It is widely thought that having a police K9 dog at your side better protects you from threats than the “average officer.” To the contrary, having the K9 can be a liability in terms of a handler’s officer safety.
To be quite frank, the K9 dog is a wonderful tool, but it remains just that—a tool. The dog is used in two capacities in modern law enforcement. The first is as an olfactory locating system. The second is as a less lethal use of force.
As a device for locating persons and items through the use of scent discrimination, the dog is as yet unequaled by today’s technology. Because of this, dogs are used to track and search for criminals and criminal evidence.
Police K9 dogs constitute a less lethal use of force for apprehending miscreants and protecting innocent citizens and police officers from attack. Using the dogs for an application of reasonable force requires much training and adherence to policy and law.
In either capacity, a K9 handler’s survival is compromised and extra measures are necessary to maintain a safe deployment.
The first key to good K9 officer safety is in the selection of the handler. Because handlers generally work alone with their canine partners, it is imperative to select an officer that can function by himself and make good decisions in a quickly changing, dangerous environment.
A dog cannot reason as a police officer. They are not the “thinking half” of the K9 team. The handler must be able to work effectively with the added distraction of the dog. This being the case, officers chosen for K9 must have very solid safety practices prior to being selected.
It is obvious that good training is the next factor. A K9 Patrol School teaches the fundamentals of dog training and dog handling. A good patrol school also instructs the officers as to safe deployment strategies and tactics.
Schooling that focuses too much on passing certification may not adequately prepare that “green” K9 team for the hazards of real-life K9 work. If this is the case, it can be corrected by proper safety training when the team rolls back out to its K9 Unit and the street.
First time handlers are always on “probation.” Tips, tricks, and plain sound advice from the old hands can make all the difference to the new guy’s survival. The best K9 Units are cohesive ones that foster a sense of working camaraderie (and maybe some good-natured competition).
Dog selection is a touchy subject when related to K9 officer safety. The liabilities of law enforcement dictate that we attempt as best we can to select the right balance of socialization and protection in a K9 dog. It is a downright difficult thing to accomplish.
From an officer safety standpoint, the dog is a less lethal weapon and must function that way properly. Having a K9 dog that will not protect its handler or apprehend a suspect is the same as having an empty can of O.C. or an electronic control device without batteries. Enough said.
If we have done our job and selected the right handler and dog, given them good schooling, and supported them back at the department, we can now think about officer safety in deploying the K9 team on the road.
As I said, having a K9 dog can be problematic for the handler’s welfare in many circumstances. Next, I’ll talk about some of those situations.
Randall spent eight years as a Police K9 Handler. His two German Shepherd Dogs were deployed for Patrol, Narcotics, and SWAT. Randall also handled a single purpose narcotics-trained Labrador Retriever. He is currently his department’s K9 Unit Sergeant.