The best from man's best friend

     Field deployable electronic sensors or instruments can't top dogs, which have been increasingly in demand since 9/11.

     "Canines are still our best detection technology," says Kenneth Furton, Ph.D., who's been an analytical chemist for about 20 years and worked with detector dogs for about 15 years.

     For the foreseeable future, he says detector dog teams will remain one of the best tools available for contraband interdiction and homeland security.

     Best practice guidelines and a bill to mandate uniform standards set out to make the best even better.

     The reliability of detector dogs was increasingly under attack about the same time that the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal detector Guidelines (SWGDOG), co-chaired by Furton, was forming in 2003. At that time, peer-reviewed research was limited and best practices for the certification of teams were lacking, according to SWGDOG.

Best practice guidelines
     The vision of SWGDOG is to enhance the performance of detector dog teams using best practice guidelines. The 55 SWGDOG members, with local, state, national or international representation, also recommend best approaches to the use of detector dogs with electronic detection devices (orthogonal detectors). The combination of canine teams and instruments maximizes detection capabilities, Furton adds.

     While SWGDOG has put together consensus-based best practices for most of the police canine industry, it is not working on best practices for patrol dogs at this time.

     So far, SWGDOG has published seven guidelines focusing on terminology, general guidelines, selection of serviceable dogs, kenneling and health care, selection of handlers, evidence presentation in court, and research and technology. The guidelines are available on the Web site ( free of charge and published in Forensic Science Communications. Additional guidelines specific for human scent and substance detector dogs are expected to be published this year. Ultimately all guidelines will be collected in a book. The guidelines are living documents and will be updated based on recommendations by the community and SWGDOG members, and revised at least every two years, says Furton, a professor and associate dean at Florida International University (FIU).

     The continuous improvement process for the guidelines starts by obtaining feedback from practitioners and various other stakeholders.

     "The only way this process can be successful is to get feedback from the community because ultimately they are the ones who are going to be impacted to the greatest extent," says Furton, who is the founding director of the International Forensic Research Institute at FIU. "Even though we're not doing certifications, when you publish best practice guidelines, there will be increasing expectations for teams and agencies to follow best practices. It's very reassuring to see such a response."

     Comments generated from the Web site are shared with subcommittee chairs as well as the executive board, and every comment is considered at the membership meeting. If a document ends up being drastically revised, it is sent back out for public comment for another two-month period.

     At every step in the workflow process, there must be a three-fourths vote of the 55 members and a unanimous executive board vote to move a document to the next step.

     Furton emphasizes that while SWGDOG provides guidelines, it does not issue mandates, nor does it specify how teams should train. Just as there are many different ways to put together instruments that have similar detection capabilities, he says there are many different ways to train excellent detection teams.

     "In the end, it's best to talk about how the dog performs rather than the best way to train the dog," he says.

     A SWGDOG presentation slide explains: "The bottom line is that you will find outstanding detector dogs of every possible combination of sex, breed, color, size, temperament, training length, reward type, reward system, alert used, search method and aids employed.

     "The focus, in the end, should be on how a team performs after initial training, during documented maintenance training and upon annual re-certifications following consensus best practices to allow comparison with other teams."

     The ultimate goal is that organizations will adopt the consensus-based guidelines and continue to follow them so the overall performance of detector dogs will be improved nationwide and internationally, Furton says. And not only will their performance improve, their reliability and courtroom acceptance will improve as well.

     SWGDOG is funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The work of other working groups, typically funded by either the NIJ or the FBI, has led to the establishment of national accreditation bodies.

     The same could happen with SWGDOG. Other steps of the continuous process then would include:

  • Independent body accredits certificate-granting agencies/organizations whose own certification guidelines meet or exceed consensus best practices.
  • Accredited certificate-granting agencies/organizations carry out unbiased certifications using reliable source of odor samples/proficiency tests and continue to issue their own certificates.
  • Annual recertifications are issued.

     Whether or not national accreditation based on the guidelines will happen in canine remains to be seen.

Uniform canine standards
     Earlier this year, the Canine Detection Improvement Act of 2007 was introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), ranking member, and Rep. Chris Carney (D-PA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight joined with Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) and Ranking Member Peter T. King (R-NY).

     The Canine Detection Improvement Act establishes standards for canine detection teams as well as an accreditation process "to assure federal, state, local and tribal authorities that the dog they look to rely on to help defend the homeland can get the job done." It also addresses the shortage of trained canine detection teams.

     "This law will build upon the success of SWGDOG in order to ensure the proper standards for voluntary certification are applied and maintained," Carney said in a statement introducing the bill.

     The establishment of an accreditation board would ensure proper certification standards. The board would consist of experts in the field of canine training and explosives detection from federal and state agencies, universities, and other research organizations and the private sector, and be modeled after SWGDOG's executive board.

     The board would also maintain a public list of accredited entities upon which other agencies, federal, state and local can rely on for qualified canines. "The aim of this board is to reduce misrepresentative, fraudulent or otherwise improper certification of dogs and their training organizations, but ultimately the board will ensure public safety and the safety of law enforcement," Carney said.

     He noted that since 9/11, there have not been enough trained dogs to meet the demand for explosive detection and there have been fraudulent operations and inadequately trained canines and canine handlers have been used. Carney gave the example of a case in which a Virginia man was hired to protect several government buildings. In multiple tests his dogs failed to detect 50 pounds of dynamite, 50 pounds of TNT, or 15 pounds of C4.

     The bill directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to coordinate all training programs within the department, including research and development of new canine training methods.

     Section 2002 of the bill directs the Secretary to increase domestically bred canines used by the department, and encourages the use of universities, private and non-profit organizations to accomplish this. The section also directs the Secretary to work with public and private entities to not only encourage the use of domestic-bred canines, but to consolidate canine procurement wherever possible to reduce cost.

     The following section, Section 2003, is a grant program to further encourage development and growth of canine breeds best suited for detection.

     In summary, Ranking Member King said in a press release, "Properly trained dogs have more flexibility than technology in their ability to deter and detect threats to our homeland. Our legislation will ensure that this important homeland security tool receives the support and coordination necessary to continue the program's success."

Tactics for survival in police canine
     More than a dozen states have created their own standards for training, testing and certification. In other states, agencies typically choose standards from one of these states or an association, such as the National Police Canine Association (NPCA), the North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA), or the U.S. Police Canine Association (USPCA).

     "Once we have a standard, we train to the standard," says Terry Fleck, Ed.D., a SWGDOG member who served as a Deputy Sheriff II and canine handler from South Lake Tahoe, California, before retiring. "And once we train to the standard, we certify to the standard."

     Common among the standard-setting 14 states and associations is yearly certification.

     Training is essential for a successful canine team (dog and handler). The majority of canine teams train a minimum of 16 hours per month, or four hours a week on average. Fleck, who has a doctor of education degree in criminal justice, has polled about 17,000 canine personnel (handlers, supervisors and administrators) and found that 98 to 99 percent of them abide by this U.S. canine industry practice, which is corroborated and endorsed by canine associations.

     A canine handler and trainer for 24 years, Fleck has a unique perspective on training. He teaches students not only how to stay alive in a tactical situation but how to survive a lawsuit for excessive force that may follow two to three years later.

     He outlines three components of a successful canine training program:

  • Good dog training. When working with their dogs, police handlers today use training methods that are more positive and less stressful. Dogs are rewarded with toys or food, not punished.

     "Historically, we're pretty good at dog training," Fleck says. "We've learned well from the Europeans. We have evolved to a more operant conditioning style of training. There's always room for improvement, but I think we're doing a much better job with dog training."

  • Handler tactical training. Today there is more emphasis on tactical, or scenario-based, training.

     "As a general rule of thumb, we're not good at handler tactical training," Fleck says. "We're getting better but we have a long road to go. Historically when we taught canine handlers dog training, we inadvertently stripped them of their officer safety skills. We taught handlers to follow their dogs, which violated two basic principles in law enforcement: maintain your cover and contact/cover. You can't maintain your cover if you're following your dog, and you aren't letting one officer be the contact and another officer cover that officer for threats. In maybe the last 10 years or so, we've gotten better at including good officer safety skills, such as maintaining cover, good contact/cover, and the list goes on. Tactical training for dog handlers still needs to improve."

     USPCA President James Matarese also emphasizes that handlers and dogs must train to react to situations they would experience on patrol.

     "Once a dog sees something, he's comfortable with it, and the more we can expose the dogs to in training, the easier it is for the handler and dog to work on the street," he says.

  •      Legality training. Equally as important as good dog training and good handler tactical training is for an officer to know what he can or cannot do with the tool he's just been given, says Fleck, who teaches Canine Legal Update and Opinions Seminars in addition to several tactical seminars.  "Historically, we've been deficient with that," he says. "We're getting a little better, but I still don't see many classes out there to teach the canine handler what he can and cannot do."

     He suggests case law should be included as part of basic training and then included in training every two years. Fleck offers legal updates on his Web site but says he's found that officers learn best in a one-to-one seminar-type environment.

     By tracking federal case law, canine handlers can have a good understanding of what can and cannot be done with police dogs. While states are consistent with patrol dog issues, some states are more restrictive in the area of contraband detection, Fleck says. Most handlers have been made aware of that, he says.

     "A handler must survive two critical events potentially in his canine career," he says. "There's a tactical deployment with his dog as use of force, typically coupled with another use of force, either less lethal or deadly. The handler and the dog need to be able to survive that. Then there's the unfortunate legal aftermath. The handler must walk away from both in a state of well being. It's imperative that handlers understand that. It's not good enough to win in the tactical arena. I've known many a canine handler that have been absolutely devastated by the legal aftermath, which can lead to divorce, alcoholism and other problems. Tactical and legal training are necessary to survive."

     Funding for training usually doesn't come easy. Matarese points out that USPCA has a foundation that can assist USPCA regions with training funds.

First aid training for K-9 handlers
     A board-certified veterinary surgeon and police canine handler says basic first aid training should be mandatory for everyone who handles a canine, whether a bomb dog, accelerant dog, search and rescue dog or patrol dog.

     "They all get hurt in the line of duty, and it's just a shame when we lose a dog to something that we could have prevented," says Dr. Paul McNamara, who is a special deputy with Schenectady County Sheriff's Office in New York.

     McNamara would like to see refresher, recertification first aid courses every two to three years. He says there are several reasons why first aid training is important.

     Because police canines are a tremendous asset to the community, he says it's essential that they are healthy so they can perform their tasks, McNamara says. They are worth tens of thousands of dollars, officers invest many hours training with them and they perform a very vital function, he adds.

     "Secondly, from a veterinarian's perspective, these dogs don't volunteer for these jobs," he says. "They don't request duty. They are assigned this task. If we're going to make an animal do something, I think we have an ethical obligation to take care of them.

     "Lastly, police canines are placed in dangerous situations. Like police officers, police canines are put in dangerous situations where they can be shot or hurt. They have the same risks, on top of being an athlete, on top of the risks of being a dog. We put them into circumstances that are sometimes deemed too dangerous to a put a person in. If we're going to ask them to do things that are very dangerous, I think we have a responsibility to make sure we can take care of them if they get injured."

     In 2001, McNamara founded Organization for Dogs in Need (ODIN's Fund) to help ensure the health and safety of working dogs by providing K-9 first aid training courses and first aid kits to handlers throughout the nation. In his first aid courses, he wants handlers to learn how to pick up on subtle changes with their dogs so they can be proactive in their care.

     He talks about specific conditions and how to take care of specific problems, but even if handlers forget specifically what to do, he says what's important is recognizing when something is wrong with their partner. For example, he says something may be wrong when a dog doesn't sit as quickly as he should. There may be a behavioral issue or evidence of arthritis. Or, in another example, a dog acting differently in the back of a cruiser may be starting to overheat.

     Some first aid classes show police officers how to do minor surgery and put in IV catheters. McNamara doesn't think that's very realistic. He doesn't teach handlers to be paramedics or veterinarians. A handler likely will never have to do minor surgery, and to do something like that well, requires practice, he says. McNamara would rather have handlers use the time to transport their canine to a good veterinary facility.

     Not all vets know what to do when a police dog gets injured.

     "Many vets don't truly appreciate the difference between a working dog and a regular pet," he says.

     Police dogs can get into things that other pets typically don't. A narcotic detector dog could come into contact with illicit drugs, and it's uncommon for a veterinarian to be trained in how to deal with illicit drugs.

     "Also, most vets don't deal with gunshots or stabbings," says McNamara, who also served on an emergency working group with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that looked at anthrax exposure for service canines.

     More and more veterinarians are offering first aid training, says McNamara, who is a member of USPCA and NAPWDA. He advises a good trainer should have a familiarity with law enforcement canine, stay contemporary and have the desire to share knowledge.

     McNamara does not charge for his class.

     "My biggest concern is that there would be a handler out there that has a problem with his dog but he wasn't able to render aid because he wasn't trained, because he couldn't afford the class."

     His first aid class is offered on an as-needed basis. A busy small animal surgeon in a busy practice, he does the classes in his off time, and often for larger groups or associations.

     "I'm amazed that this little thing I created 10 years ago to basically help a friend has become a really great thing," he says. "I'm so proud of my little nonprofit because it's been able to positively impact so many people."

     When McNamara became a vet, he wanted to have the opportunity to have a child come up to him and say, "Thanks for saving my dog's life."

     And while that has happened, he's also had police officers come up to him and say, "Because of what you taught me, my partner's alive today." That, he says, is the most awesome compliment he's ever been given.

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer and editor specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at