Paws That Protect and Serve

By: Dennis Meade

Early humans relied on dogs for protection, early warnings, warmth, companionship and more. The long history of humans relying on canines for support can be found as far back as 600 BC when evidence was found that Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used dogs to help in combat. For centuries, dogs have been trained to help in dangerous and stressful environments, like on the front lines of war, and military K9s have served with honor and distinction in many battles.

Years later, law enforcement began the challenging task of adapting military dogs to assist in policing and security efforts. Thanks to their perseverance, today’s K9 officers and units are very specialized and highly regarded members of law enforcement. Police agencies often rely on K9 units to help patrol units do their job more efficiently and safely. Law enforcement agencies depend on K9 officers in the same way they count on other specialty functions in policing. Protecting and serving, these heroic K9s have found a calling working alongside humans.

Serving Their Country

Military working dogs tend to be larger breeds like German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois. But many famous military working dogs were smaller breeds, like Stubby, the Pitbull in World War I who snuck along on deployment with the soldier that found him stateside. Stubby warned soldiers of incoming artillery, mustard gas and took supplies to wounded soldiers. Stubby was later promoted to sergeant and became one of the most highly decorated canines!

The U.S. military used canines bred in Europe for many years but now has a military service dog breeding program in the U.S. The dogs bred for military service must pass a rigorous assessment program to ensure they can work physically, mentally and emotionally as needed. Those who make it past the testing phase undergo many hours of training, along with their human handler, and work an average of nine to eleven years in the military. Once they retire, most are adopted by their handler, but that wasn’t always the case. In 2000, Robby’s Law was passed to give the handler and their families the first opportunity at adoption.

Law Enforcement K9s

Europeans began using canines for security patrol and crowd control as early as the 1770s. But in 1899, a canine training program was established in Belgium using Belgian sheepdogs and wolfhounds. Soon after, Germany created a canine training school in 1920 using German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers. Early training programs taught puppies that humans in police uniforms were friendly and those not in uniform were unfriendly. These early programs were somewhat successful, but several of the canine policing programs were ended after citizen complaints, injuries or even civilian deaths.

Law enforcement use really began in earnest after World War II thanks to the successful use of K9s in wartime. However, when several K9 units were ended shortly after starting in the mid-1950s, K9 use in law enforcement nearly ended. Luckily, Baltimore City, Maryland, then started what has become known as the first modern K9 program in law enforcement. Their use of K9s in an urban environment became a model for other police agencies, and K9 programs were reborn. As training became more standardized, including keeping the handlers and K9s partnered or bonded, law enforcement dog units became more successful and common in police agencies, like we see today.

K9 Certification and Testing

Police K9 units must stay current with training hours and certifications to meet the standards set by the certifying association. Each K9 association has specialized certifications that may be obtained through testing – and the associated training to ensure readiness for testing. The certificates are varied; some K9 and handler teams have multiple certifications, such as area and building search.

The K9 handlers are also evaluated during the testing process. Officer safety is crucial (both canine and human), and the handler needs to have good communication with their K9 partner, adequate spatial awareness for both them and their K9, and a solid practice of cover and concealment for the handler during testing for building searches, aggressive takedowns, and similar certifications.

Law Enforcement K9 Specialties

Many police K9 units are dual-purpose or even multi-purpose, with certifications in more than one specialty. Being certified allows the training to be recognized legally and used, when appropriate, as probable cause for searches and other police actions. Types of specialties vary by units, and if a police department does not have a K9 certified in the needed specialty for a particular incident, they’ll often contact neighboring agencies to see if they have a K9 unit that can assist. K9 certifications include:

  • Obedience Certification requires a K9 to be able to work away from the handler during some situations but must follow the handler’s commands.
  • Aggression Control Certification tests the canine’s ability to be off lead in escalating situations while remaining aware of the handler and responding to the handler’s commands during an aggressive interaction or when there are outside factors, like running after a suspect, distractions and gunfire.
  • Area Search Certification measures the K9 teams’ ability to search for a suspect in a large area without a known track to start.
  • Building Search Certification uses testing on different types of buildings, including residences, warehouses, schools and others, to see if the K9 team can find a suspect hiding in the structure.
  • Narcotics Detection Certification verifies the reliability of the police dog in detecting specific narcotics in various locations, like vehicles, buildings or containers.
  • Explosives Detection Certification is like narcotics detection. K9s trained in explosives detection search for and alert their handler when finding a type of explosive residue or scent.
  • Cadaver Detection training in cadaver search certificate allows a K9 to search areas for a body, including vehicles, buildings, buried, and uneven regions strewn with debris due to mass casualty natural disasters or other similar events. Water cadaver detection is also a certification that could benefit some K9 units.
  • Search and Rescue Certification are trained in search and rescue, which may fall within the purview of other public safety agencies like a fire department.

Most law enforcement agencies in the U.S. focus on K9 specialties that directly aid normal patrol functions needed within their community.

Fire Service Specialties

In addition to military working dogs and law enforcement K9s, dogs are also familiar in fire departments. The history of canines in fire service began with Dalmatians as carriage dogs who ran alongside or rode on the horse-pulled fire wagon. As companions to the firefighters on duty for long shifts, dogs have also found roles as firehouse mascots for the community. Some firehouse dogs have been seen on television, like Smokey, a black lab from Jacksonville, Illinois, who guest starred on the Chicago Fire TV series. Some have coloring books or children’s books about fire safety, like Sparkles the Fire Safety Dog, from Clarksville, Arkansas, the main character in a children’s books series.

Some fire departments have arson dogs who work with fire investigators to find evidence of arson in fires. They are certified in detecting accelerants, such as gasoline, diesel fuel, lighter fluid and others. Some dogs are also trained and certified in locating explosives and explosive residue. Not every fire department has an arson dog, but the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has the oldest and one of the most extensive arson dog programs in the U.S.

K9 Public Service Makes a Difference

As law enforcement changes, K9 roles adapt and diversify. Some police agencies added victim services dogs trained to console victims before and after their interviews or to reassure children of safety during traumatic events. Many other agencies, like county or district attorney’s offices, courtrooms, mental health agencies, and more, now use dogs to help comfort and provide stress relief to victims and those using their services, along with providing comfort and support to staff.

As society changes, the role of K9s in law enforcement will continue to expand and change. Even as technology increases, the need for dogs in law enforcement, the military and fire services will remain. Canines continue to help the community and support their handlers and coworkers, making them a vital part of public service. These specially trained dogs are not only companions but a lifeline to their K9 handler, and most importantly, they make an incredibly paw-sitive impact serving the community.


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