Author’s Note: Following are K-9 training tips that each supervisor, trainer and handler should know. This information may seem basic and commonsense. But after reading, take a hard look at yourself and your K-9 unit. You might be surprised how much this information hits home.
Dog selection: Most handlers want the biggest, baddest, meanest dog around for patrol or SWAT. This is a mistake. Often, the “medium-drive” dog is the better choice, because most handlers don’t have the necessary alpha-command presence to control a high-drive dog. A medium-drive dog allows them to do more.
Handler selection: In the K-9 world, we have a saying: “That’s a 90-mph dog with a 30-mph handler.” Translation: The dog is the alpha and the handler is just hanging onto the leash. Don’t let politics or ego cloud your judgment when it comes to selecting a handler, because they’re critical to the job.
Dedication & commitment: Every new handler feels excited about their new position and wants to do their best, but how dedicated and committed will they be after a few years?
No one wants to be an average handler. So in order to be an exceptional K-9 team, we must exceed the national average of 16 hours of monthly recommended maintenance training. Granted, the extra training to be an exceptional K-9 handler will mean time away from your family and friends. But this training will potentially save lives. Bottom line: I don’t want average K-9 handlers in my unit—do you?
Paying for your training: If you’re like most officers, you don’t request an outside class unless you believe the class will make you a better officer or make you safer. So when you request a training class and it’s denied, what do you do? If you’re like me, you don’t take the first—or even the second—“no” as the final answer. If you really need it, find a way to make it happen.
It became SOP for me to negotiate with my department to attend some of these outside classes. Normally, I would be approved for the class on city time and take my K-9 unit, but I’d pay the tuition. However, sometimes the command staff would still deny the class, which meant if I wanted to go, I’d have to pay for the class out of my own pocket and vacation. But it was worth every vacation day and dollar I spent, and it didn’t go unnoticed. Bottom line: What you learn by going to these schools and increasing your skill levels during your extra training hours could save not only your life, but also someone else’s.
Training locations: Every handler will attend some type of basic K-9 school with a training field. K-9s learn very quickly that they need to obey the handler when they’re on this training field or they’ll be corrected. After graduation, some handlers fall into the same trap by training their K-9s at the same location on a regular basis. They do basic obedience on the same field, or they do building and area searches at the same place they’ve used several times.
Bottom line: This isn’t K-9 training—this is pattern training. The dog knows it’s not real and won’t act the same in a real deployment. Secure different training locations on a near-daily basis. It takes more effort but it’s necessary to build an effective K-9 partner.
Weekly training matrix: Prior to attending your weekly or extra K-9 training, set some goals and objectives. Have a purpose for your training. Don’t make it just something to put in your training log.
Most departments have K-9 training with surrounding agencies. Some departments even go a step further by having a training matrix that extends for three to six months into the future. By developing a long-term training matrix, each department will know in advance what skill and training locations they’ll need to provide when they host the training. If you don’t train with other agencies, you can assign each handler to a certain week of training. This provides handlers with advanced warning on what needs to be set up for training. Also, the training matrix is flexible. If an issue arises, the training group can work on it.
Some of the training areas that should be covered are obedience, movement, handler protection, tactical tracking, attic deployments, tunnels, repelling, door popped or window exits out of a K-9 unit, live gunfire, vehicle extractions, smoke or gas deployments, basic and advanced building searches, area searches, high find of the suspect, multiple hidden suspects, different arrest techniques, verbal outs and recalls to heel. You do train for these areas, don’t you?
Decoys: I’d recommend that whoever is decoying for you has successfully completed a reputable decoy school and learned how to read the dog’s behaviors and how to take a proper bite. A properly trained and experienced decoy will decrease injuries and make all the difference in the world in advancing your dog to the next level.
Equipment: As quickly as you can, I recommend getting your K-9 away from training equipment such as hard sleeves. Get the K-9 away from focusing on bite equipment and instead focusing on the person. Unlike what was once taught, K-9s don’t need to bite after every exercise. Muzzle work is a good way to get the K-9 away from equipment. Doing more “non-bite” searches and finds makes the training more realistic.
It’s also important to train with whatever equipment the K-9 will be using in the field. For example: Some K-9s wear a ballistic vest on real deployments. The same goes for the equipment the dogs will see on the handlers and back-up officers. Make sure you train with your helmet and tactical vest and any other safety equipment you might wear in the field. Remember the saying, “Train as you deploy.”
Comfort zone: Training is a series of peaks and valleys. At the beginning, there will be more valleys than peaks. But the more you train, the better it gets. If you and your K-9 don’t leave training either physically or emotionally drained, the training probably wasn’t worth your time. Remember: Don’t be afraid to push yourself to failure. This is the only way you’ll truly learn where you are as a team. [Editor’s note: The author is referring to pushing the handler to the point of failure in order to learn. For the dog, ending a training session on a positive note or win tends to reinforce good behavior or performance.]
Real-world training: The lessons learned at basic K-9 school might not result in the safest tactics on the street. Often, we’re taught a certain way because that’s how the certifications are written. But we all have a have an obligation to make proper decisions for the street. Unfortunately, some handlers don’t take what they have learned in K-9 training and adapt or modify these techniques for real-world encounters. K-9 teams are often called to the most intense situations and you’re responsible for the safety of both yourself and your partner.
Note: A fleeing felony suspect who’s running away from you with a gun in their hand is not a dog problem. It’s a deadly force situation.
Try new methods: Hopefully you have someone in your K-9 training group who you can turn to whenever you have an issue—whether it’s a K-9 or handler issue. But don’t be so close-minded that you think this go-to person knows everything. I’m constantly encouraging my handlers to seek out different trainers, different schools, different ways and techniques of doing things so they can expand their knowledge as handlers and bring it back to teach others. You would be surprised what you can learn from other trainers and experts outside your area.
Gunfire training: When it comes to gunfire work, handlers perform too much gunfire-bite training exercises. This is because it’s commonly taught in basic and even in some advanced K-9 schools that whenever there’s gunfire, the K-9 gets a bite. But all this does is make the K-9 extremely hard to control during a shooting situation. I understand that the concept behind the exercise is to see if the K-9 is afraid of gunfire, but there are other ways to test this.
I still train my K-9 around live and blank gunfire, but I never allow him to bite during the training. This keeps him under control. Because of the training I do, I know that during a real-world deployment my dog will remain calm until I need him. That’s why it’s critical to make your K-9 gunfire-neutral. Officers have enough to deal with when gunfire breaks out without a K-9 that immediately goes into a bite mentality.
Lack of conditioning: As a handler, you’ll be deployed in all types of environments, unusual terrain and different weather and temperature conditions. I see a lot of K-9s in the best condition they’ll ever be in after completing a basic handler’s course. That’s because they’re doing something every day. Unfortunately, once they leave K-9 school, their conditioning goes downhill. Important: You and your K-9 must be accustomed to real-world conditions and physically fit to handle the environment you work in. Maintaining an adequate fitness level is key to both officer and K-9 survival.
I hope what I’ve covered has stimulated some thought and conversation within your K-9 unit. Remember: When properly trained, your dog will catch criminals, seek out narcotics and save lives—including your own.