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Down, draw, shoot: Conditioning the K-9 team for a gunfight

Handlers who put off training their dogs how to behave around gunfire are endangering themselves, their dogs and possibly other officers

By Sergeant Bill Lewis II

I’ve been watching K-9 handlers work with their police dogs at ranges for over 10 years, both with other K-9 handlers and as part of our K-9 integration training with tactical teams (SWAT). I’m sad to report that I am often disappointed in the lack of control I see. It becomes obvious rather quickly who regularly trains with their dog around gunfire and who does not.

I have also been surprised to see many experienced handlers who have been working with their dog for a year or two, but have neither introduced their dog to gunfire nor trained for a proper response to a gunfight. Yet, these same handlers have carried a firearm during this time and could have possibly engaged in a gunfight with an armed suspect in the presence of their unrestrained police dog. Why would a handler, trainer or supervisor not prioritize and address this potential deficiency?

The K-9 handler must quickly prioritize and demand control of the dog to allow the handler to concentrate on accuracy. (Police K-9 Magazine Image)
The K-9 handler must quickly prioritize and demand control of the dog to allow the handler to concentrate on accuracy. (Police K-9 Magazine Image)

Do you know how your dog will react to gunfire? Is he trained to be gunfire-neutral? Is he trained to bite someone when gunfire erupts? Are you intentionally avoiding training around gunfire with your dog because you lack confidence and control? How will you react with your dog during a gunfight?

Handler + Dog = Team
As I have mentioned recently in my classes, I believe the biggest problem with police dog training today is that the majority of the time is spent on improving the performance of the dog instead of sharpening the performance of the K-9 team — both handler and dog. We are not mentally challenging our handlers enough to prevail in crisis situations and some handlers often rely too heavily on their dog to save the day.

If K-9 handlers are not properly conditioning themselves and their dogs for a gunfight, they will be surprised, conflicted and not ready for battle when the time comes. More importantly, if caught unprepared, a handler is less likely to be accurate in returning fire. His dog should be the last thing on the handler’s mind when he draws his weapon to engage a suspect who is armed or believed to be armed during a life-and-death situation. The handler must first have the proper mindset and be trained in tactical decision making before he prepares for battle with his dog.

It appears there are two schools of initial training to prepare a dog for gunfire: neutral and pursuit for apprehension (“gunfire equals bite”). The “neutral” method trains the dog to disregard the gunfire and remain static, regardless of who is shooting, be it the handler, the backup officers, or the suspect. When the team trains with the neutral method, the dog will not think “bite” and will not ready himself for an apprehension when he hears gunfire.

On the other hand, dogs that are trained and conditioned that “gunfire equals bite” will begin to seek a bite opportunity when gunfire erupts, regardless of the source of that gunfire. Typically, in pursuit training involving gunfire, a decoy will appear at a distance; he will be shooting and running and we will command our dog to apprehend him. However, the potential for disaster occurs in the real world as uniformed or plainclothes officers also may be engaged in a gunfight down range. “As the dog is running toward the objective” is not the time for his handler to wonder whether the dog’s objective is “the suspect” or merely “the person who is shooting.”

For many trainers and K-9 decision makers, the “gunfire equals bite” approach to training is considered a test of the dog’s courage during a pursuit. Some will argue that the dog must be trained to pursue in the face of gunfire (if so commanded) so that an armed suspect does not escape. However, other distraction-type noises can be rotated with occasional gunfire in training so that gunfire alone does not predicate a single response without a command. Air horns make excellent distractions in training and are very loud. It is the verbal command from the handler that should determine the appropriate response, not a sharp-sounding noise from a firearm.

We have patrol certifications that include decoy runaways where they shoot as they flee and the dogs are sent to apprehend. We have K-9 trials and competitions that will often do the same. It is exciting for the spectators to watch the dog in hot pursuit of the fleeing bad guy who is shooting a gun and then see the dog leap for the apprehension. So, if this “suspect shooting situation” does not occur routinely or regularly, I believe it’s good “training” if the gunfire is a distraction rather than the primary catalyst for a response. For most of our police dogs, pursuit of a fleeing suspect is not usually a problem when there is proper target acquisition — gunfire distractions or not.

Beginning Range Training
Our introduction to gunfire at a range for the K-9 team will not initially revolve around the handler shooting or target accuracy. Obedience and control of the dog are the foundations of our introduction to gunfire. If your dog is not obedient and lacks control before he arrives at the range, both you and your dog will have a difficult and stressful transition in the presence of gunfire.

In preparing our dogs, we should perform obedience exercises within earshot of a controlled range with intermittent gunfire, coupled with firm commands from the handler and compliance by the dog. As we achieve success, we will gradually work our way closer to the source of the gunfire. It is not recommended to begin by introducing the dog to gunfire at a normal patrol range, but exposing him to such a setting is highly recommended for ongoing training. The introduction should occur during the basic handler school with the K-9 trainer.

During training at a patrol range, I’ve watched handlers shoot live rounds into and over berms and miss silhouette targets, often not looking down range, as they fire one-handed while attempting to handle a leash and deal with their stressed dog. I’ve watched guns pointed backward and upward as handlers struggled to control their uncontrollable dogs before and during gunfire. These unsafe actions, improper shooting stances and inaccuracies may be tolerated somewhat during the introductory stages of the training, but not without strict admonishments and warnings afterward. The K-9 handler must make control his top priority, as achieving control of the dog will allow the handler to concentrate on accuracy in shooting.

Trainers and supervisors do not want handlers to have concerns about where the dog is or what the dog is doing or will do when a deadly threat is imminent or occurs suddenly and a firearm will become part of the solution. We want our handlers to concentrate on evaluating the threat and taking appropriate action. We want and should expect accuracy.

Down, Draw, Shoot
Our handlers must be trained to give a quick and firm command (“Down!”) with confidence that the dog will respond appropriately as they now face and evaluate their adversary while they simultaneously draw their weapon and prepare to shoot. Ideally, we would like the handler to have a previously rehearsed mental picture of the scene and have a conditioned mindset ready to react with this “Down — Draw — Shoot” repertoire consisting of a verbal command and physical actions. The exact command given to the dog and the specific action (down, sit, or stay) isn’t as important as consistent compliance. The simultaneous actions of the handler following the command should be based on previous and repetitious firearms training by the handler’s agency or firearms instructor.

An integral part of preparing our K-9 team on an ongoing basis to face a deadly threat involving firearms and gunfire is patrol range qualification. It is imperative that the K-9 handler be confident and accurate and that the dog is under control. More importantly, from a supervisory perspective, the K-9 supervisor (and agency administration) must have the same confidence that the handler has qualified with accuracy and is proficient in the controlled presence of the police dog. Range qualification provides an opportunity to evaluate the K-9 team and its performance in a controlled environment.

Once we have trained our K-9 team for situations involving gunfire, I recommend a mandatory twophase patrol range qualification. The handler should arrive at a range with the other officers and shoot the same scheduled patrol range qualification (as the other officers) without his dog and qualify. Then, the handler should shoot the same qualification course accompanied by his dog (under control) and qualify. I also recommend that while other officers are shooting, the handler should perform some obedience exercises with the dog prior to shooting the qualification course with the dog to better prepare for success.

If your K-9 supervisor or trainer is not present during range qualifications, your range masters should be “trained” in advance of a regular range and given a quick demonstration to show “control” of the dog while the handler is shooting. When asked to define control, I once said to a range master, “If the dog isn’t attacking the handler or running wildly around the range biting the range masters, it is probably under control.”

I believe it is essential in regard to officer safety and potential liability that the K-9 handler qualify in the presence of the dog and not merely fire rounds down range without consequence. By insisting upon the accuracy of the shooter with simultaneous control of (and compliance by) the dog, we are conditioning our K-9 team to react appropriately during a gunfight or other critical incident involving a firearm.

Sergeant Bill Lewis II retired from the Oxnard (CA) Police Department in December 2005 after 27 years of service. He was a K-9 handler for four years, K-9 supervisor for eight years, and SWAT operator for more than 25 years, with 18 years as Team Leader. Lewis continues to teach tactics, liability, and supervision to K-9 teams, tactical operators, and police supervisors. He is an expert witness, NPCA certifying official and Board Member for the California Association of Tactical Officers (CATO). Contact him at SgtBLewis2@aol.com.

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