The best from man's best friend

Achieving optimum performance of detector dog teams and exploring tactics for survival in police canine

     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.

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