K9 Misconceptions and Myths

        At the Pasco County, FL Sheriff's Office, the K9 unit has seven handlers and eight dogs: seven German Shepherds and one bloodhound. One of the handlers has charge of one of the shepherds and the bloodhound. These K9s are primarily tracking dogs, although six of the shepherds are also trained as narcotics dogs and one as a bomb dog.
        In the search to find the best police dogs, Belgian Malinois, Rottweiler and Doberman pinchers have been used. However, the Pasco County K9 unit has always used German Shepherds for patrol purposes since they began importing them in the mid-'80s. Experience has shown that German Shepherds can discriminate between right and wrong, and are better at the handler's home.

Myth One - Kennels

        K9s are kept in kennels. Actually, the K9s live in the handlers' homes with their families. At home, the dog should be relaxed and able to socialize with the family and the family's friends so he learns everyone isn't a bad guy. K9s only train on the sheriff's time. For example, Wednesday nights are training nights. The quickest way for a handler to get bounced from the K9 unit is to train his dog at home.

Myth Two - Bad Guys

        K9s just track bad guys. In addition to fleeing bad guys, Pasco County K9s also track lost children, suicidal individuals, people overdosed on drugs, lost seniors with Alzheimer's Disease, and runaways. The dogs won't bite at the end of a track unless the K9 team is assaulted or the dog is commanded to. They are trained to follow one track, and if successful, will get their big toy reward.
        This is all counter to the myth that deer tracks and other scents can throw off the tracking of a trained dog. Tracking and evidence finding can begin with using such items as expired credit cards, flip-flops, shoes or wallets. If the K9 should happen to get off scent, it's up to the handler to get him back on scent.

Myth Three - Metal Objects

        K9s can't pick up scent from metal objects. This just isn't true. They can work off pliers, wrenches, guns, etc. because human scent can remain on metal. Last year, the agency's K9s made 100 evidence recoveries. Eventually the dogs are trained to bring objects back to their handlers. However, during real track on the street, the preference is for the dog to leave evidence undisturbed.

Myth Four - Concrete

        K9s are not able to track on concrete. That is a misconception. Tracking on concrete is where long hours of K9 training take place. They also learn to track on grass and in vegetation. Tracking in woods and bushes is the easiest for dogs because scents stay longer and the scent is at the K9's nose level. Heat dissipates scent, especially in the daytime, which is why tracking training begins on concrete and stretches of asphalt.
        K9s are trailing dogs as they track scent coming off the ground, so wind direction is a big factor, especially when on concrete. Therefore, each search starts with the handler noting where the wind is coming from. Then he / she and the dog work downwind from the track so the scent is blowing toward them.

Myth Five - Water

        Dogs can't track in water situations. This is another common myth. Now, if the bad guy jumps into the Mississippi River and swims, it's probably true. However, generally people don't stay in moving water, but rather they will cross. Then it's a matter of walking the banks on the other side and picking up the scent where the person came out.
        Also, scent sits on top of slow and still water, so the swamps in Pasco County are not a problem for the dogs. K9s may not alert on the person being tracked. Often the K9 is right on the individual or past him / her before it can pinpoint the location.

Myth Six - Bite Sleeve

        The training just involves a bite sleeve. In fact, a trend away from bite sleeves has evolved, and the K9 unit rarely uses one in training. Handlers also do not allow their K9s to play with a bite sleeve. They do, however, have to train for the Florida State standard that requires a bite sleeve. Normally, the agency trains with a specially made-in-Europe, full-body bite suit. Bite suits are more natural because with a full-body bite suit, the dogs learn they can bite anywhere. Bad guys go down because of leg bites, which is the best-case scenario.

Myth Seven - Paperwork

        K9 handlers don't have much paperwork. In fact, handlers do as much paperwork as patrol deputies, it's just a different kind. Everything is documented, including K9 incidents and training, weekly evaluation reports, and morning reports. Since there are not many K9 handlers per deputies, there are times when all the K9s are tied up.
        The handler may not do a lot of original paperwork, but rather a lot of supplementary paper. Everything is evidence: direction of the wind, temperature, probable cause, evidence found, charges files, etc. A diagram is made of the track. Officers not familiar with K9 activity would probably not believe how much paperwork a K9 unit does.

Myth Eight - Working Life

        K9s are only good to work for five years. Not true. Some active-duty K9s have eight years of duty and are still going strong. They work and train hard, which might be what makes them last so long. People say the sheriff's dogs are thin, but that's what athletes should look like in top physical shape. However, like every living creature, K9s wear down and get tired. Pasco County agency generally gets seven to eight years' work out of their dogs before they retire them.

Myth Nine - Robots

        K9s are robots, they work all the time. In fact, K9 units are a tool, but the dogs are not robots. They have good days and bad days and are not infallible. Sometimes handlers will make mistakes in deploying or working the dog, which will lead to an unsuccessful search. One day K9s can be heroes finding the wanted suspects, and the next day, they won't be successful. A handler must have thick skin.

Myth 10 - Expensive

        K9s are a big expense. Actually, many K9 programs have a lot of community support that keeps the costs down. The Pasco County K9s were bought for the agency by community organizations; AARP even bought one. Area veterinarians often provide the dogs treatment at their own expense. Every year a local woman runs a charity party to raise funds for retired K9s. The sheriff's K9 facility was built with funds raised by community leaders such as Leadership Pasco. The story of the K9s gets told and people respond; the sheriff's department never asks for a dime. Most people are supportive.

Myth 11 - Perimeter

        K9 units just work in from the perimeter. Today, K9 perimeters are different from the past. Previously, a K9 team would work a perimeter and know the bad guy would be there. Now the bad guys have cell phones. They can make a call for a friend to pick them up. Patrol units need to set up perimeters wide enough so the bad guy is not already outside of it. Setting up too close / inward is no good. With a large perimeter, if there is a sighting, it can be collapsed to make it smaller.
        A concern of the K9 unit is that patrol deputies want to get in close and be part of the action. K9 handlers are constantly asking them to stay one-half mile out. There is no such thing as a moving perimeter, because patrol driving around will contaminate the search area.
        Delays in setting up a perimeter can mean a head start for the bad guys. Time is lost as an alarm company receives the alarm, calls dispatch, and dispatch alerts and assigns patrol deputies. By the time all of this happens, the crime that a patrol deputy thinks is five minutes old is actually 15 minutes old.

Myth Twelve - Lights

        The K9 simply ignores lights. The truth is lights are a distraction to a K9 team for a number of reasons. Don't light up the K9 team because it destroys their night vision. Also, a patrol deputy working behind a K9 team with a light makes the team cast a giant shadow. The handler has a small flashlight if he needs it. Lights may not affect the dog, but lights certainly affect the K9 unit.

Myth 13 - Locked on Scent

        The K9 knows the right scent. Of course, the more people moving around a crime scene or where a search begins, the more confusing scents are being left. Scent is also coming from the patrol deputies and their vehicles. Remember, the most difficult part for the K9 is finding the scent and getting started. It is rare when it is known exactly where the bad guy fled, where the track starts, and the direction of travel.

Myth 14 - Keeping Up

        The K9 moves slowly; anyone can keep up. There is a reason the K9 team often won't take a backup with them. That reason is that backup deputies must be in really good physical shape so as not to be a liability. Not everyone can be a backup and keep up with the dog.
        A K9 is given a 10-foot lead, and to avoid becoming a distraction, a backup patrol deputy needs to stay 10 to 15 feet behind the handler as they look ahead for indicators. As a team, the patrol backup needs to watch out for the bad guy while the handler watches the dog, who in turn will show the handler what he needs to see.
        However in the field, K9 teams automatically go on many calls to support patrol functions. These might include any in-progress calls or anytime a deputy needs or requests a backup; one never knows when a suspicious person call might turn out to be a burglary in progress.

Myth 15 - Crime

        Crime is crime; nothing has changed. Actually, crime is different today than 10 or 20 years ago, and people carrying guns are much more commonplace. K9s are not sent to a gunfight - that should be a SWAT call. If the K9 is called and gets killed, the agency will still need to call the SWAT team. The difference between SWAT and K9 is that SWAT deals mostly with known information while K9 teams deal with the unknown.

Myth 16 - Uniforms

        Every officer must be in the same uniform. With best-practices, uniforms and equipment must fit the job. Handlers now wear SWAT-type ballistic vests with ballistic plates in the front and back; however these are a bit shorter and lighter. A few years ago, K9 handlers would have worn an undergarment vest. Twenty years ago, some handlers didn't wear vests. Pasco County's K9 unit members also wear more of a Battle Dress Utility uniform rather than the patrol uniforms of the past.

Thanks to Sergeant Brian Brosnan, Pasco County, Fla., Sheriff's Office K9 supervisor and head instructor of the Pasco County K9 School for his assistance in dispelling these common K9 myths, for separating fact from fiction and misinformation, and for updating the role of K9s in the police environment.

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 California-based writer and author.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2012

Rating : 10.0



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