Dressed to the (ca)nines

In September of 2010 Jeff LaLonde of the Buena Vista Police Department in Saginaw, Mich., and Zeus, his K-9 partner, were hot on a track. It began when a neighboring jurisdiction called in a home invasion. As they learned the premises was overflowing with stolen firearms, the suspects fled through the house and out the back.

LaLonde and Zeus began by clearing the building. “Before you send an officer into something like that, you send a dog. The dog is a tool; that’s what he’s trained to do,” says LaLonde. “Right away … I grabbed a bulletproof vest and sent the dog in.” After the building was cleared, LaLonde hooked up a 30-foot tracking line on Zeus and the two began what would become four hours of arduous tracking through cornfields and woods. The temperature rose from 75 to a grueling 95 degrees plus humidity. Finally, while combing the 4 by 4 square mile wood lot, a Saginaw City Police K-9 handler, Officer Wenzell and his dog Kilo joined in.

“We ended up leap frogging for those four hours,” recalls LaLonde. One team would track for 10 to 15 minutes, that way each dog could have a break and some water over the course of the afternoon. Both dogs wore bulletproof vests. “When I got done I was exhausted and the dog was exhausted — he slept for several days,” says LaLonde. “We were done; the track and conditions had pushed us to our limits.”

The suspects were apprehended due to a solid perimeter by assisting officers from multiple agencies throughout Saginaw County.

Wandering through wild areas, K-9 handlers are often left exposed. In this case, LaLonde was at a distinct disadvantage: two backup officers trailed behind him while he and Zeus tracked at the head of the party. “You’re multitasking, your backup guys are multitasking, the first shot that comes out, chances are it will be at the dog or the handler. I am point guy now on this team where, if somebody’s going to get hurt or shot, the national statistics say it’s going to be a K-9 handler or his K-9.”

But don’t think LaLonde wishes it were any other way. As stressful as it can be, LaLonde, currently in his third summer as a handler, says he’s never once complained about the capable partner beside him.

New options for equipping K-9s

Today agencies have more to consider besides leashes and collars when it comes to outfitting their four-legged units. Depending on the type of work these teams will primarily perform, whether that be narcotics (like Zeus), bomb detection or special operations, trainers might look at everything from dog-mounted video cameras to various heat protection systems and of course, ballistic protection gear. The differences in K-9 equipment now compared with the stuff of ten years ago are subtle, yet significant. Lighter materials can mean less fatigue on a track. Better organization means getting to work quicker. These are the types of features handlers will want to sniff out.

Some designers are beginning to look towards synthetics as a lighter alternative to leather leashes and harnesses. Matt Akenhead, product designer for his company Signature K-9 and Ray Allen, experiments with Ramtac MWD. He maintains MWD material works at half the weight of leather, is water-resistant, and will not abrade when dragged over rocks and dirt.

“Strength-wise it’s basically [stronger] than what leather is, or stronger than the overall handler capacity. From there it’s got a textured coating which feels like leather; it has some of the same traits as leather as it’s broken-in, but it stays tacky when wet.

“We use it for leashes and long lines, and it’s definitely becoming one of our more popular tracking line materials … and that’s because of the beating it takes,” says Akenhead.

Because the K-9 market is largely consumer-driven, Akenhead and other designers build the products that dogs and their handlers will use on the day-to-day. Another trend he’s seeing is that of modular harness systems. That is, one piece of equipment functioning in five or six different ways. Though he admits he still uses leather harnesses, Akenhead suggests leather harness were historically used for agitation work or tracking. There was typically one harness for patrol work, and yet another for detection. Now those functions can be interchangeable. Users can add-on different pieces, such as a chest plate, and the harness becomes a piece of equipment for agitation work. Then you might remove that piece, add a side panel, and it becomes a hi-vis vest for the dog working cars on the side of the road.

Ray Allen’s modular harness system has panels that will suit different purposes: a flotation panel will offer dogs a little extra buoyancy if they struggle to swim, while backpack panels allows trainers to add a little extra weight to build their dog’s endurance.

It’s very important that K-9 units stay healthy and hydrated in all kinds of weather. Unfortunately, they can’t always tell their handler when things are getting too hot. Ray Allen is coming out with a heat alert system that features a GSM dialer. This heat alerts calls handlers’ cell phones and reports the temperature in the car. Users receive a call warning, or a text, as opposed to having to wear a separate pager just for the heat alert.

Another interesting high-tech outfit working its way into the K-9 club is that of dog-worn video and night vision systems. Although this equipment usually finds more of a foothold in the military, Akenhead says he’s starting to see more requests from law enforcement agencies that may have particular applications for the technology. Ray Allen works with Tactical Electronics to provide back- or chest-mounted cameras for K-9s. The cameras see in the dark and broadcast back to the handler’s wrist-worn monitor, which is slightly larger than a wrist watch.

The chest-mounted camera allows handlers to see everything their K-9 sees with night vision, and might even help the handler assess a risky situation and get the dog out before it gets hurt. A back-mounted cam sees over the dog’s head. Its malleable post sticks up, but folds back and forth should Scruffy dive through a car window and smack the camera. In that case the camera will simply fold over and pop back up.

“You can see the functionality on the dog and what’s happening and exactly what’s going on,” says Akenhead. “And if the dog’s out of sight and he’s working something, or working somebody, you’ve got video documentation if you didn’t have eyes on it, which is pretty handy.”

Wearable protection

LaLonde feels that Zeus’ number one most important piece of equipment, much like his own, is his ballistic vest. Dog vests have been out for a while now, but in the past a lot of these vests have simply been too heavy.

“It was hard to get a custom-fitted vest for a dog because dogs are always growing and changing in size,” he says. “In the wintertime [the dog’s] meatier because as a handler you put more protein into them; they’re not being used as much. In the summertime they’re a little leaner because it’s hot; they’re working more. It’s not a day and night difference, but it’s enough to notice when you’re putting a vest on a dog.”

The folks at Armor Express developed their version of the K-9 vest to address this problem. Zeus and LaLonde took a trip to Armor Express headquarters last spring where they were given a factory tour and a custom dog fitting. “It’s actually a family,” says LaLonde. “You walk in there and feel warm.”

He feels it’s particularly important that the vest is lightweight and constructed of very durable fabric. On the back of the vest (which is the back of the dog) is a handle to assist in lifting or holding the dog at bay. With the K-9 vest, dogs have full side ballistic coverage protection, on the bottom of the neck all the way to the back of the groin region. It is made to contour to their shape.

“There’s no metal plates anymore; it’s all gel and inserts,” says LaLonde. “Everything is quick-connect … it takes literally less than ten seconds and the dog’s in his vest and he’s ready to rock and roll.”

In fact, he was so impressed with Zeus’ attire he convinced his chief to purchase some for the entire department. The MOLLE pockets on LaLonde’s tactical vest allow him to carry more gear and have it be more accessible — features that he says help him be a better handler. He can easily carry his evidence bags, test kits, collection tools, as well as the standard pen and paper. He also has a first-aid kit for Zeus and one for himself, extra handcuffs and extra magazines for his patrol rifle.

MOLLE can also help in organizing the cyclone that is the K-9-equipped cruiser. Last year Ray Allen came up with the giant MOLLE panel to fit on the trunk’s lid. The panel has a series of pouches that use an annex clip instead of snaps, for easy grab-and-go storage.

“If you look in a K-9 handler’s car, there’s typically all kinds of crap hanging on their trunk, screwed up there, bungee corded up there, and duck taped up there just to keep it organized,” says Akenhead.

The trunk organizer also allows items to dry in the mesh — a good feature if your average work day includes traipsing around in swamps or woods. LaLonde laments: “If I come home and my uniform’s clean, I feel like I failed my community. If I come home and I’m dirty, or I have to come home halfway through the shift to get a dry pair of boots, a dry uniform, or I have to change my vest carrier out because it’s covered in mud, you know what … today’s a good day. We’re working our tail off today.”

On the road

A number of factors are in play when K-9 teams head off to work each day. The job is never routine. “You only find a guy on a track, I think nationally, 20 percent of the time,” says LaLonde. “So you’re going up against 80 percent that the guy’s going to get away from you. And this day in age everybody’s got a cell phone … if you don’t get there in a timely manner and you’re in a downtown city setting … they evaporate.”

But it’s not always about catching the bad guy. Zeus often picks up on guns and valuable discarded evidence along the way. This team operates on hours upon hours of quality training, endurance and lots of trust.

Says LaLonde: “If you’ve got a human next to you riding around as a partner, you’ve got to contend with all their drama. You’ve got to listen to their stories and listen to their family problems. The dog doesn’t say anything. He’s not racist, he doesn’t know how to lie … he doesn’t pick you out because you looked at him funny. The dog does not know how to fail. And that’s the best thing about it. Everything I say in the truck stays between me and the dog, and I don’t have to worry about him telling anybody else.

In today’s age of law enforcement, every officer might do well to have a four-legged partner at his or her side.