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How to...Start a K-9 Unit

Four-legged cops can help you catch more criminals and cut your department’s costs.

February 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author


Canine duty can look fun and even glamorous compared to the routine of patrol work. As such, many an officer may be dreaming of joining his or her agency’s dog team or even starting a new one.

Initiating your agency’s first K-9 unit is a daunting task. But experts say the rewards are worth the pain.

If you’re willing to accept this challenge, then the first thing you need is the support of your department. You’re going to need some hard evidence of the benefits of dog cops to persuade your command officers to make a commitment to a K-9 unit.

Who Needs Dogs, Anyway?

Some might not think a canine unit is necessary in small departments or that calling in other K-9 officers from other departments is easier and more cost effective. But there are many reasons why having a K-9 unit within your own department can make sense, no matter the size of your agency or jurisdiction.

Most dog handlers have examples of how their unit has saved them and their department time and money—mostly in decreasing the number of man hours needed to solve crimes and catch criminals.

Sgt. Gary Duncan, K-9 training supervisor at the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, says knowing that canines will save time and money is just common sense. “A dog could search a building in 10 minutes while it might take two or three officers an hour to do that same search. There’s a time-saving issue right there, as well as the cost.”

“A dog’s sense of smell is about 700 times greater than a human’s,” Duncan explains. “That shows you how much faster he can achieve the same goal that you’re trying to achieve.”

Your chief might say, “We use other departments’ dogs to save time on building searches, so we don’t need our own unit.” But one of the biggest problems in not having your own K-9 unit is depending on another department to have theirs available when you need it. You might not have the time to wait.

Although this might not be the top reason a department needs a K-9 unit, you shouldn’t count out the public relations benefits of having one.

Mark Ficcadenti, a dog trainer in St. Paul, Minn., feels K-9 units can help revitalize communities just with their presence. “Everybody loves a police dog,” he says. “Other police officers call you to catch the baddest of the bad, but at the same time you get to take your dog to the nursing homes, and the Boy Scout troops. You get to march your dog in the community parade on the Fourth of July. That’s great stuff.”

Coughing up the Cash


Using a concealed bite sleeve to simulate the way a real bad guy would look on the job helps to train dogs to react effectively in the field, not just in training situations.

Once you’ve convinced your chief and the mayor or the city council that a K-9 unit would be beneficial to your department, you need to find a way to pay for it.

Sgt. Kevin Rofidal with the Edina (Minn.) Police Department was lucky. “A resident in town came in and wanted to donate something to the community for 9/11 and funded the program. For us, we took an existing car and this person is paying for the upkeep and the gas and all of the equipment for the car and everything else. “So we figured it out to be, I think, $29,000 for the first year and then about $7,000 for each year after that. We got funding for five years.”

Unfortunately, most police departments are not nearly so lucky. But you can find plenty of donations in your own backyard if you’re willing to seek them out.

“Surprisingly, some administrators are leery of getting the community involved,” says retired police captain and canine trainer John Haller. Such an attitude robs agencies of a major resource, he says. “I think you find that if you ask, more often than not the community is very willing to get involved.”

Civic groups might be willing to fund part or all of a K-9 program. You can also organize your own fundraisers such as dinners and raffles to generate money with help from the community.

Also ask local businesses to donate their products or services. For example, your local fence company may donate the fencing and the local concrete company may donate the pad needed for the dog’s kennel. A local veterinarian might even offer free or discounted medical care for your canine. These are just some of the ways to get the community involved.

Tools for the Job

Businesses in your community might be willing to donate money to purchase equipment, such as the resident in Edina, Minn. Equipment is essential and expensive, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Essential equipment for starting a K-9 unit includes a dedicated car with a kennel insert in the back seat, a temperature monitor to make sure the dog doesn’t overheat in the car, a door popper to release the dog from the car by depressing a button on the handler’s belt when necessary; leashes; tracking leads; bite sleeves and other training equipment; an outdoor kennel at the handler’s home made of chainlink on a concrete pad; and, of course, food.

“Don’t skimp on any of your equipment,” advises Sgt. Mike Perry, a trainer with the St. Louis Police Department. “You tend to get what you pay for. Cheaper buys might not hold up for as long as you need them to.”

For recommendations on where to purchase equipment, contact neighboring departments.

The Right Dog

Once you have funding, you still have to decide on the right dog to purchase. The most popular police dogs in the United States right now are German shepherds. Belgian malinois are also popular police dogs, although they are more common in Europe than here in the States. But there is more to choosing a dog than just breed.

More important is finding a dog that has the right temperament for the job, or jobs, you want him to do.

Most canine handlers and trainers suggest that first-time handlers find reliable vendors to choose the right dogs for their departments’ needs. If a dog has too much play drive, he might not attack when you need him to. If a dog has too much defense drive, he might bite someone he’s not supposed to. Remember, a police dog, contrary to popular belief, is not an attack dog. It needs to be a social animal that will get along with other officers and the public when it is not given the command to attack.

You must also consider whether you need a single-purpose dog for patrol or a dual-purpose dog for patrol and narcotics detection or patrol and explosives detection. Dogs can also be trained in other specialties. Unless you’re very familiar with testing dogs for specific characteristics, tell a professional all of the things you want your dog to be able to do and let him or her choose a dog for you.

Then there’s the question of whether to purchase a dog or accept public donations. While donated dogs might be technically free, they can be more costly in the long run if you don’t know what type of dog to look for.

Duncan says the Metropolitan Nashville PD won’t use donated dogs anymore for just this reason. “Years ago we would take dogs through public donation. But we started keeping some statistics on that, and we found out that it was cheaper for the taxpayer for us to go out and buy a dog through a vendor that will warrant the dog than it is to go through numerous dogs before we find one that’s going to meet our criteria on the training field.”

And if a donated dog doesn’t work out for whatever reason, it can be hard to find someone else to take him or her off your hands.

To avoid this problem, Edina PD bought its dog from a local vendor that offers a one-year guarantee for the dog’s health and ability to do police work. “That was important to us because with only one dog in our department we couldn’t afford to have anything but the best,” Rofidal says.

Tags: How-To Guides, K-9 Units, Cops Getting Sued, Funding, Reality-Based Training, Use-of-Force Policies

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Carlos Salamsn @ 1/22/2013 4:58 PM

can I get more info how to join the canine unit
&what's the age to join & what's the weight limit

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