The K9 Unit | Police Dogs and How They are Trained

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One of the most fascinating aspects of the police force is without question the police dog and its handler, also called the K9 unit. Canines have been used for security and hunting by humans since Roman times, and were introduced in modern law enforcement well over a hundred years ago. Bloodhounds were reported to have helped in the infamous search for Jack the Ripper in London in 1888, and shortly thereafter, Europeans began training dogs specifically for police work. Since the 1970s, K9 units have become an asset for police departments across the U.S. But where do these majestic beings come from? What can police dogs do? What can’t they do? How are they trained? Are they naturally aggressive or is their aggression calculated? In order to answer some of these questions and get an inside look at what goes into training and maintaining the k9 unit, we visited a local training center called West Michigan K9 and talked with owner, Stephen Parent.

Steve and I began our discussion with a brief overview of his background in dog training. The first time he went bird hunting as a boy, he was amazed by the way man and best friend worked together to catch their prey. Later, when he served in the U.S. Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Steve got the opportunity to work alongside Military Working Dogs (MWDs). Retiring from the service due to an injury, Steve landed a cushy job at Apple working as a Business Manager. In his free time he began experimenting with dog training, and built up a customer base organically by training dogs for friends and family. When his hobby took off, he decided it was time to hang up his suit and become a full-time dog trainer. His co-workers and friends thought he was crazy. But as they say, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward, and Steve’s plunge into entrepreneurship definitely paid off. 

That was four years ago. Today, West Michigan K9 is booming. The company recently added a brand new training facility and plans to hire an estimated 25 employees by this time next year. A partnership with the military’s out-processing program will offer job opportunities to soldiers with experience in dog handling when they leave the military. This new growth is in response to a recent flood of work from the U.S. Government, where the company will focus most of its efforts moving forward. West Michigan K9 also runs over 25 in-home obedience trainings per week, and their fully trained personal protection dogs are in high demand, with clientele like NASA scientists and A-list celebrities. 

So how does a dog become a police dog? 

Steve explained that police departments can procure K9s in one of two ways. They can buy a “green dog,” which is a 7 to 14 month old dog with basic obedience training. The green dog is sent to a 4-12 week training program accompanied by the officer assigned to it. The other option is for the department to buy a fully trained dog, which goes through similar training with its assigned officer. It all depends on what the dog will be used for, and how much the department is willing to invest. In most cases the officer has worked extremely hard for the privilege of obtaining a K9 partner and has had some sort dog training experience in the past. But building the relationship between the officer and his or her new K9 is one of the most difficult parts of the process, so handler school can be stressful. In most departments the officer and his K9 partner will then have to be certified by an independent organization recognized for patrol, narcotics and/or bomb detection before they are cleared for active duty. 

What does police dog training entail?

Police dogs are trained to either be “single purpose” or “dual purpose” service dogs. Single purpose dogs are mostly used for backup, personal protection and tracking. Dual purpose dogs are more popular and trained to do everything the single purpose dogs do, plus detection of either explosives or narcotics, but never both. The reason the dogs are trained for one or the other is because the dog can’t communicate to the officer what it found, just that it found something. Police protocol for a possible explosive on the premises is much different from that of a narcotic. For example, if the narcotics dog indicates that it found something, the officer has reasonable suspicion to search the bag or vehicle in question without a warrant. If the explosives dog indicates that it found something, the officer’s first priority would be to clear and secure the area, then proceed with bomb threat protocol.

Steve was kind enough to demonstrate a couple different training techniques. 

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This is Steve’s own dog, Whiskey, enacting bite sleeve training, which teaches the dog to show aggression and attack someone who is threatening its owner. Steve walks Whiskey into the room where they are confronted by another trainer, in this case, Jason, making loud noises and acting aggressively. With one command from Steve, Whiskey goes from a calm, confident dog into an aggressive stance and barks loudly with full focus on the threat. On his next order, the dog goes after Jason’s arm, which is protected by the bite sleeve. Whiskey’s grip on Jason’s arm is so strong that Jason can lift him off the ground and spin him around without his jaws releasing.  As soon as Steve says “Aus,” a German word meaning “drop it,” Whiskey disengages Jason and comes back to Steve’s side.  Whiskey remains calm, yet keeps his eyes locked on Jason, awaiting orders until Steve says, “break,” which transforms Whiskey back to a normal dog with a big smile, lolling tongue and wagging tail. Whiskey actually got ahold of the bite sleeve during the last round, and was quite proud of himself!

Why are dogs trained with German commands? 

According to Steve, service dogs are trained in German mostly because it is a somewhat uncommon language (especially in the U.S.), so it gives the owner more control over the dog. Well-trained dogs would most likely not respond to commands from anyone other than their owner anyway, even with the proper terminology, but the German language is used as an extra precaution. Steve presumes that the practice is partially rooted in tradition, since Germany was an early pioneer of service dog training. A large percentage of working dogs still come from German and European breeders because they often have better reputations, and provide lifetime support for their dogs.

How does the k9 unit determine if someone is a true threat? 

Steve calls this the “drunk uncle scenario” and rendered that the dogs learn to read their handler’s body language in order to make their own judgement call. If the handler is relaxed and moving toward the person in question, the dog will also be relaxed. If the handler is tensed and backing up, the dog will read this body language to mean the person is threatening their owner. The dog will focus on the threat and show signs of aggression, either on command, or on its own if it feels the threat is getting too close. However, until the command is given or physical contact is made, the dog will only intimidate the threat rather than engaging.

Steve gave us an example of a road rage incident where someone cut him off and got angry when Steve put his hands up in frustration. Stopping his car, the angry driver got out, yelling obscenities and banging on the hood of Steve’s car, who was so surprised by how quickly the situation escalated that he forgot his dog was even with him. When the angry driver came around to Steve’s open window, the dog launched out of the back seat at him, effectively making the man retreat and run back to his car. 

Are protection dogs trained to be aggressive or can they be loving too?

They can be both, but this is somewhat of a new phenomenon. Steve remembers having the perception growing up that protection dogs were aggressive and not to be kept in the house as a family pet. Having a beautiful wife and daughter of his own, Steve was determined to change that perception and train his dogs to be both–mission accomplished. Personal protection dogs are what “put us on the map,” Steve says. His dogs freely roam the premises, and are nothing but courteous when visitors arrive, unless Steve says otherwise. When we pulled up and got out of the car, the dogs gave us a very warm welcome–a stark contrast to the aggressive behavior we witnessed with the bite sleeve. 

What does it take to become a successful dog handler?

Much of West Michigan K9’s success is attributed to the structure and consistency ingrained in Steve during his military career, which is at the root of his training technique. Stephen continually sharpens his skills by attending first-rate seminars around the world, such as a recent event hosted by Logan Haus Kennels in West Virginia. In his inherently modest fashion, Steve admitted that he was terrified by the rapid pace at which his company is growing, knowing he could fail and lose it all overnight. But he has learned to be comfortable in his fear, and says it keeps him focused. It seems to be working. Just two weeks ago, they successfully taught an 8 week old puppy named Maverick to ignore the smells of hot dogs, tennis balls and birch trees (which apparently dogs love) to sniff out the scent of heroine. He consistently finds the heroine, even when they move the scents around on him. This type of training normally starts with dogs around 8 to 10 months old. Getting a six month jump on detection training is kind of a big deal, as evidenced by the half a million views their Facebook video got in just two weeks. Either Maverick is a puppy genius, or Steve is a training genius. Betting on the latter, Steve plans to start detection training at 8 weeks with all future pups. 

We got to watch this tiny ball of cuteness, now 10 weeks old, perform his task in person.

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*Note that real heroine is not used in this training–just a synthetic scent. 

Are certain breeds or personality traits sought after for working dogs?

West Michigan K9 mostly sticks with two breeds for military and protection work, German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois. Other types of shepherds, as well as labrador retrievers and giant schnauzers, are also common for police work. These breeds are often used for hunting and are popular for police work because of the personality traits common in their bloodlines. Police dogs need to have a natural “ball drive,” meaning that they really like to play fetch. They must be smart, obviously, but they also have to be social because they’ll be regularly interacting with all sorts of different people. Labradors are becoming increasingly popular for border patrol because they are less intimidating to innocent travelers. 

Is gender an important factor? Are police dogs typically spayed or neutered? 

These are hotly debated questions in the service dog industry, and many people have different opinions. In Steve’s experience, both male and female dogs make great service dogs and pick up the training at about the same pace. However, he says that he prefers working with males because they are always “on.” Every dog has their own personality, but Steve has found that his male dogs, bred specifically for service work, are ready for action 100% of the time. His female dogs on the other hand will get stubborn once in a while and decide not to comply. West Michigan K9 does not spay or neuter their dogs, and leaves it up to the purchasing department to decide whether or not to keep the dog’s reproductive organs in tact.

Can a dog flunk out of police dog school? What happens then?

Yes, dogs can flunk out of police dog school, but it is often due to health or injury. If a dog flunks out of training, sometimes it will be reassigned to some other form of service work, like emotional support or assisting a disabled person. If reassignment is not an option, the dog will then be put into a foster home until it finds a forever family. The service dog industry tends to be a pretty tightly knit community, with sprawling networks of people happy to help out a dog in need. It usually takes Steve less than an afternoon to find a new home for a dog.

Do dogs get any training surrounding lights and sirens? 

We had to ask, obviously. The training Steve does at his facility does not cover lights and sirens, but he knows that they come into play during the officer-K9 team training sessions. Dogs pick up on siren tones, just as they pick up on your doorbell at home. They get super excited when they hear the sirens go off because they know it means that they’re going to work. Whiskey definitely seemed excited when Steve showed off the new SoundOff lights he just installed on his truck.

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We want to congratulate Steve on his recent graduation from the fire academy, and thank him for volunteering his time to keep our community safe! We also want to give a huge thanks to Steve and his team at West Michigan K9 for giving us such great insight into the process of training police dogs.