Writer’s Police Academy Part 2: K9 Units by Sarah Madison

I confess, when I saw the K9 handler pull up on that first afternoon at WPA, during the open Q&A session with various law enforcement and emergency personnel, I was immediately drawn to watch. Having owned many high-drive German Shepherds myself, I couldn’t help but admire the power and beauty of these dogs, as well as the appreciate some of the similarities between these working dogs and my own.

But it was impressed upon us just how different these dogs are from any family pet.

I’ll try to make sense from my hastily scribbled notes.

The K9 units are subdivided by specialty training: SWAT, patrol, drug work. A typical shift is 10 hours/ day (though the officers are paid for eleven hours, to include grooming and care of the dogs), four days on, four days off.

Unlike the other units, the drug units frequently rely on sporting dogs for drug work—Labradors, Pointers, etc. It makes sense, as many of these breeds have been selected for their sense of smell as well as a willingness to retrieve. Handlers are only allowed to stay with the drug unit for 5 years before moving into another division—presumably to help prevent burnout.

Most of the ‘police’ dogs are imported from Germany. Handlers undergo six weeks of intensive training, but it can take up to a year before the handler/dog team is call ready. Handlers are expected to train daily. The length of time spent training depends on both handler ability and the capability of the dog.

The cost of a single dog plus training runs between $12-13 thousand dollars—it’s a major investment for a police department. The K9 handler spent a good deal of time discussing protecting that investment, as there had recently been a local case of a dog dying in a police car due to overheating. The cars have fixed grills in them that allow the windows to be rolled down without the dog being able to leave the car. Newer police K9 units have heat sensors that will roll down the windows automatically if the car becomes too hot. Lights and sirens also go off, and a text is sent to the dispatch, the handler, and the captain. As a system of fail-safes, it should be foolproof, and yet many departments have older vehicles well-past retirement age due to budget cuts. All three management systems failed in the case of the heat-related dog death.

There are protection vests for the police dogs, but they are seldom used because they weight between 40-50 pounds, greatly hampering the dog’s ability to do its job. No officer will send their dog in on a ‘suicide mission’, but they will put the dog in danger to protect a fellow officer. Ultimately, the police dog is a tool, much as a service weapon. The speaker stated that the dogs weren’t considered part of the ‘use of force’ continuum, but unfortunately, didn’t explain that statement further.

The average working lifespan of a police dog is eight years, after which they are retired with the handler or euthanized. These dogs are NOT socialized. Walking on a leash in the neighborhood is not an option. The handler who spoke with us estimated his kennel arrangement at the house cost about three thousand dollars to make a safe, dog-proof environment. While euthanasia, if the handler is not prepared to retire the dog at his home, may sound cruel after a lifetime of service, it is preferable to the practice of auctioning off retiring dogs to the highest bidder, which some cash-strapped communities have done in the past. The liability of doing such a thing has probably ended this practice for the most part.

The handler and dog are a team—the dog is rarely out of the handler’s sight, and is the handler’s backup in any given situation. Handlers have a remote control which can open the rear door of the police car and release the dog. The handler can direct a search, direct an attack, but in an open brawl, the dog cannot distinguish friend from foe and will attack the most animated person. This is because the dogs are selected for having a strong prey drive, which means they go after anything that moves. I have personal experience with that, as my last shepherd had a strong prey drive. The very first time he laid eyes on a black bear, he chased it up the side of a mountain!

Dogs are usually trained to ‘bark and hold’, which means they will go up to a suspect and bark but not engage unless the suspect moves. If a dog is already lit up with excitement, however, training may break and the dog might engage regardless.

Dogs are frequently used as a locating tool. The handler referred to ‘walkaways’, which are people who are either suicidal, have dementia, or walked out of an assisted living situation. Dogs are used to locate people in buildings or parks, finding them much more efficiently than a human searcher could do.

Dogs are also frequently utilized at traffic stops because an officer can only hold a driver for so long without probable cause, but if a dog alerts on a car, they have probable cause.

The thing that the handler reiterated the most was that, though he would bawl his eyes out if anything happened to his dog, he was prepared to sacrifice his dog’s life to save a human being. The bond between handler and dog is great, but ultimately, the dog is there to be used.

Tune in next time, when I’ll treat you to the highlights of body armor and how it stops certain kinds of ammunition.

In the meantime, check out the reason I wanted to go to WPA in the first place, the FBI guys from the Sixth Sense series!

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6 thoughts on “Writer’s Police Academy Part 2: K9 Units by Sarah Madison”

  1. Wow that is some info on police dogs, they are all sorts of awesome. As a kid I remember visiting my uncle who was working as a K-9 cop and his GS was named Zeus the most sweetest dog ever, I remember hugging him and playing with him. On the other hand I met another GS (also as a child) who was a police dog and he had bitten me then gave chase another time when he saw me… the owner (K-9 cop) who was in the yard at the time cutting grass didn’t even notice the dog took off after me..only after screaming for a minute or two did he finally take notice. He then called the dog praised him but said nothing to me. No sorry, nothing.

    1. I really think that the handler has as much to do with the dog’s temperment when it comes to the safety of the dog. The dog that chased you should never have been off-leash without the handler’s direct supervision. Unreal. I’m sorry you had such a horrific experience.

      1. I agree! I had met Geronimo maybe 2 weeks or so before he chased me, he got loose in the development and the owners wife was looking for him (she was a cop also but not K-9 if I remember right). I asked to help and she agreed. The second I started calling for him he came over to us. I asked if it was ok to pet him (she gave permission) so I greeted him the way you’re supposed to. I had pet him for maybe a minute when he moved his head and bit my arm, definitely a warning bite, no blood and a layer or 2 of skin off. But after that I was scared of that dog. Both of the dogs were all black GS’ but Zeus was a massive dog and I’m very happy I wasn’t afraid of him after Geronimo gave chase.

        1. The very fact that this dog got loose makes me question whether these people should have been handling a police dog at all. And she never should have involved you, either. She should have given you instructions to stand quietly and let her catch the dog. Yikes.

          Most of these dogs have a very high prey drive and the worst thing you can do it run. Of course, your instinct kicks in and you try to get away, but a well-trained police dog is supposed to do the ‘bark and hold’ thing unless the suspect moves. Truly unfortunate you had that experience.

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