K9s: Bombs, Drugs and Tracking
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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