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Starting A Police K-9 Unit

Getting a K-9 unit off the ground entails more than just matching up officer and dog.

February 01, 1997  |  by John E. Hinton

Matching up an officer with a dog is just the first step in starting a successful K-9 team. Determine your current needs first. Why do you need to have a trained police service dog (PSD)? Are you having a problem with burglaries and the time it takes to search and clear the buildings with officers? If so, you can justify the savings in man-hours and units out of service through quicker and thorough searches by the PSD team. Are you looking for a dog to detect the odor of drugs for drug interdiction and searches? Do you need the application of a trained dog to add to your department's use-of-force scale for apprehensions and handler protection? Perhaps you need a dog to detect the odor of explosives or human remains.

Future needs should also be studied. What kinds od demands will be placed on your agency five years from now, and can a trained dog help deal with those problems? A single- purpose dog, as the name implies, is trained in one specialty area such as patrol work (apprehension, tracking, and searching or detection work of either explosives, narcotics or cadavers). What are commonly called dual- purpose dogs give the department more bang for its buck. The most common type of dual- purpose dog is a combination of drug- or bomb-detector dog and patrol dog. This type of K-9 will require more training time for the handler and dog to maintain their skills. And it will cost the department more up front if the animal is purchased from a reputable importer or a certified breeder.

Trying to make the K-9 unit an all-purpose team can go too far, as one state conservation department found out. The agency was looking at equipping all of the field agents with dogs to assist them in carrying out their duties. They wanted their dogs to be trained in handler protection, tracking, drug detection, cadaver recovery and fish and game detecting for poachers. Not only was it too much for the dogs to learn, but the handlers would be spending all their time training and not enforcing the law.

The Cost Factor

Once you have defined your needs, the biggest hurdle to clear will be cost. If you are making a sales pitch for developing a K-9 unit, be prepared to list in a line-item format what the start- up costs will be, as well as projected costs per year after start- up. Some issues to cover in detail to your administrators will be purchase price of the dog, equipment, transportation, food, vet and training. Be value conscious. Bargains can be found, but cheaper is not always better. For example, a well-meaning citizen who wants to donate an overly aggressive pet to the department may sound like a good deal, but it may cost you more in the long run. On the other hand, if you have $10,000 to spend on the purchase of the dog, you can rest assured that there will be someone out there who will be happy to take your money.

The next problem is deciding where the money will come from? If the funds are not budgeted, there are some alternate sources you may consider. Find a knowledgeable person who can look at donated dogs or dog rescued from the humane shelter for the right temperament and characteristics of a police-work dog. Some of the best dogs I've seen have come from these sources. U.S. Customs has trained dogs from these types of backgrounds for years. Some departments have solicited funds from community resources and civic interest groups. One department has sold "common stock" to purchase the dog and necessary equipment.

If you choose to purchase a dog, you still have some options available to you. An untrained dog will be cheaper to buy but will cost you in man- hours. The advantage, however, is that it gives you the opportunity to train the dog exactly as you would like to meet the needs of the department. This also gives you time to really observe the dog's behaviors. This includes strengths and weaknesses of the dog, as well as how the handler/ trainer relationship is developing. A trained dog will cost you more up front but may save you in training time. A popular marketing move by importers is to provide the agency with a fully- trained dog as well as handler training for a one- or two- week period. This looks inviting to administrators who are looking for ways to save dollars. Unfortunately, most experienced trainers will tell you that it takes longer than one or two weeks to train the handler to work with and trust the dog. It may take longer for you to see the results on the street until the dog and handler learn to work together and trust each other.

Tags: K-9 Units, How-To Guides


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