logo for print

Do more with less

Use canines as a force multiplier

By Brad Smith

Click here to subscribe to Law Officer Magazine

A friend of mine who is a supervisor at a small police department in California told me his police department was bracing for significant budget cuts in the new fiscal year. He spoke of rumors the department may have to lay off officers, or worse, the department might dissolve and the city contract with the local sheriff's department. He also told me some incredible stories about officers searching buildings by themselves and responding to domestic violence calls and other felony crimes-in-progress without back-up due to a manpower shortage. Because most of the officers at his department respond to calls by themselves, the department has recently purchased X26 Tasers and beanbag shotguns to help them subdue violent and dangerous criminals.

I told my supervisor friend it was about time his department purchased these less-lethal tools. But I cautioned the only thing wrong with these tools is they can be taken away from you and used against you. I said there was only one less-lethal tool a bad guy can never take away from officers and use against them: a trained police dog.

I told my friend if I were chief for a day, and as long as I had willing and qualified officers, I would give every patrol officer a police dog. After he stopped laughing, he realized I wasn't joking.

Tactical Advantages
Canines are a great force multiplier and a psychological advantage. Many suspects are not afraid of getting shot, Tased, OC'ed or even bean-bagged, but most of them fear police dogs and will give up very quickly when they know a police dog is on deck.

Now I realize partnering every patrol officer with a canine is really "thinking outside the box." But consider all the situations in which you can use canines: narcotics, bomb or cadaver detection, SWAT and routine patrol. Canines can assist in clearing buildings, tracking or trailing a suspect and searching confined areas, such as attics, crawlspaces, tunnels, hallways, stairs, blind corners and thick brush. Specially trained dogs can also search effectively with a SWAT team in a gas environment. 

Assessing Readiness
Think back to when you graduated from the basic police academy. There is a reason why it's called "basic." Remember how young and inexperienced you really were for the street? It took time for you to acclimate to police work and function at a level that earned the trust of other officers. The same is true for a new police dog, but unfortunately, officers don't realize this. They think your new dog should be ready to go and perform as well as the other dogs. Hopefully, during your first night or even your first few weeks on the street, you and your dog will not be thrown into a high-risk situation, because you will need time to train your dog to perform in a tactical operation.

Many officers covet a canine handler assignment, but it's a very hazardous and demanding position. A canine handler must be prepared mentally and physically. If you find yourself in a high-stress and tactical situation with your dog, you must assess whether you and your dog are ready to handle it. Depending on the situation, before you deploy with your canine, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Have you trained for this kind of situation?
  2. Have you trained to conduct a canine tactical search with patrol officers?
  3. Have you and your dog trained with your SWAT team?
  4. Have you and your dog deployed with your SWAT team?
  5. Do you have the control necessary to conduct a canine tactical search?
  6. Do you have the same tactical equipment SWAT has to conduct a canine tactical search with patrol or SWAT?
    If the answer is no to any of these questions, you should rethink whether you and your dog are ready for this kind of deployment.

Training for Tactical Situations
Whether you are a canine handler, canine supervisor or patrol sergeant, what can you do to better prepare for high-risk tactical deployment using canines? When it comes to canine training, some handlers are stuck in a rut — you know who you are! You repeat the same lackluster canine training every week. You perform the customary basic on-leash obedience and basic building or area search with someone standing in a corner, behind a door, next to a bush or in a box.

This kind of basic canine training will get you nowhere and possibly killed in a real tactical deployment. Step up your training, challenge yourself and don't be afraid to fail in training so you and your canine partner can grow and learn. Go beyond the basics, though it goes without saying: Safety is the key to training. If you anticipate your dog will have a problem with any of the following training exercises, muzzle your dog.

Train with Your Gas Mask
One simple exercise most handlers don't incorporate in training is wearing their gas masks during obedience training. Many dogs react uncharacteristically to the handler wearing a gas mask. Handlers are surprised to see how little their dogs listen, because the commands sound so unfamiliar when spoken through the gas mask.

Shouldering Your Dog
Another basic tactical exercise: picking up and carrying your dog. Learn how your dog will react to this technique in a training environment before it happens in a real situation; you'd be surprised how many dogs dislike being picked up. Some dogs become very skittish and move away from the handler when the handler tries to pick them up. Other dogs grow uneasy when you place them on your shoulder. Some will try to jump off your shoulder; I've seen several handlers get severe scratches and abrasions on their arms, neck and back when their dog tried to get off their shoulders. I've also seen dogs try to bite the handler when the handler tries to pick them up or shoulder them.

Train while wearing your gas mask to get your dog used to how it affects the sound of your voice.
How to: Kneel down next to your dog as if you are going to pet him. Grab the collar with your right hand, and, at the same time, quickly place your entire left arm behind your dog's front legs in the area of his lower chest and stomach, and quickly stand up.  As you stand up, use your left arm to wrap around your dog's body and hold him tightly against your shoulder. You can use your right hand to control your dog's head so he can't bite you if he's so inclined. If your dog tries to use his back legs to jump off, have someone grab them so he can't scratch you.

Once your dog is comfortable with you carrying him, practice handing him off to another officer. Also, instruct another officer to pick up your dog and then hand your dog to you. This technique may be required in many tactical and search situations, such as deploying your dog into an attic.

Tactical Obedience Training
Some dogs experience trouble searching with anyone other than their handlers. Through proper training and exposure, help your dog become used to the way patrol officers dress. The dog will learn to pay no attention to the back-up officers in the search area and will acclimate to the equipment and the patrol officers' movements.

Ask your patrol officers to stand in a straight line, double-arms distance apart. Then instruct your dog to heel with you between the patrol officers in a figure-8 pattern. Make sure you maintain strict obedience around the officers; do not let the dog sniff or smell them.

Once the dog is used to heeling around the standing officers, instruct the officers to go down on one or two knees. Again, command your dog to heel around the officers, and pay particular attention to the dog's face in relation to each officer's face. Make sure during this entire exercise the dog looks at you and pays attention to your movements. This should help keep the dog's face away from the officers.

Once the dog has mastered heeling around officers in the standing and kneeling positions, instruct officers to lie flat on their stomachs and heel the dog over them. Once the dog has mastered this exercise, start recalling the dog by the downed officers. Down your dog next to the first prone officer and leave your dog there. Move up to the second prone officer and recall your dog to you. If your dog pays no attention to the downed officer, you can leave your dog on a down next to the second prone officer and move up to the fourth or fifth prone officer. Recall your dog to you and put him in a down position. Once again, if your dog has no problem bypassing three prone officers, you can continue this exercise. Manpower permitting, if you can have your dog bypass seven to nine prone officers, you should not have a problem in the field.

Train while wearing your gas mask to get your dog used to how it affects the sound of your voice.
Range Training
Believe it or not, some police dogs have never been around live gunfire. Many handlers are astonished to discover their dogs respond aggressively toward them during gunfire, which is obviously not the response the handler wants.

Start by performing strict obedience exercises with your dog. I recommend keeping your dog's favorite toy close while you're doing obedience. The toy will distract the dog once the gunfire starts, and you can reward the dog when he heels correctly. Once your dog is under control and heels properly on a loose leash, start introducing gunfire. Put large cotton balls in your dog's ears to muffle the gunfire, but ensure the dog can still hear and obey your commands.

Begin with an officer firing one round every 10–15 seconds while you heel your dog 30–40 yards away, performing strict obedience. As your dog becomes used to the gunfire, heel him closer and closer to the officer firing the weapon. Eventually, stop right next to the officer. As you keep your dog in the down position, the officer will fire a few rounds. Ideally, you want your dog to stay in the down position and remain gunfire-neutral. As you heel your dog away, reward him with the toy for showing the correct behavior.

Once your dog no longer reacts to gunfire, participate in shooting drills with your dog. As you start to shoot with your dog in the down position at your side, don't worry about hitting the target — just watch your dog. Once your dog remains under control when you fire your handgun, start shooting from different positions. After you fire three rounds from one location, holster your weapon and heel your dog to a second position. At this position, down your dog, unholster and fire three more rounds. Make sure your dog stays down and quiet during the gunfire. After completing this exercise, holster your weapon again and command your dog to heel to the next location.

Once you've mastered shooting with your dog next to you, start shooting with other officers around you. Start by shooting and moving in a two- or three-person team. Note: Your dog will become extremely excited due to the additional two or three officers who will run and shoot with you. If this happens, slow everything down. Direct the two officers shooting with you to slow their pace to one quarter or half speed. Eventually, the dog will get used to officers running in front of him, and the officers can pick up their pace and run through a shooting course at full speed.

I've covered a few key tactical training exercises that will begin to prepare you and your canine for most situations. Unfortunately, I've seen handlers who are satisfied if their K-9 team performs at a standard level. If you want to raise the bar and better prepare yourself and your dog for a high-risk tactical patrol situation or even a SWAT deployment, it takes time, dedication and extra training.Brad Smith has more than 20 years of experience as a K-9 and SWAT dog handler for the West Covina Police Department in Southern California. He designed and conducts the three-day post-certified SWAT and K-9 course, SKIDDS (SWAT and K-9's Interacting During Deployment School). Contact him at Topdogwck1@aol.com or through his Web site at www.skidds.com.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2017 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.