A successful K9 program can be a huge asset.
Managing Successful K9 Teams
By: Steve Dunham
Properly selected and trained K9 teams are an invaluable asset to law enforcement. The mere presence of a K9 team can deter crime and reduce the likelihood of use of force by officers. A dog’s excellent scenting ability can quickly locate the presence of contraband, evidence, concealed suspects, or missing endangered persons. Through asset forfeiture, my dogs have paid for themselves many times over.
Some law enforcement agencies start and end K9 programs that could have been – should have been – very successful. In order for a K9 program to be successful there are certain criteria which must be present. They are: 1) proper handler selection, 2) proper K9 selection, 3) selecting the right trainer for your program, and 4) provide adequate supervision and support for your teams.
Proper Handler Selection
Proper handler selection is one of the most critical tasks that will determine the long term success or lack thereof with your program. Selecting a good handler prospect may be the most difficult portion when establishing or adding a K9 handler position.
There are certain “perks” officers receive when assigned as a K9 handler. Some of these are a take home vehicle, extra compensation for care and maintenance of the animal, not having to work in patrol districts, not having to respond to certain types of calls. Many very good officers and prospective handlers are attracted to the position for the wrong reasons and sometimes administrators select these people to become K9 handlers. Handlers may be selected as a reward for years of service, for being a good officer, or for many other reasons that are not enough to ensure the long term success of a program.
When handlers are improperly selected, the teams almost never reach their potential. The program usually starts to suffer when the novelty wears off, which sometimes shows itself soon after the inception of the team. If a good candidate is not available, it may be better to put the addition on hold until the right person is ready.
To be a successful K9 handler, one requires a level of dedication that extends far beyond what any law enforcement agency could ever compensate. As almost all police service dogs in North America live at home with their handlers, this is a job that literally goes home with the handler every day, and dogs are a long term commitment. Most police service dogs are high energy animals that are not always the best house pets. And they shed a lot.
The ideal handler should have a genuine love for dogs and strong desire to work with them. The handler should be a leader, self-motivated, open minded, and patient; a person that makes sound decisions both on and off duty. Handlers should not have a history of questionable use of force incidents as they need to respect the rights of others and become experts in case law, staying current with the law as it evolves.
In addition to the above, some of the best handlers are those who have volunteered their off duty time to train with working dog teams, before becoming a handler themselves. These people, who participate because they enjoy it, usually understand the level of commitment needed to be successful.
Proper K9 Selection
When it comes to law enforcement, not all dogs are created equal. Police service dogs are frequently asked to perform tasks in environments that are very stressful. We must have dogs that possess strong nerves and drives, dogs that are not overly concerned about their own safety. These traits are genetic and the dog is born with them; no one can train this behavior into a dog.
A good training program is necessary for a team’s success, but good training alone is not enough. Your trainer should possess a strong working knowledge of K9 behavior and be able to select high-quality working dogs. Thorough selection tests show a trainer the strengths and weaknesses of the dog in question and if this dog will be a good candidate as a police service dog.
Selecting the Right Trainer
For agencies that do not have a trainer assigned to your unit, selecting a quality trainer is imperative. A good trainer will try to meet your needs, guarantee their work, and be able to provide references. Do your homework, inquire about the training, and ask how the trainer has addressed any training or other issues that have arisen after the team has left basic K9 training.
Meet with prospective trainers and have them perform a demonstration to show you what they have to offer. Trainers who deal in large volumes do not always provide the best quality service. There are large volume vendors / trainers who consistently provide high quality dogs and some who consistently provide dogs that possess inadequate traits to fulfill the function in which they are sold.
Quality is more important than quantity. Cost should not be the main factor when selecting a trainer. Prices should be fair, but should you sacrifice quality for the sole purpose of saving money, what you save now you may pay for later.
Adequate Supervision and Support
Selecting a K9 Supervisor may be as important to long term success as selecting the right handler. They have to believe in the program, support and promote the program. Supervisors should be involved with their handlers and make regular appearances during K9 maintenance training.
A K9 supervisor should be aware of his / her team’s strengths and weaknesses, ensuring the team has what they need and is making adequate progress. K9 supervisors should attend training workshops and also stay current on issues that will affect the unit. A “hands-on” approach to K9 team supervision can reduce liability and increase productivity.
Like learning a foreign language, a dog’s training is perishable. If skills are not practiced regularly, they will diminish. With all teams, handlers are going to make mistakes that will cause undesired results in K9 behavior. When addressed early, most of these mistakes are minor setbacks and can be fixed without much difficulty.
However, if these problems are not addressed, they can develop into bigger long term problems. Due to a lack of experience, new handlers may not initially recognize these problems and not know how to correctly remedy them. New handlers should attend weekly maintenance training with a trainer and experienced handlers. Teams should also be encouraged to attend workshops and advanced training on a regular basis.
If you follow these guidelines, you should experience the benefits of a successful K9 program, a program that will be an asset your agency will not ever want to work without.