-drive police dogs to try to track at a fast pace. Their enthusiasm and drive cause them to react in that manner, just as they race to retrieve a toy or speed to a decoy for a bite. It is the handler’s responsibility to observe his dog and determine what pace keeps the dog from track-ing faster than the K-9’s skills can accommodate.

The K-9 team also should practice stopping periodically on the track. The handler should teach the dog to stop and “down” by tugging on the harness with the leash and issuing the proper commands. The result should be that the dog “downs” in position without coming back to the handler. These periodic stops in training teach the dog to “down” on command when the K-9 team needs to wait for flankers to reposition or the controller needs the team to stop for whatever reason. Most K-9 teams find that practicing for tactical team tracking enhances their tracking skills overall and improves their performance on other tracking deployments.

Tactical Team Training
Team training exercises should begin in open areas rather than in wooded areas. The open area will make it easier for team members to watch and interact with each other as formation practice is begun. When proficiency is gained in formation movement, the team should begin training in wooded areas. That will give members experience in cover-to-cover movement, stealth movement, negotiating, clearing, securing ambush points, and other training that a wooded environment requires.

In formation movement training, team members should maintain visual contact with the controller at all times. Knowing where fellow members are at all times is a must. All members should train in all positions and switch posi-tions regularly during training. Having a thorough under-standing of the responsibilities of each position will build a strong team and allow it to become fluid and coordinated in its movements.

The team should work toward moving in formation silently, communicating by hand signals only. For example, there should be specific hand signals for team movement direction, hold position, return to controller, quarry sighted, and so on. If at all possible, the team should use a secure radio channel to eliminate other radio transmission traffic, and the controller’s communications with perimeter officers should be kept to a minimum. A throat mike and earplug are recommended for the controller.

Radio communication — even with throat mikes and earplugs — should be discouraged for other team members. Voices travel easily in rural environments and can be detected at surprising distances. However, the primary problem created when communicating via radio is that team members develop a reliance on radio versus visual contact for keeping track of other team members’ positions. It is absolutely mission-critical for all team members to know the other members’ positions constantly. Maintaining constant visual contact allows the use of silent hand signals and, more importantly, members know where to avoid directing gunfire in the event of an ambush.

The controller is responsible for maintaining hand-signal communication with other team members. Therefore, team members should constantly be visually checking back with the controller. A good practice is for flankers to visually check with the controller every few seconds as they move forward so as to stay abreast, through the controller, of other team mem-bers’ movements, activity, encounters, sightings, or alerts.

Initially the K-9 handler should train without the K-9 and simulate following a track. The early tracks should be simple, with all types of turns simulated. The K-9 handler should practice stopping on the track, missing turns, losing the track, and anything else that might occur on a real track. The K-9 handler also should practice stopping when necessary to give flankers time to reposition, or when approaching ambush points that need to be secured. That will give the K-9 handler a feel for how a real track will progress and the pace he will need to train for.

Flankers should practice matching the K-9 team’s pace and learn to maintain their 45-degree forward position relative to the K-9 team. Distance from the K-9 team will be dictated by the terrain or density of a wooded environ-ment. Flankers provide the forward eyes and ears for the team. Their role is critical to the team’s security. They must maintain positions and conduct movement in such a man-ner as to protect themselves and the team. Moving cover-to-cover should be practiced continually. The military teaches forward movement from cover-to-cover with the phrase, “I’m up, they see me, I’m down.” Being exposed for no more than 4 or 5 seconds while moving makes it difficult for a quarry to target you. Figure 5 (page 38) illustrates the angle of view produced by being on either side of the track, which enables flankers to make visual contact with the quarry before an ambush can take place.

The controller should practice managing the various team members’ movements, formation changes, and overall security, as well as keeping perimeter or command control advised of the progress of the track.

The rear guard should practice maintaining rear and side security for the team, binocular observation of forward areas when needed, and being available to move to flanker position when needed.

Encounter Action Drills
Encounter action drills prepare the team for contact with the quarry. No absolutely safe manner exists for con-ducting high-risk tracking deployments in rural or wooded environments. Only through proper training for the task can we minimize the risks.

Encounter action drills also prepare the team for various encounter scenarios. Team members should train for each possible scenario and know the courses of action to take. Examples would be: a team makes visual contact with the quarry first, a team makes visual contact simultaneously with the quarry, or a team is ambushed.

Each scenario presents different challenges, and team members should be trained in the proper response for each. For example, if an ambush occurs, each team member must know the position to assume in order to have a safe field of fire. Team members also should train in deliv-ering suppression fire when needed. In a wooded environ-ment with restricted visibility, the quarry may choose a concealed ambush point that may initially make his position difficult to locate and recognize, and make immediate target acquisition difficult for the team. Correct suppression-fire procedure will enable the team to neutralize the target more quickly.

Visual Tracking Training
The primary role of team members other than the K-9 handler is to provide security to the team on the deploy-ment. However, a secondary benefit can be derived if team members receive training in visual tracking. Visual tracking skills enhance the effectiveness of the team’s ability to per-form the follow-up. On deployments where the K-9 may have difficulty following the track because of its age, conditions, contamination, etc., visual tracking skills can be a tremendous asset in locating or recovering lost tracks.

At times, having the ability to conduct the follow-up visually may mean the difference between success and failure. We have repeatedly seen tactical tracking teams that have visual tracking skills enable the K-9 team to recover lost tracks more rapidly and enable the team to advance in areas where the K-9 is unable to follow or has difficulty in following the track. Those combined skills allow the team to move forward more rapidly and close the time–distance gap.

Visual tracking is usually advanced training for the team and should be considered once the team is competent in other areas. Visual tracking skills can be of tremendous benefit to any K-9 handler and will improve the perform-ance of any K-9 team.

Points to Remember
Thorough training is the key to success. Teams should train in environments and conditions they are likely to be de-ployed in. Camouflage is a must and should be appropriate to the area. Camouflage jumpsuits or two-piece suits can be used. If you plan to wear the suit over a uniform, oversizing is necessary.

In high-risk tactical tracking deployments, faster is not better. In most high-risk deployments, perimeter security is usually better and containment more likely. Therefore, the mission for the tactical tracking team is to follow up and make contact with the quarry with the least risk and danger to the officers. In training, the goal should be to make visual contact with the quarry before team members are exposed to harm.

With good training, teams can more successfully get eye-balls on the quarry first. A well-executed follow-up dramati-cally lowers the risk to the team when contact is made with the quarry, and the team often gains the element of surprise in an encounter. The unique formation, camouflage, indi-vidual stealth movement, and overall silence of the team movement give tremendous advantages not normally had by several officers simply following a K-9 team.

The formation of a tactical K-9 tracking team requires minimal outlay of funds for most departments because the equipment, personnel, and K-9 teams already exist. With the exception of additional training costs, most departments can readily train and prepare enough patrol, SWAT, K-9, or other officers to assemble a tactical tracking team quickly when the need arises. It is not feasible to assemble a team for every K-9 tracking deployment; however, continuing to send K-9 tracking teams on known high-risk rural deploy-ments without solid support is not a sound operational practice in today’s police work.

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 training 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

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