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Cover Story

Taking the Lead

Handlers with the Spokane (WA) Police Department K-9 Unit are passionate about training with their dogs to hone their skills and better support their agency's officers.

April 07, 2016  |  by - Also by this author

K-9 handlers at Spokane PD usually train multiple dogs during their tenure, building a wealth of experience as a unit over time. Photo: Carla Blazek.
K-9 handlers at Spokane PD usually train multiple dogs during their tenure, building a wealth of experience as a unit over time. Photo: Carla Blazek.

The Spokane (WA) Police Department's nearly 290 officers patrol the City of Spokane's 76 square miles. The agency's K-9 unit provides support to department officers as well as other regional law enforcement agencies through searching buildings and vehicles, apprehending suspects, tracking fleeing suspects, and protecting officers.

Officer Craig Hamilton and his German Shepherd K-9 partner Leonidas, or Leo, as he calls him, are among the agency's six patrol dogs and their handlers, including one explosive detection dog. Hamilton is one of several K-9 master trainers on his unit. He has been a handler for 12 years, and has been partnered with Leo for going on eight years. Hamilton is passionate about his work, as are his colleagues. And they have to be, because it's a constant part of their lives, even at home, where their K-9 partners live with them.

"We have a dog on every night from 7:00 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., and we work very closely with our patrol teams out at those hours," says Hamilton. "But otherwise we're on call 24 hours a day, and when we get paged, one or two of us will end up going."

One of the biggest misconceptions that the public and even some officers have about K-9 teams is about tracking, Hamilton says. Everyone expects it to be a simple task that involves the dog following a smell from point A to point B on his own. But that's not the case.

"When we're tracking, we're putting together puzzle pieces, reading the dog; it's teamwork. The handler's not just running behind the dog. It's not magic; it's a lot of work," says Hamilton. "It's the most frustrating, hardest thing we do. But when it all comes together, it's the most rewarding."

Just like everything else K-9 handlers and their dogs do, it takes lots of work but yields a high reward.

Joining the K-9 Unit

When a spot opens up on the Spokane PD's K-9 Unit, the job is posted. Applicants must have been law enforcement officers for at least three years and, in the case of a lateral transfer, must have passed the probationary period to be eligible.

A trial process includes a physical fitness test and minimum shooting requirement in line with the agency's SWAT standards, as well as an oral board interview. Anyone can apply, but more weight is given to applicants who have "quarried" for the unit, or served as decoys for the dogs during training. Hamilton says this level of involvement shows officers' dedication and passion for their potential new assignment.

Once handlers have joined the unit they can decide how long to stay on. "The good thing about having no rotation policy is we're not giving up all that experience and knowledge," says Hamilton, who will soon be training his third K-9. "By your second dog, you're able to really figure things out a little bit better. You're not just running behind the dog wondering where you're going."

New Dogs

Many of Spokane PD's K-9s have been imported from Europe through a vendor in Southern California. The K-9 unit primarily uses German Shepherds, but also Belgian Malinois. Several of the agency's K-9s were bred in Spokane from previously imported Spokane PD K-9s through what they call the "puppy program."

"A lot of times they'll come with some experience in bite work, tracking, and obedience. Then if the dog is going to a brand new handler, we put them both through a minimum of 400 hours of school, which is about 10 weeks," says Hamilton. After the new handler and dog go through Spokane PD's basic K-9 class, they must pass the state's Washington Administrative Code certification. This requires competency in obedience, man work (handler protection and bite work), building searches, evidence searches, and tracking, among other topics.

"We do all of our training in house," says Hamilton. "When we do a school, we open it up to agencies throughout Washington, and even officers from Idaho and Montana will join us for new handler training."

For experienced handlers replacing a dog, training takes from six to eight weeks. Then the handler and K-9 must pass the state certification before they can work the street. But members of the Spokane PD K-9 Unit always also strive for accreditation by the Washington State Police Canine Association, which is stricter and goes beyond the WAC requirements.

Three of Spokane PD's six K-9 handlers, including Hamilton, are certified as master trainers with the Washington State Police Canine Association, with another achieving certification this Spring. Two former K-9 handlers are also certified master trainers. "We have more in our department than any other unit in the state, if I'm not mistaken," Hamilton says. He feels this level of training helps them serve the rest of the department. "In our unit, we strive to be some of the leaders on patrol and make things safer for the officers," says Hamilton. "That's truly our goal and our function…to be a resource and help run things."

Working With SWAT

Members of the K-9 Unit also have a close working relationship with the agency's SWAT team. Typically one or more K-9s go on every SWAT callout. It helps that all of the current handlers, except for the newest addition, are current or past SWAT team members. The newest handler will soon be attending the SWAT basic school. Still, to make their frequent interactions as effective and efficient as possible, both teams train together often. "Then when we are all working together out on the street, it's nothing unusual for the dogs," Hamilton says.

He highly recommends that other K-9 units train with their SWAT teams on a regular basis. To help facilitate such training as well as further useful instruction, the Spokane Police Department has been hosting an Advanced Handler Course for 10 years. Handlers have come from as far away from Finland to attend this four-day class.

A total of 12 teams may attend the course, and there is usually a waiting list. Agencies may send a handler and K-9, and can also send several SWAT team members. "They'll come and go through the class, and see exactly how we integrate K-9 into SWAT," says Hamilton. "The school's not all about SWAT, but we do have a strong focus on it."

The course covers more advanced tactics such as patrol-level tactical tracking, helicopter deployment, and explosive entries with Spokane PD's Explosive Disposal Unit and SWAT team. Everyone who participates in the Spokane Police K-9 Advanced Handler Course receives a certificate of completion, and the time spent attending the class counts toward a team's required training hours.

Always Training

Spokane PD's handlers and K-9s, of course, train throughout the year and are known throughout the region as leaders in instruction. Every Wednesday they train as a unit and open the session up to other local agencies, including those with whom they have mutual aid agreements and those farther afield. "We're always trying to push the envelope," Hamilton says. "If we can think of it and it's safe for the dog and handler, we're exposing them to it."

The K-9 unit travels far and wide to attend training and learn from other agencies, and also holds its own quarry classes and supervisor training that often include outside agencies. They also run the introduction to K-9 unit course for the Spokane Police Department's police academy.

"We are always all very passionate about what we do in the K-9 unit in general," says Hamilton. And this extends beyond their jurisdiction. Hamilton and two other Spokane PD handlers have been deputized by the U.S. Marshal Service to serve in their violent offender task force and look for wanted people and violent fugitives when called upon. And for the past six years the entire Spokane K-9 unit has been part of the Federal Marijuana Eradication Team, which travels across Washington and into Idaho looking for illegal marijuana grows on public lands. These experiences help the K-9s and handlers expand and sharpen their skills, but there is never an end to the process.

"It's not just the dogs are trained once and ready to go. It's a constant effort," Hamilton says. But he's glad to be doing it.

"To this day, I will walk outside of our police station and see my car, and it says Spokane PD K-9, and I feel so fortunate to be the one driving it," says Hamilton. "It sounds clichéd, but our unit is very tight and we're good buddies even outside of work. To me, those are the best things by far."

Spokane Police K-9 Advanced Handler Course

The Spokane (WA) Police Department holds the Spokane Police K-9 Advanced Handler Course each Fall. This year it will be held Sep. 26th–29. Participation is limited to 12 teams. The cost is $750 and registration opens after the 1st of the year. The course includes SWAT/K9 tactics, explosive entries, rappelling, multiple force options, helicopter and boat deployment, reality-based training, firearms, report writing, and tons of exposure for the dog and handlers. SWAT members are welcome to attend with a handler at a drastically reduced cost.

For more information contact Officer Dan Lesser at [email protected] or Officer Craig Hamilton at [email protected]

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