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K-9 and Swat Training Together

Written by Jim Weiss

K-9 handlers and SWAT teams generally conduct their training separately, specific to their law enforcement missions. The Clearwater, Fla., Police Department is taking another look at this idea. The impetus? An incident that happened in a nearby county.

Polk County is a somewhat rural area not far from Clearwater. In 2006, Polk County Sheriff’s K-9 Deputy Matt Williams and his K-9 unit dog Diogi were shot and killed. It started with the traffic stop of a speeding car by Deputy Douglas Speirs. When Speirs became suspicious of the driver’s ID (it was later confirmed to be that of someone else), the driver fled into the woods.

Speirs called for backup, and Williams and Diogi responded. The three began tracking the suspect. Suddenly there was a burst of gunfire. Williams, who was hit eight times, and Diogi were both killed, and Speirs was wounded. The suspect later also fired at a police detective who was warning residents to stay away from the area. After a massive manhunt, the suspect was found. He refused police orders and was subsequently killed.

The Same, but Different

This incident made an impression on Sergeant Jim Hall, Clearwater Police Department’s officer in charge of the K-9 unit. He realized that SWAT is often present when K-9 teams are called out, but they rarely, if ever, train together. The ways they conduct searches and respond are very different. While stealth is generally the byword for SWAT, tracking with a dog is anything but silent. Dog searches are accompanied by barking, panting, orders yelled by the handler, radio transmissions, running, tripping and seeming confusion. Tracking dogs like to move extremely quickly.

SWAT teams and K-9 units should train together to become accustomed to working together. In an incident in another Florida county, SWAT moved out in front of the dog. Not used to someone other than the bad guy in front of him, the dog was distracted and bit a member of the SWAT team. In a different case, while investigating a home invasion, the K-9 unit and the SWAT team kept losing each other because of the different speeds at which they work.

The Clearwater PD decided to study the idea of combined training and in 2009 initiated its first SWAT/K-9 scenarios. Beginning in the classroom, SWAT members were first instructed on the benefits of working with a K-9 unit, how K-9 operates, and some facts about K-9’s four-legged team member.

Benefits of Training Together

Working alongside SWAT provides greater safety for the handler. Handlers don’t usually carry unholstered weapons because they are in charge of controlling their running dog. Therefore, they need someone to cover them, particularly on known high-risk tracks. The safest and most effective way to accomplish this is to have a well-trained, disciplined SWAT team behind them. The safety of the SWAT team is also improved by working with the K-9 unit. The dog can let SWAT know if an area is clear or if a bad guy they can’t see is hiding nearby. When the dog alerts the team by barking, the assailant’s attention is diverted from shooting the handler or the SWAT team.

Confidence and coordination are key. The more the teams work together, the better they understand how the other works. They can anticipate each other’s moves and work as a cohesive unit, no matter what the location or terrain.

Tactical Tracking with a K-9

SWAT must keep wind direction in mind when working with a K-9 unit. Wind, and wind direction, are everything to a tracking dog. If a suspect is downwind, the dog will have to track right up to the suspect, whereas an upwind suspect will allow the dog to begin his alert at a safer distance. SWAT members use their eyes; K-9 units use their noses.

Sergeant Hall recalls a search he and his dog were conducting on a hot night after shots were fired during a home burglary. They were tracking a suspect who, it turned out, was hiding in a shed. The wind blew from a small pond past the dog toward the shed. Hall took a break by the pond so his dog could get a drink.

As they began tracking again downwind of the shed, the dog caught the suspect’s scent and alerted Hall of his presence. Dogs also track much faster than people. They set off at a run once they have a scent and want to continue at that pace. SWAT needs to be prepared for that. Dogs are trained to follow the freshest scent and track best in grass; human scent is drastically affected by wind, temperature, humidity and contamination.

And while dogs’ eyes are generally not as good as humans’ eyes, they can detect movement better. Because of the way their eyes are positioned on their heads, dogs’ eyes have almost a 225-degree field of vision. Their ears are also multi-directional, giving them better hearing as the ears can turn toward the direction of the sound. In urban areas, dogs are almost always kept on a 10-foot lead when tracking. This gives the handler more control, although the longer the lead, the better they will track. However, a longer lead can be more dangerous to the dog because he may run into traffic in the excitement of his quest.

Together When Together

When working as a team, SWAT and the K-9 unit need to stay together. The handler and his dog usually lead, with SWAT following but staying as close to the handler as they can. However, dangerous areas are handled on a case-by-case basis. This may include sending SWAT ahead of the dog to clear the area.

SWAT stops when the handler stops and usually does not go in front of the dog. Once the dog locates the suspect, both the K-9 and his handler will move to cover so the SWAT team can proceed. Should there be a problem with the leash when the SWAT member is in position and covering his field, the handler will work the lead around the SWAT officer who should stand still.

Team members should also ignore the dog when he approaches. Sometimes SWAT members are so interested in the dog and what he is doing that they are not covering their fields properly. The dog is part of the team, and he will go forward or stop as needed. SWAT should do the same.

It is best if the handler verbally challenges the suspect first. A lot of shouting confuses the dog, and he may mistake a SWAT member’s shouts for the shouts of a suspect. It is important for SWAT members to be careful because dogs become agitated when they are on a call and tracking. If the suspect seems to be unarmed, it is best to let the dog handle him.

Both teams need to work out plans ahead of time for movement and obstacles such as crossing a fence. Training together helps dogs learn to work with the SWAT team by slowing down the dogs’ efforts and teaching them when to stop and start. Also, SWAT needs to adapt its tactics to the dog.

Accidents will occur. Should a SWAT member be bitten by a K-9 unit’s dog, the SWAT member should not shout or try to shake the dog off. This is the typical behavior of a suspect, and the dog will pull and tear just as it is trained to do. It is better to grab and hold the dog close to you so it doesn’t go anywhere. Announce that you have been bitten, and then wait for the trainer.

Scenario Training

Only realistic training can prepare both the dog and SWAT for potentially life-threatening situations that take place in the field and on the streets. After classroom information, Clearwater Police Department took its training outside to real settings. They were reminded that due to the length of time involved in a full-blown SWAT situation, both dogs and SWAT would be swapped out so they wouldn’t always be working with the same dog and handler.

While 99 percent of suspects will give up when they see the dog, it is that 1 percent who is a problem. In all of the scenarios, a safety protocol inspection was held before the track was begun. SWAT members carried unloaded rifles because rifles were what they would carry on a call out, and it would help the dog become familiar with them.

Tracking a Contained Area

In the first scenario, Clearwater SWAT and a K-9 and handler used a fenced car impound lot full of wrecked and battered vehicles. A “suspect” had run into the lot and was hiding in a car.

The handler, dog and SWAT team went behind the cover of a cinder block building and closed the gate behind them. Once the dog had the scent, the handler let him off his lead, and the dog bounded down the row of cars. While the team waited, the handler stayed close enough to the dog to be seen and heard, so he could keep the dog focused and call him back if necessary.

The team slowly advanced into the lot as the dog’s search area became smaller and smaller. Once the dog barked to alert the handler that he had found the vehicle, and as soon as SWAT knew which car it was, the dog was recalled to his handler who took the dog to safety behind a car. SWAT advanced and arrested the suspect. This scenario was repeated several times. One of the most important tips to take away from this situation is to not watch the dog or worry about him when he is approaching. Also, be aware that dogs can’t be 100 percent accurate. Wind is tricky.

A scent coming from a higher truck parked next to a car might flow down over the car and seem to be coming from it; watch vehicles all around the suspect vehicle the dog is barking at. While a dog can jump up and look into a car to be sure, he can’t see into a truck. Use the dog as part of your team; let him find the person.

Tracking Open Terrain

In this scenario, the team knew there had been a home invasion with shots fired. There was no description of the bad guy, who had run outdoors. The house had been cleared by police officers. The threat level was high.

The K-9 dog element was teamed with four responding SWAT officers. They began the track in an open field, but then the dog led them through the grounds of a sewage treatment plant. The track led the team between tall treatment plant buildings, at one point funneling over and under wide, heavy pipes at a choke point located between two tanks.

While tracking, the SWAT element fluidly covered 360 degrees while maintaining high and rear guard. Once past the pipes, the team continued across another open field and then a roadway. The suspect’s gun was found in the grass next to the road; the suspect was discovered hiding on top of a diesel fuel tank. Near the end, SWAT was only about 20 seconds behind the suspect’s final hide in this scenario.

In the follow-up critique, Sergeant Hall, the K-9 handler, said he was comfortable with the speed of the track—tactically the track went faster than what SWAT officers were used to in a real life situation.

Nighttime Tracking

In this scenario, tracking was conducted on a night with no moonlight. The suspect had shot a police officer and was known to be armed. He then disappeared among the buildings in an industrial park.

The track progressed swiftly, the five officers of the SWAT element covering and clearing corners as they worked their way around the buildings. Large tree roots protruding above ground presented tripping hazards. The K-9 unit’s dog began barking near some bushes where the suspect’s gun was found. As they proceeded, gaps appeared several times between the K-9 unit element and the SWAT team, but the SWAT officers closed them rapidly and provided a rear guard.

During the tracking, the team experienced dead stops before proceeding again. In typical dog behavior, the K-9 bracketed odor by working back and forth near a large brush line before pinpointing the source of the odor and entering the brush. The person playing the role of the suspect was quickly taken into custody. Given that the SWAT team needed to change its tactics to adapt to the rapid searching by the dog, there were no laser rule violations and the team’s movements were fluid.

In the critique, the person who played the role of the suspect said he had really been trying to get away. He heard the SWAT/K-9 team coming, and suddenly they were there. He said that he probably could have gotten in the first shot—if he’d still had his gun.

Night Tracking with Obstacles

Again, this was a late-night scenario with the highest level of man-with-a-gun threat. The track covered large open areas, and again a five-officer SWAT element accompanied the K-9 team. This time a high cyclone fence obstacle was encountered. Obstacles on a track must be dealt with quickly because the dog is anxious to continue and can deal with only a certain level of slowness. By now, the movements of the SWAT and K-9 teams working together were becoming natural.

When they came to the fence, the dog and his handler made it over while the SWAT element covered them. Then the SWAT team went over, one by one, spider-dropping down to the other side. On real tracks, some K-9 handlers carry mini bolt cutters. In this scenario, the suspect was apprehended while hiding in brush a few thousand feet on the other side of the fence.

Helpful Hints

Because time is of the essence when using a K-9 unit dog, real SWAT tactics can’t necessarily be used. SWAT should spread out if no cover is available so there is no chance of crossfire injuries to SWAT or the handler. SWAT will have to communicate verbally. The dog may stop and alert to an area for a moment; it could be a hot spot, and the dog needs to decide if the person is still there. SWAT needs to remain patient, cover its fields of fire, and wait for the handler to give further direction. Once the bad guy is discovered by the dog, the handler will move to a safe cover position, and SWAT can employ its usual tactics. The dog is also being trained to ignore SWAT members and their weapons. Also, SWAT team flashlight discipline should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, Ohio, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER. Mickey Davis is a writer and an author based in California.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2011

Rating : 10.0


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