K9 Training Must Keep Up

Training must continue to innovate to match the tasks and duties.

K9 Training Must Keep Up
By: Brad Smith


K9s in law enforcement have come a long way from their humble beginnings. The use of K9s in police operations continues to make progress. K9s are used in ways never imagined only a few decades ago. Their innate abilities astonish even veteran handlers.

A lot of this success comes from new and innovative training techniques that many cutting-edge trainers and skilled handlers have developed over the years. Regrettably, education and training still lag behind in some parts of the United States. There are still some “old-school” trainers and handlers who are stuck in the 1970s. They are still teaching techniques that are so antiquated and backward thinking.

Case in point: A few months ago, I was teaching a K9 tactical class on the East Coast. I was shocked to learn a few dogs in the class had no verbal out and no recall. I was told the trainer saw no need for a verbal out and recall because the handler would always be with his dog and could physically take the dog off the bite if needed. Even a more shocking revelation was the department’s administration was aware of this and did not see a problem with it!   

Luckily, this kind of training philosophy is not as common as it used to be, but as you can see, it is still going on across the country. Handlers, supervisors and trainers need to do a much better job in educating fellow officers within their department as well as attorneys and even the public on how a dogs work and how they can help make our jobs safer.   

Dogs Are Not People

One of the many beliefs, that a lot of people have a hard time comprehending, is that dogs are not human. Dogs do not think or reason like humans and they do not know the difference between right and wrong. If dogs could reason like humans or know the difference between right and wrong, there would be no accidental bites on citizens or police officers.

Dogs operate in a pack mentality. When they see a situation unfold in front of them, they don’t think over the different options that are available to them and come up with the best solution. Dogs react out of instinct or the training they have received from the handler.

Dog Selection

Handlers think they want the biggest, baddest, meanest dog around. They think this kind of dog will make a good patrol or SWAT dog. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s not necessarily the dog with the highest drive that makes the best dog; a lot of times, the medium-drive dog actually is better than the high-drive dog. 

That is because a lot of handlers do not have the Alpha command presence needed to control a high-drive dog. But if they had a medium-drive dog, they would have much better control over their dog. That control would allow them to actually do more with the medium-drive dog than they would be able to do with the high-drive dog.  

Tracking Formations

Tracking is arguably the most dangerous job in law enforcement today. You have heard me say before, “Train as you deploy.” If you train unsafely, you will deploy unsafely. In some basic K9 classes, handlers are taught a certain way because that’s how the certifications are written. How we are trained to track in K9 school does not always translate into a safe and tactical deployment in real-world operations. 

Most handlers were taught to track by walking point behind your dog, on a 15-20 foot tracking leash, with your backup officers 15-20 feet behind you. The problem with this formation is there is no one in a good tactical position to defend the handler if a deadly force situation arises.   

There is a very good chance the handler will get shot in the back by friendly fire, just like K9 Deputy Matt Williams did in Polk County, Fla. It is much safer for everyone involved to bring one or two backup officers next to the handler. 
When I ask the handlers why their backup officers walk so far behind them, the reason I’m always given is because that’s how I was trained or the dog is distracted with officers standing next to the handler. My response is the dog needs to adapt to how you want him to work, not to how the dog wants to work. 

Tracking Speed

One of the biggest complaints I hear from handlers is they lose their backup officers very quickly after starting a track. When I ask them why they lose their backup officers, their response is they can’t keep up because the dog tracks at a very high pace.
When I asked the handlers why they let their dog track so fast, I am constantly told that’s how they were taught and they were told to let the dog track at his own speed. Once again, how we are taught to track in K9 school does not always translate into a safe and tactical deployment in real-world operations. 
When I ask handlers if they have ever tried slowing their dog down on a track, some say they have tried, but the dog did not like it. Once again, make sure the dog adapts to how you want him to work, not to how the dog wants to work. 

Tracking with Backup

When I ask the handlers what they do when they lose their backup officers on a track, almost everyone says they continue to track alone, without backup. In the last few years, there have been several handlers and dogs shot and killed while tracking alone. No suspect is worth dying for. 

It will not be easy to slow your dog down if he has been tracking at a fast pace for a while, but through repetitive and proper training, it can be done. For your own safety and your family’s well-being, you must slow your dog down to a quick walking pace so you do not lose your backup officers during the track. 

Know Your Limitation

Think back to when you graduated from the basic police academy. Remember how young and inexperienced you really were for the street. It took time for you to get acclimated to police work and to be able to function at a level that other officers trusted you. 

The same is true for a new police dog but unfortunately, officers don’t realize this.         They think their dog should be ready to go and perform as well as other dogs. With any luck, 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. Hopefully, you will have time to train your dog on how to perform in a high-risk operation. 

As a K9 handler, you must be prepared mentally and physically. If you find yourself in a tactical situation with your dog, you must ask yourself, are you and your dog properly trained and ready to handle this situation? 

Depending on the situation, before you deploy with your dog, you should ask yourself some questions. Have I ever trained for this kind of situation before? Have I ever trained to conduct a K9 tactical search with patrol or SWAT officers? Do I have the control that is needed to conduct this kind of search? Do I have the proper safety/tactical equipment I need? 

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, you might be asking for a trouble and should rethink if you and your dog are ready for this kind of search. 

Armed Suspects

Some of you may be thinking, “Why would I use my dog to search for an armed suspect?” My response is, “Why wouldn’t you use your dog?” We use dogs to search for armed or possibly armed suspects in patrol operation all the time.   

I don’t use my dog as the first response to an armed situation by sending my dog on a suicide mission. But after everything has failed to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion, such as: negotiations, K9 announcements, throw phones, robots, gas, flash bangs and even deadly force, and the decision has been made to start the search, instead of sending a human into harm’s way first, why not send a properly trained police dog to search first and clear the way for patrol officer and SWAT? 

It may sound cold and heartless, but if the dog is hurt or killed while conducting the search, the dog has done its job by locating the suspect. I know it sounds insensitive, but as much as I love and care for my police dog, he is a tool and can be replaced. As far as I’m concerned, neither my brother or sister officer nor myself are replaceable. 

I would hate to be the person who contacted my wife to inform her there was a police dog available to search for the suspect, but the department did not want the dog injured, so they sent your husband and his team into the location first and they were injured or killed.  How would that sound in a civil lawsuit?

Overwhelming Versus Excessive Force

In a situation where an armed suspect is in the open and confronting the police, a police dog may not be the appropriate or your first line of attack. This does not mean you may not eventually use the dog in this situation, but only after every effort has been exhausted to have the suspect surrender peacefully and comply with your orders.

When it is finally time for officers to take action, why not send the dog in conjunction with multiple less-lethal options such as: multiple bean bag rounds, pepper ball, flash bangs, gas and even 37mm or 40mm less-lethal round? By using overwhelming force in conjunction with a K9, this gives the dog a better chance of survival in confronting armed suspects one on one.

This as an Overwhelming Force Option. Is overwhelming force and excessive force the same thing? The answer is no. Overwhelming force is using reasonable and necessary multiple less-lethal force options to affect the arrest in what might be close to a deadly force situation.

Briefing Training

Handlers should be giving some type of K9 briefing training at least once a month if not more. It doesn’t have to be a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation. You will be surprised how much information you can talk about in a three- to five-minute presentation. 

You can cover such topics as setting up perimeters to help increase your success rate in finding the suspect, K9 search tactics during a building or area search, tactical tracking formations for patrol officer with your dog, arrest techniques, felony traffic stops, and what you expect the back-up officers to do and what they can expect from you.   

Another way to have briefing training is to debrief K9 deployments that occurred during your previous shift so everyone can learn from the situation. It can also bring up good training points for your next K9 briefing training. When you are done with your briefing training, make sure you document in your train logs what topic you covered, who was there, and what occurred. 

Brad Smith retired from the West Covina, Calif. Police after 30 years of service. He was a K9 handler and trainer for 25 years and a SWAT dog handler for 18 years. Smith designed and implemented a K9 SWAT & K9 Patrol Tactical School called SKIDDS and CATS www.skidds.com. He can be reached at Topdogwck1@aol.com.

Published in Tactical Response, Mar/Apr 2013

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