Police Dogs

Have you ever seen a police dog work? K-9 units are given a wide variety of tasks to do, and it's fun to see how they are trained and how well they respond to their handlers' commands. Many dogs are cross-trained in a variety of duties, and it's amazing how well they can perform using totally different skill-sets.

Check out this video showing just a few of the things police dogs can do, and don't miss the absolutely darling puppies in the last 30 seconds.

Skills Needed for Police Dogs

Depending on how the dog is to be used, one of the most important skills needed is one that comes naturally to all dogs: the sense of smell. Police dogs can be trained to sniff out bomb-making ingredients, fire accelerants, drugs, lost children, dead bodies, contraband, and even food items brought into the country illegally.

Because dogs are often sent into areas where a handler might have trouble gaining access, K-9 officers must be skilled at agility. They must be able to complete many of the same tasks you might see in an agility competition and many more. This video shows a few of the obstacles a K-9 must be able to handle.

Police dogs take obedience training to the highest extreme. A handler has to know that his or her dog will respond immediately to all commands, regardless of what the dog's instincts are screaming. For example, police dogs are trained to react when a suspect tries to attack the handler. However, if an officer is working with someone who is drunk, what looks like an attack might simply be clumsiness on the part of the suspect. The dog must stop himself or herself from trying to subdue the drunk suspect when the handler tells the animal to stand down.

Similarly, if a dog is told to chase down a suspect and the suspect puts his hands up to surrender, the dog must obey the handler when told to stop. Otherwise, the police department would have to deal with complaints of excessive force. Watch how the call-off works on this short clip.

Last, the dog must learn how to react when there is trouble. If a dog is trained to bring down an escaping suspect, force is often the best way to handle the situation. The dog's strong jaws, as well as the force he can exert by running to the suspect and tackling him, is usually just the thing that's needed to hold a suspect until the officer can get him into handcuffs.

For search and rescue operations, the dog may be trained to bark and dig at the site where he or she sniffs out a lost or injured person. However, in other situations, it may be beneficial for a dog to simply sit quietly when he or she has found something.

For instance, at the site of a fire where arson is suspected, a fire marshal might walk through the crowd of rubber-neckers with an arson dog. Arsonists are known for coming back to watch the firefighters put out a fire they started. When the arson dog smells accelerant on a suspect, he or she simply sits down next to the person. The arsonist just thinks the dog is being nice, and may even bend down to pet the dog. The fire marshal, on the other hand, knows that this person should be investigated for possible involvement in setting the fire.

Here's a video showcasing an arson dog's skill. Notice that only one small drop of accelerant is enough for the dog to find.

Drug dogs often work the same way. The skill and restraint needed for a dog to sit quietly when he or she finds something is truly amazing. Think about the last time your dog was excited and expected a reward. Every instinct the dog has tells him or her to dance, wag the tail, jump up, and bark, but these dogs know they are supposed to just sit down when they find something. Here's an example.

Police Dog Training

So, if K-9 officers need all of these special skills, how are they trained? Most police officers who work with dogs will tell you they have found that positive training methods work the best. K-9 officers usually live with their handlers, so every moment of the day is a potential training moment.

Many police dogs are imported from Germany or Belgium, so their commands are often given in their native language. More important than the language used, however, is the fact that these dogs are taught from a very early age that the handler is the alpha dog in the relationship. Some of the methods used to show dominance are to make the dog wait to eat until after the handler and his family have eaten, and to keep the dog off the furniture in the home (or at least to wait for an invitation). Once the dog understands who the boss is, the rest is play.

For example, when training a dog to sniff out drugs, here's a common exercise. The handler rolls up a towel and plays with the dog, which of course the dog loves. Next, a small amount of drugs are placed inside the towel and the dog is encouraged to play with the towel over and over. Soon, the dog learns to associate the scent with play time. Next, drugs are hidden somewhere, and when the dog goes to the scent expecting to find a towel, the handler brings out the towel from his back pocket, showing the dog that when he or she finds the drug scent, playtime with the coveted towel is the reward. It doesn't take too long before the dog learns to go to that scent every single time.

Police dogs aren't used only in municipal police departments. Check out this video of the Marine Canine unit located at Camp Pendleton. It includes training methods, the history of war dogs, and memorials that have been erected to these special veterans who have served our country.

Care of a police dog

As you might expect, procuring and training a police K-9 is time-consuming and expensive. To avoid having to continually replace these dogs, most police departments commit significant funding to outfitting the vehicles in which the dogs are carried. There is usually an industrial fan installed in one of the car's windows to keep the dog cool. (A dog who is panting from the heat will be less useful in sniffing out contraband because he or she will be mouth-breathing.)

The fan is hooked to a thermostat which sends out an alarm when the interior of the car gets too hot. When the air temperature reaches a certain point, the car windows are automatically lowered, the fan turns itself on, and the officer is paged to come back to the car.

Many K-9 vehicles are outfitted with a door popper to allow the officer to remotely open the vehicle doors when the dog's help is needed. If an officer is under attack or needs the dog's special skills, the officer simply pushes a button on the utility belt all officers wear. The door to the vehicle pops open, and the dog comes bounding out to help. This video shows the door popper in action.

In some communities, canine officers are outfitted with bullet-proof vests, either provided by the department or donated by concerned citizens. Depending on the department, K-9 officers may or may not have to pay for their dogs' board and veterinary care.

One final note: most K-9 officers are trained to be highly aggressive. If you see a police dog, always ask permission before you approach the dog or try to pet him or her. Some of them are not terribly friendly, while others would love a nice pat on the head or a belly rub. Don't go near a canine vehicle unless you have the officer's permission. If the dog is a friendly one, it is likely that the dog will be let out to speak to you as he or she may be very territorial and protective of the vehicle.

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