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So you want to start a K-9 unit?

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 C.B. Thompson
Police K-9 Magazine

From time to time our department gets a call from an outside agency and the conversation typically goes something like this: “We were thinking of starting a K-9 unit. We have a German Shepherd and a car; what else do we need to do?”

First, our experience has been that it is highly likely only one of the two things that you have may actually work; that is, the car. Second, your department should be aware that starting a K-9 unit will not be a cheap proposition. According to the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA), budget is the number one killer of police K-9 units. Although the car you have in mind may be used, the required modifications mean dedicating the unit and that may be prohibitive in small departments that have a limited number of vehicles.

The good news is that every once in a while you will be fortunate enough to locate a donated or inexpensively acquired dog that has the suitable drives to be a police service dog (PSD). If you find one, on the way home buy a lottery ticket or stop at the track or the craps table, because your luck is running high.

Personally, I have come across several such dogs that have proved suitable for single-purpose narcotics work. The bad news is that I have seen many more that have no aptitude for police work or anything else short of creating food and vet bills. Thoughtful advance planning, adopting realistic expectations, and assessing administrative and budgetary support will greatly improve your chances not only of developing, but also of maintaining, a successful working
K-9 team. The purpose of this article is to highlight important considerations that will maximize your success in that rewarding endeavor.

Dog Selection
The cost of a dog can be a big hurdle, particularly for smaller departments. If funds allow, choose a well recom-mended, reputable vendor. Such vendors are located around the United States, so depending on your location, your best bet is to talk with someone at one of the large established units in your area and inquire where they have had good luck in acquiring dogs. Be honest with the vendor and tell him or her up front what you are doing and that you need help with selection. You also can take someone who has experience with you to help select the dog that could be your partner for the next seven to nine years. A good, dual-purpose dog must exhibit high degrees of several drives, including hunt, retrieve, and courage.

As a new handler, you also want a social dog: one that tolerates people well, has confidence, and isn’t what we used to term “a land shark.” Most young handlers incorrectly assume they need the biggest, meanest dog they can get their hands on. Trust me, you do not want that dog. I have worked both types — the dog that wants to bite everybody when he comes out of the car (and usually it was me who got bitten) and the one that is cool with everybody until you tell him otherwise. The latter is much less stressful to work, and your risk-management or insurance people will not get to know you by your first name.

Most of us police officers are type-A, take-charge personalities who don’t like to admit we don’t know everything. However, when it comes to dog selection, let the experts guide you while you check your ego at the door. It cannot be said enough: a high-quality dog can make your program; a low-quality dog can break it.

The Veterinary Factor
Finding a suitable veterinarian often is one of the biggest items overlooked not only by new programs, but also by existing units. It is not simply a matter of budgeting for veterinary care services, it’s also the willingness of the vet’s office to provide training for the officers.
As a police officer, you learn basic lifesaving skills to serve the public as well as your fellow officers. Doesn’t your K-9 partner deserve the same skilled care from you? Being proficient in performing CPR on a canine, learning about normal body temperature (and how to take a temperature), learning the skills of intubating a downed canine, and being alert to the signs of internal bleeding are important basic and advanced life-support techniques that hands-on veterinary training can provide.

My agency assigns all new handlers to one week of working in the veterinarian’s office. The officers assist with all dog cases and surgeries that come in during training week. They learn to perform intubations, catheterizations, and IV placement. Additionally, they gain a firm understanding of daily care and health maintenance, first aid, and canine anatomy and physiology. Working closely with the veterinary staff gives them a more vested interest in your program. The officers gain valuable training and insight and the veterinarian gets free help for a week — not a bad trade-off. Dr. Paul McNamara, DVM, runs seminars, and his Web site is listed in the reference box on page 51.

K-9 Vehicles
Several schools of thought exist concerning which vehicles make good K-9 patrol units. Some advocate for a truck or SUV; others feel a standard patrol unit such as the Crown Victoria makes a suitable K-9 patrol vehicle. Reasons to consider the truck or SUV include the need to carry a lot of gear — such as bite suits, drug boxes, heavy armor, ballistic shields, and so on — that requires extra space. However, only one SUV on the market today — the Chevy Tahoe — currently is pursuit-rated.

Advantages of using a standard patrol sedan include the availability of necessary parts should a mechanical problem occur, because the car is a member of the standard patrol fleet. Another advantage to a modified standard patrol unit is that its seat-to-ground height makes it easier for the dog to jump in and out of (consider the amount of stress impact a dog’s front shoulder joints take when he jumps from a high vehicle).

Whatever vehicle you decide to use, the most important things the car should have are a good electrical system and air conditioner. I cannot tell you how often we hear of police K-9s dying because the air conditioner in a car shut down. For that reason, you also should be sure to invest in one of the heat-monitoring systems on the market. Skimp on something somewhere else before you compromise on that one.

If you are assigned to be the first handler in a new program, you will have many eyes on you. Although some people will want you to succeed, others will take pleasure in watching you fail. Ultimately, it is up to you. In addition to having the best equipment, you need to get the best training you can lay your hands on.

Many vendors offer one- and two-week handler courses with the purchase of a dog. If that is all that your agency will pony up the funds for, then make the most of the time allocated. Take it upon yourself to get additional training wherever you can. National seminars such as Police K-9 Magazine’s Handler Instruction & Training Seminar (HITS) are great ways to pick up new ideas and training skills in a conference venue. At such events, you also can network with other handlers and teams from across the country. Those contacts can be a great asset to any handler, and especially new handlers.

In addition to K-9-related courses, taking standard tactical and tactical shooting courses will greatly benefit the K-9 team. At our agency, all new handlers are sent to a basic SWAT school at a minimum. Additionally, tactical shooting courses are a valuable investment. Recent statistics claim that one in 1,000 police officers assigned to normal street patrol duties will be in an officer-involved shooting over the course of a 20-year career. For K-9 handlers, that number increases to one in 100 in an eight-year career. That means you are 25 times more likely to be involved in a shooting while working a K-9 than while working normal patrol.

The most important thing to remember is this: keep an open mind when you attend training courses. Look at what others are doing. Maybe some of the things they do on deployments will not work for you, but maybe something else you see or hear will benefit you. You may discover a training philosophy or a specific training scenario you had not thought of trying. The old joke in the K-9 world is that the only thing two K-9 trainers can agree on is that the third is doing it wrong. The truth is that almost every one of us can learn something from each other. I know that I can; I learn things from my fellow officers every time that I interact with them.

Scent Work
The basis of my scent-work training is in narcotics detec-tion rather than explosives detection. If you are considering training a bomb dog, go to someone who is a dedicated professional in that area. As a narcotics detection trainer, I am a firm believer in using real narcotics odor to scent articles and train with. Some folks have had great success using pseudo (chemically engineered dope odors), but I’ve always thought, “Why would I want to train my dog to find and alert to a substance that is not actually illegal?” (I can hear those other two trainers now.)

Training with pseudo does offer two distinct advan-tages: first, there is no need for a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or state controlled-substances permit. There also is very low risk to the dog if he makes contact with the training aids. When training with real narcotics, these are two issues that you must work around: licensing and handling of the substance.

Keep in mind that whatever means of obtaining training aids your department has in place, I strongly recommend that a license be obtained from DEA to possess said training aids. Most states do not have a caveat in their drug possession laws that says it is OK for you to possess dope in order to train your dog. If you were to come across that wormy officer from the neighboring jurisdiction (we all know at least one), wouldn’t it be nice to have a DEA license that states that you are in legal possession of narcotics as far as the federal government is concerned? Make friends with DEA’s Drug Diversion Investigators in your area. These are the folks who process and certify you and your registered location for the license. They can help you out in the process. Just as in your work with the veterinarian, you want to be a face to them, not just a name. After you have your DEA license, you will be able to obtain some narcotics on a yearly basis directly from the DEA lab to use for training.

The most important thing to remember about training with real narcotics is to be cautious how you package and set your training aids to minimize any chance that your dog will make actual contact with the substances. Good dogs have perished over the years from ingesting training aids.

Should you mark your training aids? That is another area for debate. Some people mark all their training aids with catchy little labels that read “Property of the XYZ Police Department,” then mark whatever the substance is. That trend began after officers carelessly began leaving training aids behind at training venues, in towed vehicles, etc.

My problem with that process is that you have introduced another odor that you will need to proof your dog off of. The question a lawyer will surely pick up on is, “Is the dog alerting to the odor of the controlled substance or the odor of the marker used to label the aid?”

Handler Selection
When choosing a handler, some of the qualities that should be considered include officer temperament, level of motiva-tion and dedication, and ability to function well as a team member. Training and working with dogs can be a bit of a frustrating endeavor from time to time, to say the least. If you are someone who angers quickly and tends to lash out, then dog handling isn’t for you. Many agencies will not even con-sider an officer for a handler position if they have sustained use-of-force complaints, due to the liabilities associated with K-9.

In many cases, I have seen handlers take a dog that was average at best and turn it into an exceptional working dog. They have performed that feat not because of some unique and outstanding training ritual, but because they were motivated and dedicated to the task at hand. They established an exceptional bond with the animal and had the good sense to get a feel for the dog and why he was doing what he did. Those are the type of officers who look at themselves if a deployment or training scenario goes wrong and try to find a way to overcome the issue.

K-9 is not about you or the dog individually; it is the epitome of a team. It’s the product of your work and what you can do together. Dogs are pack animals and, as such, they need companionship from their pack members. In some cases, that pack might be only you as their handler; other handlers may include their family members as part of the dog’s pack. Whatever method you choose, do it for the right reasons. Do not become part of a K-9 team for trophies or a sense of identity.

Emergency Protocols
It’s important that you have an emergency protocol in place with your dispatchers and communications supervisors in case things go bad during a deployment. Does your dispatcher have phone numbers for your veterinarian — both office and home? Make sure that they do. Do not be content with the fact that you have it; what if you are down also and unable to make the call? Within our agency, we maintain a file of such numbers and have a protocol that mandates that the K-9 supervisor or instructor–trainer be notified of any call involving the injury of a police K-9 or handler if we are not already on the scene.

In the event of an injury to the K-9, dispatch also will notify the vet that we are going to be en route with an injured dog. We make the call too, as we decided long ago that it is better for the veterinarian’s office to receive several calls advising them of the situation than to receive none. Another benefit of having a protocol in your dispatch center is that you will have a much better gauge of what time an incident occurred. In the case of narcotics ingestion or contact, you will need to be able to advise your veterinarian of when Narcan (Naloxone) or whatever antidote you used was administered or how long it has been since the injury or incident occurred.

Further Discussion
If you think that working a K-9 would be a cool job to do until that other job that you’ve had your eye on comes up, do everybody including yourself a favor and pass on being a K-9 handler. Being a handler is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week calling. I do not want to call it a job, because to me it’s much more than that. With the title comes the responsi-bility for a living creature that is dependent on you for all of his needs. You cannot shelve the dog and forget him on weekends and during vacations.

Your K-9 is your partner, your friend, and your protector. Every dog is a special creation of nature that will never be repeated, and you are the one entrusted with him. Each has his own personality, looks, and quirks, but have no doubt: if you create a good bond with that animal, he will defend you with his life. It is a natural instinct within canines to protect pack members if possible. My first patrol dog died doing just that. Fatally wounded with a gunshot through the neck, he continued to press his attack on the gunman who had shot us both until I recalled him. That is the level of dedication these animals have for us — shouldn’t we repay that with dedication of our own?

In closing, if you are tasked with the formation of a new K-9 unit, either as an officer or as a supervisor, I wish you the best of luck. Just remember: in most cases, with a quality dog, you will get out of it what you are willing to put into it, so be committed, be dedicated, and be that team that your agency will be proud of.

C.B. Thompson is a 23-year veteran police officer who has 12 years in K-9. He is a combat and tactical tracking instructor and a POST-certified instructor and judge of patrol dogs. Currently, he is the instructor/trainer of the Fort Worth (TX) Police K-9 Unit. Contact him at fwpdk9support@aol.com

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