Working with Dogs

Whether chasing a fleeing suspect or searching for a missing person, the K-9 handler and his assisting officers have a lot of influence on the success or failure of a canine search. What can a street cop do to hedge his bets when it comes to a successful canine search? We asked a few K-9 vets.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

It’s been a chase over the hills and through the woods. You’ve skirted lawn mowers, ducked clotheslines, scaled fences, and caught your breath at the occasional blind corner. It’s a wonder that you’ve kept up with the scumbag this long. After all, he’s in jeans and a T-shirt and you’ve got the weight of your vest and the weight of all that gear around your waist to contend with. Finally, your legs and lungs concede the race and you lope to a halt.

It’s K-9 time.

Whether chasing a fleeing suspect or searching for a missing person, the K-9 handler and his assisting officers have a lot of influence on the success or failure of a canine search. What can a street cop do to hedge his bets when it comes to a successful canine search? We asked a few K-9 vets.

Know Your Dogs

That old cliché “the right tool for the right job” is very much applicable here. More than one officer has been disappointed by assuming a requested search dog would be capable of doing a suspect search when, in fact, the dog was trained for article searches.

Police dogs are likely trained in one of seven operations: narcotics detection, accelerant detection, bomb detection, cadaver detection, trailing, tracking, or patrol (apprehension of suspects and protection of officers). The first rule of working with dogs is to know which kind of dog to ask for.

Trailing Vs. Tracking

Most of the tasks of police dogs are self-explanatory. A bomb detection dog obviously has a trained nose that can sniff out explosives. But trailing and tracking dogs require a little discussion because the two tasks are not the same.

Generally speaking, trailing dogs will tail the freshest scent, and they depend heavily on crushed vegetation to follow the bad guy. Avoiding contamination of the area to be searched helps prevent a trailing dog from getting off the beaten path, so to speak.

Tracking dogs such as bloodhounds are more scent specific. Having obtained an identifiable scent, bloodhounds can generally stay with that unique odor, regardless of cross-contamination.

Handlers say the actions of cops at the scene often hinder the efforts of trailing and tracking dogs.

“If you are going to call a dog, leave the area to be searched alone until then,” says Chad McCluskey, an officer with the Augusta (Kan.) Department of Safety. “Having a dog enter an area where officers have searched just creates problems every time. The officers may have created odor where it otherwise may not have been. Dogs will track all six officers that ran out the back door of the bank after a robbery suspect, but they may not track the suspect when there are nine different scents unless you have a ‘scent discriminatory’ dog and a scent article from the suspect.”

Jim Sanfilippo worked as a K-9 handler with the Milwaukee Police Department K-9 unit, and he stresses setting up a large perimeter with an emphasis on containment and crime scene discipline.

“There is nothing worse than showing up at a scene and having people all over the place,” says Sanfilippo. “And the worst offenders of ‘clean containment’ are fellow officers. Inevitably you’ll hear, ‘We kept all the civilians and press out.’ They never tell you about the 20 cops who’ve been leaving scent all over your scene. Then they wonder, ‘Why doesn’t that dog start tracking?’ when the only thing the dog smells is all the cops.”

Breeds and Training

K-9 handlers have their own preferences when it comes to breeds. And you will find service dogs of all sizes. However, when it comes to patrol work, the popular rule of thumb is that longer muzzled dogs have greater senses of smell and (I’m grasping for a more politically correct and euphemistic way of putting this) better bites. Consequently, most patrol dogs are long-snouted animals like German shepherds and a Belgian breed called the Malinois.

Other preferences can be more idiosyncratic. For example, one K-9 copper that we spoke to found the reward-minded Labrador retriever to be an ideal bomb dog because of its single-mindedness. “They’re stupid,” he says. “They couldn’t give a damn if you pet them or not. All they want is that friggin’ rubber ball.”

Dog handlers concede that certain dogs are tougher to work with than others. For example, the bloodhound is notoriously difficult to train. But bloodhound handlers say that once the dog is trained, it’s a real crime solver. Case in point, bloodhounds trained by FBI contractor Ted Hamm have had remarkable success detecting scents on ejected shell casings.

Following a recent shooting, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies detained five gang members. The deputies were sure they had their shooter among the five, but they weren’t sure who had actually fired the gun. They called in Hamm and his hound.

Each suspect was led into the Sheriff’s station via the rear door, then escorted to various rooms thereafter. Then the bloodhound went to work.

Courts have ruled that scent searches have to begin where the suspect was last reasonably known to have been. So Hamm—who had earlier had his bloodhound obtain a scent from an expended shell casing at the crime scene—began his search at the station’s rear door. The dog worked his way through the station, eventually coming to a room where one of the suspects had been detained.

The dog immediately jumped into the shooter’s lap, identifying him as the man who had pulled the trigger. Disgusted, the gang member looked at the dog and sighed. “If he was a human being I would f___ing kill him. But what am I supposed to do with a dog?” Heroes in Fur

Some bad guys haven’t shown such restraint when dealing with police service dogs. Law enforcement K-9s have been drowned, strangled, stabbed, run over, and shot by suspects. Police K-9s have paid the ultimate sacrifice. They have also saved the lives of their handlers and other officers. Consider the story of Arco.

While conducting a search for an armed suspect, Arco took a bullet meant for his handler, Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Phil Geisler. Thanks to Arco’s intervention, Geisler was able to return fire and kill the suspect. Fortunately, Arco eventually recovered from his injuries.

Tough Duty

K-9s like Arco are surprisingly durable. They have a history of conducting successful searches in good weather and bad. Sanfilippo has deployed dogs for searches in 25-degrees-below-zero weather and in 20-inch deep snow.

Such efforts in frigid winter conditions are not easy on the dogs or their handlers. The cold weather can play havoc on a dog as his paws can get frigid and sore. Heat can also be a problem. So the necessity for a search in inclement conditions should always be weighed against the dog’s welfare.

Care should also be taken to ensure that your agency’s dogs are not overworked.

Sanfilippo says that when the Milwaukee PD first adopted a K-9, department veterans with 30 to 35 years of experience who had come to rely on their own capabilities when conducting searches were often reticent to request a K-9 employment. Then, once the dogs’ capabilities were proven, officers often went to the other extreme, requesting the dogs for just about everything under the sun.

Similarly, dispatchers should not become overly dependent on K-9s in using them as first responders, as their unnecessary deployment can exhaust a dog. Service dogs are an asset that should not be squandered on unnecessary callouts.

Dog Bites

K-9 deployments can and will result in suspects being bitten. This is one reason why handling officers need to document any injuries sustained by suspects or others incident to a K-9 deployment.

If a picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, then take a few of a suspect’s bite wounds, preferably after the wounds have been cleansed. After all, you know his lawyer will take some.

Also, don’t be cavalier in your choice of wording in describing injuries. There are any number of ways to describe a dog bite that don’t include inflammatory words such as “bloody,” “torn,” “gaping,” etc.

And be aware that an agency can and will be sued for the actions of its dogs. Police dogs are by and large still loved by the public, and deservedly so. But that doesn’t mean that juries won’t award substantial portions of an agency’s budget to some suspect whose appendages were confused for Puppy Chow.

If you’re reckless with your dogs, then expect to be sued. And expect to lose. Case in point, one agency paid out a considerable sum after a handler asked an on-scene supervisor if her dog could get a bite in on a captured suspect and was given permission to do so.

Show Some Respect

However quick the containment, however conscientious the efforts of all involved, sometimes the bad guy gets away, even when you call in the dogs. At their worst, such outcomes result in recriminations from both patrol officers and K-9 handlers.

The K-9 handler will find fault with what he feels was a compromised containment. And the assisting officers will suspect a “compromised” K-9. Often, the fault lies with neither. Suspects sometimes get away and that doesn’t mean that a cop made a mistake or that a dog is useless.

The point here is that regardless of the outcome, you should be respectful of the K-9 team. They’re not on the scene for comic relief or to be scapegoats if the suspect gets away.

Augusta PD’s McCluskey, who’s enjoyed great success with Basco, a Belgian Malinois, bristles when he repeats the comments that have been made about service K-9s by some insensitive cops. “The most aggravating things cops do is judge dogs and their handlers. I hear officers say, ‘That dog is no good.’ ‘That dog couldn’t find its food dish.’ I hear that stuff all the time. But unless you are a handler, and have been for some time, you cannot make an assumption about what the quality of a dog or handler happens to be.”

Former K-9 handler Richard Rohrbaugh, who is now chief of the Fort Shawnee (Ohio) Police Department, echoes McCluskey’s analysis. And he adds that a pet peeve of K-9 handlers is uniformed officers who enjoy teasing the dogs and getting them riled up. “Here I am, trying to train the dog to discern between uniformed personnel and suspects and they’re provoking the dog.”

K-9 Units and Containment Tactics

It is important for responding officers to take the initiative in setting up a containment. The reason is simple. The officers involved in the foot pursuit are too busy and too winded to do it.

Ideally, the containment should be coordinated by the senior officer working the area. Failing that, an officer with an extended ETA should take up the slack by pulling over and using his map book in setting up a containment. And here’s a quick tip: Whether you’re working a familiar area or a new one, keeping a copy of an area map in your pocket can facilitate the establishment of a containment.

A quick preliminary containment can be effected with one two-officer car. One officer can be dropped off to monitor two streets while her partner drives to the opposite corner of the block to watch the other two streets.

Remember, no containment is perfect. There will always be problems. For example, a momentary lack of attention can result in a suspect running one more block than expected. This is why it’s a good idea to establish your perimeter a little farther out than you think is necessary. Constricting a search perimeter is easier than expanding one.

Veteran K-9 handlers say they can predict whether a search will be successful based on the radio discipline of the officers involved in setting the containment. “I can tell a lot by just the radio traffic as I’m rolling,” says Chad McCluskey, a K-9 handler with the Augusta (Kan.) Department of Public Safety. “If it is organized, a perimeter is set quickly and efficiently, and I have good troops on the outside, we will most likely do well. If it is not organized and everyone is yelling on the radio at the same time, I may as well stay at home.”

Once you’ve set up a perimeter, remember that a containment not only means keeping the suspect within an identified area, but keeping out looky lous, possible contaminants, and would-be accessories after the fact. This might require some initiative and the officers involved may have to get out of their cars.

Which may be a good thing. Suspects like to run behind patrol cars. And an officer in a car makes a stationary target. Think about parking your car, turning on all the lights, and stepping away from it.

If you’re going to deploy dogs, consider sending officers to contact local residents and ask them to secure their dogs in restrooms or garages. Not only does this make good risk management sense, but it can actually speed up the search process by taking distractions and hazards out of the path of the police dogs.

Some veteran criminals will attempt to outrun whatever containment you set up. Fortunately, most suspects aren’t that smart. They just get out of sight and try to hide. “Most of the time I’ve found the bad guys hiding in a garage, a storage shed, or a vacant house,” says Jim Sanfilippo, a K-9 handler with the Milwaukee Police Department. “Some of my best K-9 physical apprehensions were within two blocks of the crime scene.”

Richard Rohrbaugh, chief of the Fort Shawnee Police Department, worked with two German shepherds early in his career. “The thing that amazed me was that 90 percent of the time, we’d find ourselves tracking in a horseshoe configuration, almost in a circle. Which makes sense because a lot of the time the suspect was trying to work his way back to the area where he parked his car.”


About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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