The decision to create a K-9 program is done in the upper echelons of a law enforcement organization. It often involves persons who have been elected or appointed, such as the chief, mayor, sheriff or city/county representatives. Yet the details are left to middle management and even rank-and-file officers to implement. So where do you start and what are the basics of implementing a K-9 program?
Here, we will address the basic needs to begin a program. With a little knowledge, the majority of conflicts in managing a new unit can be avoided and a path to successful K-9 operations can begin. This goes beyond merely writing a new policy to include in the department's general orders manual.
Local practices and history often dictate whether new K-9 teams are sent to a department conducting a basic training course or to a vendor who does the same. Either way, it is important that the quality of such a program be thoroughly researched. The instruction needs to be delivered by an experienced law enforcement educator—one who has both trained and handled dogs for a long period of time and has a track record of producing well-educated handlers. As in all law enforcement training a good foundation for the program is a must.
Maintenance training isn't optional. For a single-purpose patrol dog, 4–6 hours per week is a minimum, and, for a multi-purpose dog, 6–8 hours of weekly training is standard. These hours should be dedicated solely to training the police dog. There is no way around it. To obtain a proficient and legally defensible program, you need to provide time for the handler to train. Beyond the legal "failure to train" issues is the common sense question: Do you want an effective program or not? The handler without help cannot perform K-9 training. Working with other regional departments is a common option to provide maintenance work. Some vendors provide variable training opportunities, which can be included in maintenance training time and provide an expert look into the work being done.
Updates and training in tactics, legal issues and other K-9 topics can be found through various sources. Conferences, national organizations' training seminars and vendor-based updates should become part of the K-9 unit's educational process and should be an addition to maintenance training. These updates help keep the handler abreast of changes in law, tactics and often include after action reports of critical incidents to keep the handler from falling into complacency.
The old saying that if it isn't written, it didn't happen holds true in training records for K-9 teams. In detection, the standard for issuance of a warrant has been well clarified: the dog and handler must be trained and the team tested. This does not mean that documentation of how that is accomplished won't be brought up in trial. There are many means of developing the documentation, from using paper forms adapted from other departments, to canned computer programs for K-9 record keeping. It is worth a visit to the local District Attorney's Office or U.S. Attorney's Office to discuss what they have found works and doesn't work well for them in K-9 detection cases.
As for patrol behaviors there are some minimums that must be recorded: the amount of time invested in training, the skills trained and whether the dog is meeting standards and, if not, what remediation is being done to bring them back into standard. Deployment records must indicate the number of deployments, captures and injuries, as well as the number of community contacts the team has had.
Housing the K-9
The department must see to the proper housing of the service dog. This, at a minimum, requires a secure kennel that is kept away from public view, covered and lockable. Welded wire kennels are much more preferable to chain link. Many tooth injuries have resulted from service dogs tugging on chain link, and such injuries are far more expensive than a quality kennel.
The handler should also be provided with a crate for indoor use. The bottom line on housing for a service dog is that the dog must be secure in a kennel or crate when not directly monitored by the handler. Of course, when the handler is out of town on vacation, professional arrangements for the animal's care must be prearranged. The veterinarian for the department is always a good choice for boarding the dog to provide continuity of care.
Finding a veterinary professional who is familiar with performance dogs is extremely important. The dogs used in law enforcement are athletes and often are very stoic animals in the face of injury. Familiarity with such traits by your veterinarian is helpful. A good veterinarian will help organize the proper care for healthy dogs and reliably diagnose the myriad injuries that performance dogs are prone to.
Fair Labor Standards Act
The failure to incorporate proper compensation for handlers of departmental dogs has caused programs to fail. Multiple cases through various courts have set the stage for handlers of departmental dogs to be compensated for off-duty care and training of their dogs. Cleaning up after the dogs, grooming, training, feeding, medicating and transporting are all activities that should be compensated. Fair Labor Standards Act and the Department of Labor have not issued a single strategy for accomplishing this. Many formulas exist, from overtime pay to decreased work hours and straight pay, as well as stipends or incentive pay. If a collective bargaining unit represents department personnel, the compensation of the handlers should be addressed through that entity.
A key component to developing a successful K-9 program is educating the department. When to request a K-9 unit, how to request a K-9 unit and what to do to prepare for their arrival should be roll call type of training for all members of the department. For patrol dogs, practical arrest procedures, search team tactics with a K-9 unit and safety concerns should be mandatory. These should also become part of the field training officers' required education for new members of the department. It is important that the members see the K-9 unit as an adjunct to the work that they already do–a useful resource for investigation and safety during the course of their career. The K-9 program must be their program too, not just the K-9 handlers' program.
All too often, the process of developing a K-9 program seems to end at getting a dog and putting them into the back of a marked vehicle with a motivated handler. Yet, without all the other parts of the puzzle in place, the clear picture of success can't be achieved. This article provides an initial look into the development of a program and should serve as a starting point for those departments which have decided on a K-9 program or are considering one.