Four Legs, a Tail and Lots of Heart

If you read a classified ad that said: "Wanted: Someone who is healthy, calm, friendly, playful, loyal, loves to work for small rewards, capable of dealing with new situations and willing to accept a challenge" — would you qualify?

Every good K-9 would. These animals are involved in a wide array of police and security applications around the world. "They are used for narcotic, explosive and cadaver detection; criminal apprehension; and tracking," explains Dondi Hydrick, director of operations at Cross Creek Training Academy in Edgefield, South Carolina. "However, there are other areas they are being used in as well, such as finding persons hidden in trucks, boxes, etc. who are attempting to gain access to secure and restricted locations. Dogs can detect mines, guard border crossings, and identify evidence and suspects."

Jim Parks, co-owner and director of Global Training Academy Inc. in Somerset, Texas, agrees. "Dogs are versatile police helpers. Some do patrol work, where the dog is attack-trained and assists in apprehensions, suspect control and escort, and other related areas," he says. "They are good for bomb, chemical and drug detection; tracking both suspects and lost persons; and finding real and counterfeit money, land mines, people hiding, weapons, buried bodies or fire igniters/accelerants in arson cases."

Selecting a dog

Rudy Drexler, owner of Rudy Drexler's School for Dogs Inc., located in Elkhart, Indiana, has been finding and training dogs (and pot-bellied pigs) for more than 42 years. He and the other dog trainers get their animals primarily from European suppliers who breed them for working characteristics and their temperaments.

All three trainers say German shepherds and Belgian malinois are well-suited for patrol work, and are readily available. Other breeds Drexler has had success with include rottweilers, giant schnauzers, Bouvier des Flanders and Doberman pinschers. When it comes to special scenting (detection) dogs, the breed list is longer: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, beagles, American and English cocker spaniels, flat-coated retrievers, and standard poodles.

"For detection work, virtually any breed that is highly social, and has super prey and hunting drives will work," Hydrick points out.

Both male and female dogs make good police K-9s, but Drexler has a preference for spayed females. "They're more devoted, just as tough and can do everything a male dog does, plus you don't have a problem if you cross the track of another female dog in heat," he says.

More important than breed or sex are the dog's traits and characteristics. Here's where that wanted list comes in.

"First, all the dogs must be social with people of all ages, races and sexes, as well as non-animal aggressive," Hydrick explains. "They must be willing to protect their handlers and bite a person, yet be social otherwise. The dogs must be super crazy about chasing and playing with a ball, PVC pipe and a tug toy. This shows their prey drive — the innate desire to chase after something moving. The dogs also must have a very high degree of hunt drive — a desire to seek something it has an association with — using its nose more so than its eyes."

Adaptability to any type of surface or environment a dog might encounter during its working life also is important. "The dog must not be afraid of strange surfaces to walk on, like open stairs, slippery floors or grating," he says. "You want it to jump in and out of vehicles of all sizes; go into tight, dark or high places; and enter water (creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes). The dog also must not be shy or afraid of loud noises, such as gunfire, traffic, sirens and more."

Another important ingredient in a K-9 is good overall health, with good to excellent hips, elbows, spine, internal organs and teeth.

Parks agrees. "We want dogs to actively hunt for a hard rubber Kong, PVC pipes, towel or ball, which are used as a reward for finding whatever they are trained to find," he explains. "They must be unafraid of new situations. The young dog should show a high drive for wanting to work and really like the game — the desire to hunt for his or her reward."

Training a K-9

Because dogs are used for so many types of police and security work, the training period varies by specialty.

"It depends upon the type of training you wish to do with the dog, as well as the trainer, his skill level and methods employed," Hydrick says. "No two trainers train the same way for every task, so this time frame will vary from two to 12 weeks, or sometimes longer. It also depends on the types of training you are putting into the dog, and the dog itself."

Drug and patrol dogs usually require eight to 10 weeks of training, but "specialized training for land mine dogs takes longer," Parks points out, "and it's normally done in the country where the dog will work. The thing that drives training time is what one expects the dog to do."

He notes that some training facilities take a green dog (untrained) and match it with a green handler and put them through school together. "Basically, the green handler is training the green dog," Parks says. "Doing it that way, the time to train a drug dog, for instance, can be as much as 16 weeks."

When departments do their own dog and handler training, there are many products on the market to help and many suppliers. Kevin Howard, general manager for Ray Allen Manufacturing Co. offers some advice in making a good selection.

"There are two factors which are most important in the purchase of training equipment: the quality of the equipment and knowledge of the sales staff to assure the right product is sold for the right job," he says. "So much of the K-9 training process has inherent dangers. After all, a lot of the training involves people being bitten by dogs. So, if the protection equipment is of poor quality or workmanship, injuries can occur. Along with that, if the equipment is not used in the manner in which it was designed, injury or a failed training scenario may occur."

Howard reminds departments to consider customer service, availability and price when selecting K-9 training and support equipment. As to price, "There's an old adage that states 'You get what you pay for!,' and in K-9 training equipment, that is so true," he notes. "Quality equipment is expensive, but the protection it affords and its useful life makes the purchase price worth it. When it comes to training K-9s, proper training and decoy protection has tremendous value."

Bruce Koffler, director of Securesearch Inc., agrees a supplier's experience and knowledge are very important. His company offers explosive and pseudo-drug simulant marking pens which deposit a trace sample used in dog training. "For training products, make sure the manufacturer/supplier is reputable and has an established history with the products, checked by several references," he advises.

"For both drugs and explosives, I would suggest dogs be trained and tested on trace and bulk amounts of drugs and explosives, whenever possible. Training with breakdown (chemical deterioration) or precursor products (chemicals used in manufacture or intermediate stages) or both, also would be a good idea, as long as the products are not toxic to the canine."

Handlers have lots to learn

"Our dogs come to us with some training done in their country of origin, so the handler needs to know about 15 commands in the language the dog is used to," Drexler says. "We send handlers a language/command tape three weeks before they arrive for training with us."

Handler lessons include dog health and hygiene, proper foods and nutrition, reward techniques, obedience matters and the complexity of search situations. Each school considered for training will give a course list corresponding to the types of work a dog is to perform.

"If someone has never worked with a dog, we tell them things they might not have thought about," Drexler explains. "For instance, the handler can't smoke or have nicotine on his hands or the dog will hit on ashtrays. Perfume or aftershave lotion will interfere with scents used on the training aids. There's a proper way to load a dog into vehicles so you don't crush the tails. These little things can be as important to overall success as obedience training on and off leash, building search, scouting, handler protection, etc. At our school, we make the handlers take a written test. If they don't achieve 70 percent, they're not certified."

Some outside (not departmental) trainers only cover the bare basics in their handler's courses, but the three cited here do more. "We cover every aspect of how and why a dog does what he does, and the legal aspects of why the handler must do things a certain way," Hydrick says. "We also spend a great deal of time with each handler on real-world exercises, so that he knows what the dog will do, when it will act and how well the dog will do it."

Becoming a team

Most dogs and handlers "click" very fast. "This rapport between handler and dog can occur in a couple of days," Parks says. "In our experience it normally takes on the order of six to 12 months before the team (dog and handler) are really up and running at a high level. The handler knows from the training received with the dog that the dog can do its job, but it's not until the dog makes a number of finds or arrests that the handler really begins to trust the dog. As the trust builds, the performance level goes up."

Hydrick adds, "The amount of time for a dog and handler team to bond with one another depends on the dog. It's the dog that has to decide this person is someone he'll work for. On average, this takes two to four weeks."

Key to the bonding process is the handler being the one person that meets all of the dog's needs. "The handler must be the one to feed and water the dog, to clean its kennel, spend time with the dog to meet its mental and emotional needs," he says.

Consider legal issues

Drexler says if a dog is about three years old when matched with a handler, that person can expect to get seven to eight years of service from the dog. During that period, he certifies the dog and handler yearly. "It's for court purposes, so I can testify that the dog is still functioning well. I also video each dog when it leaves our facilities."

Hydrick's Cross Creek Training Academy includes class sections on case law, key court cases and admissibility of evidence. He points out, "When selecting a trainer or training facility, find out if you receive training in the legal aspects of using the dog, as well as the trainer's experience with police dogs on the street. Also, if the trainer supplies the dog, find out if the trainer is willing to come to court and testify on your behalf about the training of the dog and you, the handler."

He gives other points to consider when choosing a dog supplier and trainer, whether it's for a departmental trainer or K-9 handlers:

  • the experience level of the trainer and where he received training,
  • references from other departments,
  • type of training aids used,
  • guarantees of the dog's health and workability,
  • numbers of dogs and handlers in training at the same time,
  • amount of training a dog receives before beginning,
  • how post-training problems are handled,
  • facilities large enough and conductive to learning,
  • extra charges for remedial training and
  • availability for assistance and questions after training.