No matter where I travel in Canada, or in the United States, I hear working K9 Officers consistently making the same comments regarding the problems relating to their section. The first and foremost complaint of all is that of funding.
Second in line is how the section is administered. The focus of this article is to assist those in administrative positions to better understand the needs of their K9 teams. A better understanding will not only go a long ways towards improving the morale of your unit, it will also increase the performance of your teams.
When a department initiates a dog section it automatically increases its vulnerability to law suits. It only makes sense, when you are using resources such as dogs to make arrests, you are going to become susceptible. Your most major defense in this regard is to put yourself into a position where the quality of teams which you have on the street are of the highest caliber.
A major number of departments I have seen place their dog teams on the bottom of the priority list for funding, yet use their teams 24 hours a day. As a result, the officers learn to get by with equipment that is outdated, and are not given the opportunity to go on advanced training programs that would enhance their abilities. This lack of funding does not come as an intentional effort to keep K9 teams on a bare bones budget. Often it is due to the simple fact that the funding just isn't available. More often than not however it comes as a result of the administrations lack of understanding of the needs and potentials of their dog section.
Many sections, particularly the departments who have recently started K9 programs, are run by officers who have no previous background or experience with K9 teams. When the officers try to obtain funding for training or a particular training aid, the requests are often denied simply because the officer in charge feels there is a greater need for the funding elsewhere, or because he is under a misconception of what the needs of the unit are. Too often there is no real communication between the members of the unit and the administrator. Many officers who read this article may feel that these types of things do not occur.
Let me give you some examples of which I have personal knowledge.
* An officer from a small town approaches his chief and puts together a proposal for a dog section. He is given no funding, however is permitted to bring his own dog to work.
He requests permission to attend a formal training program, which is denied. He ends up training his service dog by reading books, and going to seminars and training schools while on his holidays.
* A city with over 10 dog teams issues basic equipment to its handlers, and provides only one agitation sleeve for the entire section, no bite suits or scratch pants. Conversely, I have seen a dog section with as little as 4 dog teams properly equipped with every imaginable training sleeve, bodysuits and scratch pants.
* Recently a very large department, in an area where the summers are hot and humid, denied its dog section a request for air conditioned dog cars. Somewhere the administration had come up with an old belief that the air conditioning would dry out the dogs nose and interfere with its ability to track. The request was denied. They obviously did not know, or chose not to find out that as long as the air conditioning is used properly, and the dog has an ample water supply available to him in the vehicle, that the air conditioning will have no affect on his track- ing abilities. In fact a dog in a hot environment will perform in a far superior manner coming refreshed out of an air conditioned vehicle than it will coming out of a hot car, no matter how moist his nose is.
* In another department the choice of dog car and the type of compartment built for the cars was done without the input of the K9 handlers. Specific items had been requested, and ideas forwarded, but to no avail. The compartments were built in a manner which could injure the dog and had to be redone.
* Another department refuses to support its members who wish to join and participate in their national K9 association. This association is intended to assist departments and members to continually improve its abilities. By attending the seminars, workshops and competitions through these various state and national organizations, the handler learns new techniques from fellow handlers and experts who are brought in for these events. It can only benefit the department to support their members in participating.
* Many officers from various departments train with local dog clubs because their department will not provide training funds for quarries, special instructors, equipment or training time. This is very common.
These are only a few of the many examples of problems which arise as a result of a lack of understanding of K9 needs. Unfortunately this lack of knowledge and subsequent lack of support often result in lawsuits as a result of dog applications which result in bad or inappropriate bites. When these lawsuits start the department starts to place further restrictions on their handlers in an attempt to prevent further problems, with the results being an even more frustrated section with poorer production.
All is not lost however, there is an up side to all of this. We can turn this around, and it does not take copious amounts of funding to do so, although it may be necessary to open the purse strings a bit for the initial outlay. If done properly the section can become a powerful PR tool, with high morale and much success. With proper direction, the potential for law suits can decrease dramatically. If you are responsible for the administration of a K9 Unit there are a few things which will give you true insight of what your section needs. Take advantage of the many associations which you can join. In Canada there is the Canadian Police Canine Association. In the United States many of the individual states have their own association, such as the Oregon State Police K9 Association. There is also a national organization, the USPCA. Many of these organizations produce periodicals which include letters from K9 handlers, new techniques of training, updates on case law relating to dog applications, as well as medical tips on dogs. The scope of articles contained in these magazines is unlimited. One of the better periodicals available is the "Quarterly" which is put out by the Canadian Association. The purposes of these associations are as follows:
* To publish magazines relating to K9
* Provide resource material to K9 sections and departments
* Present seminars
* Provide research for statistic gathering
* Aid police departments in setting up K9 programs
* Assist with police dog trials
I would encourage any officer responsible for a dog section and any other officers that are in some way involved to join one or more of these associations and read the available publications. This initial step will allow you to gain a better understanding of the handlers and their requirements, and will keep you updated on any new products or ideas which you may be able to apply to your individual needs. There are many K9 handlers and administrators with departments that have been operating units for many years. Take an opportunity where ever possible to ride with the K9 handlers from these various departments, and visit the offi- cers responsible for running the section. Ensure you go to a few different departments to give you a better variety of ideas. After studying other organizations and how they operate, take an opportunity to ride with various K9 handlers from your own department. You will find that the way they operate on the street is a style unto itself. The reasons why they respond to calls the way they do, how they approach those calls and how they deploy the dogs will give you a better insight into your section. Not only will you learn what their needs are, you will also be showing your officers that you are taking a genuine interest in the section.
Handling a dog is more than just training as a team and then hitting the street. There is a real bonding process that takes place between the dog and handler. Many administrators overlook the fact that the dog not only becomes a working tool of the department, but also becomes the best friend of the handler, and an integral part of the handlers family. When dealing with decisions which relate to the animal you are often making decisions which affect the officer, his wife, and his children.
It is still the policy of some departments to rotate dogs to new handlers every couple of years. The reasons given usually relate to offering other officers an opportunity to rotate into an often sought after position that has few openings under normal circumstances. I would have to write a manual on K9 bonding and behavior language in order to assist in understanding precisely why this policy works against the departments best interests. I understand that in a large department the opportunity to enter into specialized sections is often limited, however there are reasons why a K9 unit in particular should be exempt from this type of policy.
* Although a team hits the street after a 12 to 16 week training program, it often takes the dog and handler up to 2 years before they are fully understanding of one anothers behavior patterns. At this point the full potential of the team starts to flourish. Between the 3rd and 4th year the team really starts to produce to its fullest as the bond between man and dog has reached a point where both understand exactly what is required of the other and each knows the others limitations. Should the dog be reassigned during any of this period of time, he is taken out of the family structure he started with, and placed into a new family structure where he must learn a whole new set of rules. Sure, the commands and work will be basically the same, however the new handler will react to situations entirely differently than the first, will have his own body language which the dog must learn to interpret, and will likely have a very different style of working the dog. To add to the stress on the animal, his new home will have new restrictions placed on him which may have been permitted in the first home. For example, in the first home he may have had the run of the house, however now in the new home he is constantly getting corrected for wandering into the living or family rooms. A small example, however only one of literally hundreds of new stresses placed on the animal when a change of handlers occurs.
* A handler can work very hard at training and bonding his dog, however only the handler that has a true loving relationship with the dog will perform with maximum results. No handler that I know of will permit himself to become that close to his partner if he knows that the dog will be taken away from him and given to someone else a few years down the road. The dog gets treated more like a machine than a living being, and there is added stress to the officer as he has to prepare for the time when he must give up his partner and also explain to his children the reasons why.
* The most productive team is a team that is matched for the working life of the dog. This is a proven fact. If you are going to rotate your manpower, rotate your members through at the completion of a complete tour by the dog. Always start a fresh handler with a fresh dog. Keep in mind that if you are not compelled to move your manpower through the section, you are also wise to re-assign an experienced handler a new dog after his previous dog has retired. The knowledge and expertise derived from his years of experience will be well placed if he is assigned a new dog.
When deciding on the types of vehicles to use for your section, don't simply decide on a style of vehicle because you think its what is required. Talk to your men and ask them what style of vehicle they require for their needs. You might find the answers surprising. Where at all possible assign a vehicle to each handler. This is done to prevent problems occurring where one dog gets sick, and other dogs using the same car come down with the same disease. An incident such as this occurred in a department in Canada, and even though the car had been thoroughly scrubbed between uses, every dog in the section became violently ill. Even after taking the vehicle apart and scrubbing it the problem wasn't solved. The disease was of such a nature that the department was months without a full capacity dog section and almost lost its entire dog section. Luckily none of the animals died, however the possibility of this occurring was extremely high. An advantage of assigning cars to members is that they will be able to design the interior to their own needs, and the vehicles will last many more years in service as the officers will have a tendency to take more care of the unit.
* When sitting down to do a budget, take your officers in and ask them what associations they would like to belong to and what seminars, courses or competitions they would like to attend. They must realize that maybe only one or two members may be accorded the opportunity to attend a seminar each year, however the opportunities can be rotated year to year, and the information they bring back to the rest of the section can be the starting point to an increasingly progressive section. Find out what items of training equipment they feel they require. Prioritize all requests and go after the most needed items first, even if they may be more expensive. Remember that once you have purchased most of your equipment, you will not have to replenish most of it for years to come. For example, training sleeves will last for years. All you will have to purchase is the exterior sleeve covers each time one wears out, at about 1/6 the cost of a sleeve.
* Do not expect to get a good police working dog for nothing. I can tell you that you must be prepared to spend at least $5000.00 to purchase an animal which is of the quality required to pass the regimens of police training. Certainly you might get the odd K9 that will cost little or nothing, but there is always a reason why that dog is being donated or sold cheaply. It is a rare breeder that will donate his best stock to anyone, including a police department. What we are competing against are many of the civilian dog sportclubs who have members that pay thousands of dollars for a dog of high caliber. The dogs are here and available, but if you are not willing to purchase them, there are many civilians out there who will. From personal experience, I have learned that it is better to spend the money up front on a high quality animal which has a written guarantee from the breeder.
Getting a dog for little or no cash outlay, and then spending thousands of dollars on extra training costs attempting to bring the dog up to standard, or finding that the dog is incapable of passing the program partway through the course is not cost effective.
More money is spent when you have to replace the animal than you ever would, had you spent money on a good dog in the first place. If you spend what seems to be a lot of money in the beginning, you will be saving money and frustration in the long run.
* Set a minimum standard for your department dog teams. If your state or province does not have a standard which has to be met annually, then set a minimum standard for yourself. Any major K9 unit should have some form of minimum standard. If you do not have one, then simply contact a few state agencies and get them to send you a copy of one. Your dog teams should be required to meet a minimum standard annually. If they are not meeting the standard then they should be replaced. To assist them in meeting the standard however, you will be required to pay for added training aids, quarry fees and special instructors where needed. The cost of this is well spent when you consider that it will result in a dog team that is highly trained and well controlled. The likelihood of lawsuits from having inadequately trained teams on the street will be decreased.
Remember that the initial outlay for some items may seem expensive, however once you are fully equipped it will only be a matter of replacing some smaller items due to normal use. If you need kennel facilities, bathing facilities or other large cost items, prioritize them and defer them to next years budget. You do not have to do it all at once.
By taking the time to study other departments, riding with your own officers and meeting with them regularly you will be showing them that you care. Dog handlers statistically get involved in more violent confrontations on the street than any other member due to the type of work they do.
They are more likely to come across armed offenders who have left crime scenes, and get called to every violent confrontation that patrol needs K9 assistance at. They work more night shifts than most members, do more call outs from home, and spend literally hundreds of off duty hours caring for and training with their K9 partners. K9 handlers are a breed unto themselves, and it takes a special type of administrator to work with them. You will find no greater group of dedicated officers if you give them a little time and support. Do yourself a favor, sit down and have a good talk with each member of your section. You will be amazed what you will learn, and it will do your section and your department a world of good.