K9s: Bombs, Drugs and Tracking

The Pinellas County, Fla. Sheriff’s Office works a jurisdiction of 280 square miles, with 486 deputies allotted to patrol duties and additional deputies assigned to corrections. Within the Patrol Operations, there are 12 dog-handler K9 teams. The training and socialization aspects of the Canine Unit begin with new dogs. Before the K9s come to the unit from the dealer, the unit’s general rule of thumb is to select dogs with little or no training. This allows the Canine Unit to train them to meet their own standards.

All of the dogs are selected based upon their even temperament and ability to interact with people in a positive manner. The handlers also test for particular drives or instincts needed to be a police K9. German shepherds are high-drive dogs, so the Canine Unit’s dogs are all German Shepherds. They will stay out three to five minutes longer looking for something compared to just a few sniffs and moving on.

Vendors handle German Shepherds bred in Germany or Holland. In Germany and other European countries, German Shepherds were bred for show competitions and money; the Canine Unit wants these dogs with a known bloodline for police work. The dogs, at $8,500 to $10,000 each, are chosen for their suitability for the work.

Deputies need to have served with the Sheriff’s Office for three years before they can try out to be a K9 handler, according to Sheriff’s Office Canine Unit policy. There also has to be a commitment to training, much like athletic preparation. For a bomb K9, success means being able to search for explosives in a variety of environments that might involve large areas such as motorcades, stadiums, large business, schools, and banks. Bomb K9 teams are trained to search for extended periods of time. They search extensively—up to 7,000 square feet at a time—until the “bomb” is found. Since 9/11, it is estimated that the number of bomb K9s has perhaps doubled nationwide.

Since K9 handlers operate in the field under conditions that are not directly supervised, they must make sound decisions on their own when on a track. A trait looked for in selected K9 dogs is that they don’t quit, but continue to search for an item long after other dogs have given up. This is the same trait looked for when selecting handlers—hard workers, high drive, motivated, and willing to put in the time.

The Canine Unit does not send new handlers and K9s to outside schools for their initial training. Rather, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Canine Unit conducts all of its own K9 schools—both patrol and detector—in-house using its own training program. The Canine Unit currently has a full-time trainer and an assistant trainer. These two deputies have over 30 years of combined experience in the training of police K9s. Typically, K9 teams from other agencies from the Tampa Bay region will attend Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office K9 schools based upon the needs of their agencies.

Canine Unit training includes a foundation in traffic stops, since a lot of what the K9 teams respond to are traffic stops. The training is conducted with the emergency lights and siren on. The dogs are excited, just like in real life, and don’t realize they are just training. Also part of this training involves currency scans, with the dog using its sense of smell to look for drug odors on the money.

Another important aspect of training is that it is done in a variety of different locations such as residences, schools and businesses. In schools, open stairways and slick floors are an issue that K9s address through training. Open footing situations such as grates or grated stairs present depth perception puzzles for the K9s. These are also addressed in training.

Drug dogs and bomb dogs often work in different environments. Bomb dogs might be involved with motorcades, sports events with large crowds, and fire trucks. Drug dogs are not normally around crowds. They generally work in smaller areas like houses, or they search motor vehicles. Drug K9s are trained to work around distractions such as bleach, coffee, animal odors, or cooking (items like potatoes, meat, and onions mean supper to him) to find the drugs for which he is looking. They learn to discriminate in dealing with the various odors.

Drug dogs often exceed their training in finding drugs in places like hidden compartments. An example of this is when a handler went to search one car on a car stop, and the dog pulled him away from that car and guided him to search the correct car. Handlers learn to trust their K9s.

A dog’s eyes are not as good as a human’s eyes. Dogs are reportedly colorblind, or have a different color perception, from humans. Humans do better with daytime vision, while K9s do better at night. Dogs have better wide angle vision, seeing with a greater field of vision than humans. Dog’s eyes are made for the hunt, so they see movement better.

German Shepherds, with their erect, large, multi-directional ears, pick up frequencies and sound from farther away than humans. After their sense of smell, their sense of hearing is their second greatest tracing tool. It boils down to the fact that humans are better at some things and dogs are better at others.


K9s in the Field with Patrol and SWAT

According to Sergeant Randy Corlett of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Canine Unit, it is easier to run behind a K9 as a handler if you are the one holding the leash. The dog is relying on his natural instincts that have been honed through training to locate suspects. The handler, through training and experience, is able to read the K9, which makes them an effective team.

Patrol deputies, when working with a K9 team, are positioned behind them if going on a search with the team, and these following officers must be in good physical shape to keep up. The dog tracks at a very quick pace, faster than humans can track. It’s off at a run when they are on the scent, and it continues at that pace.

The majority of the calls for service that the K9 teams respond to are patrol based, whether it is a burglary, robbery, or a suspect fleeing on foot from a deputy after committing a criminal act. K9s are honed through training to locate suspects. The Canine Unit asks that the sheriff’s patrol deputies set up a perimeter prior to the arrival of the K9 team in an effort to contain the suspect.

The Canine Unit’s rule of thumb is that the size of the perimeter depends upon the time that has elapsed after the bad guy was last seen. This time lapse is figured based on the bad guy running at a block a minute. Generally speaking, the wider the perimeter is set up, the better. The only exception is when deputies know for sure that the suspect is contained in a smaller area.

While patrol units are positioned on the perimeter, the Canine Unit asks that they turn on all of their emergency lights including spotlights and alley lights. The reason behind this is to give the suspect the impression that the entire shift is out on this perimeter, and he/she cannot escape.

When patrol units are on a perimeter, the Canine Unit also requires that the deputies stay in their car with the windows up. But if the K9 team comes into view of one of the perimeter units, the unit should turn off their lights and vehicle until the team is out of view. This makes it easier for the dog to search.

If a deputy gets into a foot chase after a suspect and loses sight of him, the K9 team wants the deputy to mark the spot where he last saw the suspect in lieu of walking around looking for him, because this contaminates the search area. The less contamination there is, the better the success rate of the K9 team.

Also, patrol deputies are asked to be specific when the K9 team arrives as to where the suspect was last seen, not where they think he went, because this wastes valuable time and energy. On an extended search where tracking has gone on for some time, a tag team system can be used, where another K9 team takes up the track.

In an effort to educate patrol deputies at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the Canine Unit conducts training with deputies that are in the sheriff’s field training program. The Canine Unit handlers also regularly attend read offs and squad meetings in effort to keep deputies educated. No matter how good the K9 team is, the handlers have to keep in mind that their success rate is dependent on the assistance of patrol deputies and a good perimeter. The perimeter locks the suspect down; if the suspect never stops running, the K9 team can never catch up. The idea behind setting up a perimeter is to get the bad guy to stop running.

There is a general protocol followed when members of the Canine Unit work with SWAT. In this case, typically a K9 team is used to cover the suspect’s avenue of escape, with the safety of the K9 team being the primary concern. K9 handlers provide input to the SWAT team leaders as to how they can best be deployed for K9 team effectiveness.

There is a difference in how SWAT and K9s move when searching for suspects. SWAT teams generally utilize slow and methodical techniques, while a K9 team’s method of searching is at a run. Generally speaking, K9 teams pick up the pace as they get closer to the suspect. To maximize the effectiveness of the K9 Team when partnered with a SWAT team, training needs to be conducted with both elements so they have a better understanding of each other’s capabilities.

The chances of catching a bad guy with a K9 team at a scene is about two-thirds greater than without a K9 team, even when the bad guy is gone before the K9 team’s arrival. K9s have so much drive, they will keep their search going, hunting until the drugs (or bombs) are found, and the K9 gets his reward—his toy.


Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, Ohio Police Department and a frequent contributor to

Tactical Response. Mickey Davis is a California-based writer and author.

Published in Tactical Response, Mar/Apr 2014

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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