Getting the Most Out of K-9 Units

K-9 teams are considered force multipliers. One K-9 team can do the work of many officers, which frees up officers for other duties. A K-9 team is an effective tool if its use is understood by those that call on them to support their operations.

Amaury Murgado Headshot

Photo: Amaury MurgadoPhoto: Amaury Murgado

Tools are only as good as the people that use them. For example, a Samurai sword might cut in any hand, but in order to maximize its lethality, it takes a skilled warrior with years of training. Like the Samurai sword, a K-9 team is an effective tool if its use is understood by those that call on them to support their operations. If you are amateurish in your approach to finding the suspect, he will slip through your fingers. K-9 teams do not operate in a vacuum; they need help from other responding units in order to maximize their effectiveness.

K-9 teams are considered force multipliers. One K-9 team can do the work of many officers, which frees up officers for other duties. The last time I checked, there were approximately 14 states that required a K-9 team certification. In Florida, we require a 400-hour basic training course to certify a K-9 team before it can be deployed. Other states accept a national recognized standard from one of the K-9 associations and add their own set of additional requirements.

Regardless of what standard is used, establishing a K-9 unit is a huge commitment and investment for an agency to make. Field operatives need to remember that: Think about how you use the K-9 unit and treat them with respect. I have been involved with a few spectacular catches as a cover officer and I have to admit it is a huge adrenaline rush. Any veteran officer will tell you that a well trained K-9 team is worth its weight in gold.

Take a building search, for example. Using a K-9 team is the most effective and efficient way to search a building for a suspect. And yet, how many times do road patrol units just rush in before checking if a K-9 unit is available? I call this type of attitude ribbon chasing. Everyone wants to catch the bad guy and get the gold star. We allow our zeal for the find to cloud our judgment. Or worse, we blow off the call as just another smash and grab, and contaminate the hell out of the scene. You don't need to squander K-9's usefulness by using improper tactics or procedures. Unless exigent circumstances exist, time is on your side. Use time as a weapon instead of an excuse.

It's also important to understand that there is a special bond between handler and dog that makes them act as one. They depend on each to get the job done, but they depend on us for everything else.

So how can you make things better? Much of what patrol officers can do to help K-9 units is what you are supposed to be doing anyway. Things like setting up a good perimeter, protecting a crime scene, and staying off the radio during a track. Now if only these standard procedures were followed more frequently.


It's easy to get desensitized to things in law enforcement. You handle so many calls of a similar nature that you can forget each one you respond to is new. They all blur together with you saying things like, "Is that damn alarm going off again?" The problem with such a mindset is that you are never issued that crystal ball that sees all. Because cops go to so many false alarms or calls that just don't pan out, doing something as critical as setting up a proper perimeter sometimes seems unimportant. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The idea behind setting up a perimeter is that size does matter. Bigger is can always make it smaller later. A good perimeter keeps the suspect penned in an area so a K-9 can track to them. The goal is that every time the suspect goes on the move, he sees a patrol car and goes back inside the perimeter and hunkers down. In order for that to happen, each person on perimeter needs to be in his or her car, lights on, and paying attention. It's also preferable whenever possible to shut the cars off, as the exhaust fumes kill the scent involved with the track.

But what inevitably happens is instead of officers scanning their assigned areas for the suspect to pop out, they busy themselves with texting, reading, talking on the cell phone, or playing on their in-car computers. I've often wondered how many times a suspect has snuck by someone who was not paying attention.[PAGEBREAK]

On the flip side, however, there are many times when an officer spots the suspect in his or her area of responsibility and calls it out on the radio. The last one I can recall as watch commander before moving to Special Operations was during a robbery. The bad guys held back and tried to slip out onto a main drag, driving normally while hiding in the open. A perimeter unit recognized the car, let it pass as if nothing was going on, and then orchestrated a felony stop before the suspects could realize what was happening.

Crime Scene Protection

Crime scene protection is also critical. You need to respond, assess the situation, and react accordingly. Once things calm down and you know what's going on, you need to lock down the scene. That means keeping everyone out until the K-9 unit is done. That's right, you heard me. No, you can't interview and get your witness statements inside; no, you can't start processing the scene; and no, you can't touch anything that could be considered a scent article. Look at it this way: You can't be a little pregnant. You either take calling out K-9 seriously or you don't.

If you do call them out, then you can wait on some of these other tasks until the K-9 unit is done. The goal is to catch the bad guy, not for you to finish your paperwork expeditiously. We really need to change our mindset regarding K-9 units. If you call them out you need to treat every scene as a major incident. If you wouldn't contaminate a homicide scene that is basically over, why would you contaminate a crime scene that is still in progress?

The Radio

There is no bigger pet peeve of mine, outside of officer safety issues, than misuse of the radio. It's a supervisor's eternal fight. If K-9 is on a track, then everyone but K-9 should be quiet, unless someone spots the suspect. It never fails; when an alert tone goes out, some insidious chromosome kicks in and everyone involved gets diarrhea of the mouth. Acknowledge and go. Set up your perimeter and when the K-9 unit gets there and starts its track, the radio is theirs. If you are lucky to have Aviation respond, then radio traffic belongs to the K-9 unit and the air asset.

Do all of your admin-type talking on another channel. Keep the radio clear for updates on possible suspect location. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have had to admonish someone for some totality non-essential radio communication on the primary channel while K-9 was on a track. Some of the biggest violators are command staff. Wouldn't it be nice if we could get away with telling one such radio traffic abuser, "No, sir. I don't have an update for you because if I did, I would have told you already. If you'd listen to the radio, then you'd know what I know."

A Note on Being a Cover Officer

A K-9 handler and dog should never run alone. Either have a K-9 officer go with them on a track, or a patrol officer has to be assigned from those on duty. Being a cover officer during a K-9 track is serious business. If you get volunteered but are not in shape, don't run with K-9. If you don't want to get wet crossing a canal, don't run with K-9; if you don't want to go hands-on with the suspect, don't run with K-9; and my favorite, if you are afraid of dogs, don't run with K-9.

My preference is to have another K-9 officer run as cover officer. But, that's a luxury and one that doesn't always happen.

You just can't tell some poor sap, "Hey, you! Run with K-9!" The officer has to know some ground rules. It takes some training and hopefully your agency periodically addresses it during roll call training or other training opportunities. For example, stay close but behind the K-9 handler. Don't backlight the handler at night with your flashlight. If the dog turns around and starts heading in your direction, stand perfectly still until he moves away from you again. And, if the K-9 is let off lead and he is running in your direction, freeze. When K-9s are in that mode, they really don't know you are the good guy. It's movement they are looking for. Ask any officer who has been bitten before and you will find that for the most part the officer was in the wrong spot, doing the wrong thing, at the wrong time.

Work Together

K-9 teams are an excellent resource if used properly. But we have to make sure the rest of us are following the basics of Cop 101 when we call them out. The best K-9 team in the world will still have trouble finding a suspect if we screw up the perimeter and crime scene.

I suggest that you get with your handlers and find out what it is they need from you. I also suggest attending their training from time to time. Watch firsthand what they do and how they do it. Riding with them as part of a job-shadowing program will be beneficial as well. And finally, don't complain about your K-9 unit never finding anyone. It's not as easy as you think. If you take the time to review your K-9 unit's actual stats, you may think differently. Besides, it's not like the movies, even though some of us do look like we need to put less butter on our popcorn.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 24 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.

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Lieutenant (Ret.)
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