K-9 Unit Pros and Cons for SWAT

There's an ongoing, lively debate in SWAT about incorporating K-9s into SWAT operations. There are pros and cons to both schools of thought.

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Police K-9s are one of law enforcement's most valuable and effective tools against bad guys. K-9s enhance LE's capabilities tremendously: patrol, tracking, searches, rescues, foot pursuits, drug/bomb sniffing, etc. K-9s have a long, proven track record of success in a variety of LE areas.

Ask any K-9 handler and he or she will readily tell you dogs are the best partners they've ever had. Versatile, dependable, and fiercely loyal, they're even willing to take a bullet for their human partners. There's nothing quite as awesome or intimidating as a German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois in full alert work mode.

There's an ongoing, lively debate in SWAT about incorporating K-9s into SWAT operations. There are pros and cons to both schools of thought.

Many SWAT teams (including LASD SWAT) successfully employ K-9s, either as part of or attached to the team. SWAT K-9s are highly effective for suspect searches, particularly in confined spaces such as crawl spaces, attics, and underbrush. Many a suspect has been ferreted out by K-9s, whose "noses and hearing" abilities are greatly superior to that of humans.

On the flip side of the K-9 coin, there are many other SWAT teams (including LAPD SWAT) who rarely ever use K-9s in their operations. Their rationale is SWAT is SWAT and K-9 is K-9, their tactics and methods incompatible with each other.

Whether pro or con, I believe SWAT and K-9 is an individual team choice. This usually depends on team philosophy, training, tactics, protocols, and beliefs, and sometimes on K-9 availability. Often the overriding factor is agency/departmental philosophy and, sometimes, internal "politics." As the following example illustrates.


A Midwest LE department, with an existing SWAT team, established a new K-9 team. SWAT and K-9 supervisors collaborated to incorporate select K-9s and handlers into select SWAT missions. After exhaustive nationwide research regarding SWAT and K-9 teamwork, the agency agreed on a mutual plan and trial run incorporating exhaustive training. Both recognized the necessity for agreement on protocols and tactics.

Then suddenly the bottom fell out of the SWAT/K-9 idea with the abrupt transfer of the K-9 lieutenant only days before the new K-9 team was to begin. His replacement immediately vetoed the SWAT/K-9 idea, effectively stopping the plan in its tracks.

Over time, there were several attempts to resurrect the SWAT/K-9 plan, but all fell through. A golden opportunity was missed thanks to "politics." Years later, SWAT and K-9 are still separate entities within this LE department.

Politics and tactical differences aside, there are many SWAT teams throughout the nation successfully employing K-9s in SWAT operations on a daily basis. Yet, as successful as most combined SWAT and K-9 operations are, there have been "(un)friendly" incidents that have occurred involving K-9s.

Unfriendly Incidents

Recently, a SWAT K-9 bit a SWAT officer during a building search and the injury required plastic surgery. To their credit, this team brought in expert K-9 trainers to ensure something like this doesn't happen again.

Years ago, a similar "friendly bite" occurred in another department during a drug raid. A SWAT officer was bitten by a non-SWAT K-9 during the entry. The SWAT and K-9 units had never worked or trained together prior to the raid.

Another search entry turned tragic when an officer accidentally shot his leashed K-9 partner. The devastated officer rushed his K-9 partner to an emergency vet clinic; however, not in time to save him.

One of the most tragic K-9 incidents of all happened recently in Florida. During a pursuit, a patrol vehicle struck and injured a K-9. Then, when the handler attempted to arrest a suspect, his K-9 partner bit the handler on the arm - refusing to let go. After repeated attempts to free himself, the handler was forced to shoot and kill his injured K-9 partner.

As tragic as the above K-9 incidents are, I want to point out that these are the rare exceptions to the rule. The overwhelming majority of police K-9 incidents have positive, uneventful outcomes. And police K-9s have proven themselves fiercely loyal, highly effective assets on countless occasions to LE agencies throughout the world, including the U.S. and Canada.

Police K-9s have been fixtures in many LE agencies for a long time - many years before there was any such thing as SWAT. Yet, same as SWAT, a lot of LE agencies are still discovering K-9s as a valuable LE tool. With this discovery comes the challenge of how best to utilize K-9 and SWAT units and how to combine the two - or not.

The next installment will discuss several approaches to using SWAT and K-9 units to their fullest advantage.

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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