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Why patrol K-9s and handlers belong on SWAT

If selected properly, any patrol dog can be a SWAT dog, and a properly trained and motivated patrol dog handler can be a SWAT dog handler


A SWAT team is a highly specialized and trained unit within a law enforcement agency that handles high-risk situations beyond the capability of conventional police officers. Those selected to the team have astonishing skills and abilities that only come with years of training and real world experience.

As the National Tactical Officers Association’s (NTOA) K-9 Chairman, I interact with many departments who inquire about K-9 SWAT integration. Some agencies already have an established patrol K-9 unit but have never integrated dogs into SWAT. Other departments don’t have any K-9s, but want to jump right into the K-9 SWAT world. 

Here, let’s focus on the pros and cons of utilizing a brand new dog dedicated to SWAT verses integrating an experienced patrol dog onto the team. 

Selecting the Right K-9
From time to time, departments ask about having a dedicated SWAT dog that only deploys with SWAT, not patrol. As long as a department is busy enough to justify a dedicated SWAT dog, there’s no problem with this, but selecting an experienced patrol dog instead of a brand new, untested dog is strongly encouraged.

Most SWAT teams that integrate dogs into SWAT utilize their patrol dogs because of the dog’s experience and street reliability. Even some of the busiest SWAT teams in the country — like the Los Angeles County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office and Las Vegas (Nev.) Metro PD — don’t have a dedicated SWAT dog. 

Some K-9 SWAT integration issues occur when they don’t want to use any of their seasoned patrol dogs because they are not social and some of the SWAT operators are afraid of them. If that is the case, they have a very valid reason to avoid incorporating those types of dogs onto their team.  

However, if the dog is not social in a SWAT environment, I guarantee the dog is not social in a patrol environment. Would your department hire an officer that had issues like this? Why is a dog any different?

Anti-social behavior does not preclude using the dog in SWAT, but significantly more training will be required to make the dog compatible with SWAT. 

Patrol Experience & SWAT Training
If your department is considering dedicating a dog to SWAT that is untested on the street, ask them the following two questions: 

1. Would you ever take an officer who just graduated from the police academy and put him on the SWAT team? 
2. Would you ever take a new SWAT team member who just graduated from basic SWAT school and put him on the entry team or in the #1 or #2 position in the stack?

The officer who just graduated from the academy has no law enforcement experience. We don’t know how the officer will react in a stressful situation because he hasn’t completed his field training and there are probably some liability issues. 

The same can be said about the new SWAT member. The only way for him to gain SWAT experience is through time and real world deployments. 

The dog’s job is to search the area ahead of the SWAT team before SWAT searches that area and clears it. You can “train” all you want but until your dog actually encounters a suspect in a real world deployment, you truly do not know how the dog will react.

You never want a dog or a person to fail. But if a dog is going to fail, have him fail on the street during a patrol deployment, just like rookie patrol officers. 

The best way to resolve this untested issue is to have the new SWAT dog and handler respond to patrol K-9 calls until the dog is tested and performs how he is supposed to. Once the dog has found and engaged several suspects, he has been tested and is street-worthy. For departments where SWAT is a collateral duty, this is normally not a problem. But some fulltime SWAT operators don’t like this idea because they don’t want to go back to patrol. They need to see the big picture. 

Depending on how busy or active your department is, it may only take a few weeks or a few months before your dog is battle-tested and ready to deploy with SWAT. This will also give the new handler a chance to learn how to be a handler and learn what his dog needs to work on.

Selecting the SWAT K-9 Handler
Another issue that comes up is selection of a SWAT dog handler. One of the best solutions is to get an experienced handler (and his dog) and make them part of the SWAT team. An experienced handler knows how to read his dog and communicate what his dog is telling him to the SWAT team. But this is not always possible.

Some SWAT teams want to keep the SWAT dog handler position in-house because none of their patrol dog handlers are SWAT team members or none of the handlers are motivated enough to be a SWAT dog handler. If your issue is lack of motivation on the patrol dog handler side, having a SWAT operator become a SWAT dog handler isn’t a problem, but there are some things that need to be considered. 

Find out why the patrol dog handlers are not motivated enough to want to go to the next level with their dog and be a team player. Maybe it’s a dog issue or maybe it’s a handler issue. Either way, those types of problems need to be addressed. 

SWAT personnel may think turning a SWAT operator into a dog handler is easy, because they see their patrol dogs working the street and think, “that looks pretty easy” but, being a handler is as hard as being a SWAT operator.  

Basic Patrol K-9 School does not prepare you for a SWAT deployment — it barley prepares you for street. Many people think that the dog determines how good the K-9 team will be, but in reality it’s the handler who makes or breaks the success of the K-9 team. Pair a mediocre dog with a good handler and that handler will make the dog better than anyone thought possible. However, pairing a good dog with a new or mediocre handler will result in the dog having poor or mediocre street performances. 

Those traits and characteristics you look for in a patrol dog handler are the same traits you look for in a SWAT dog handler. 

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