Have you ever wondered what makes up the perfect police dog? What characteristics are most sought after? Why do a lot of agencies use imported dogs? I am often asked these questions by both private citizens and non-k9 police personnel. There are varying opinions on the correct answers to these questions and the debate goes on and on. I will relate to you my opinion learned through my many brilliant mentors and through my own experience.
I have handled five police dogs, one of which did not make it out of the K9 School. Four of those were Patrol/Utility dogs, which is a dual-purpose dog, certified in two specialties. Usually the first certification is for patrol work, which would include tracking, handler protection, building and area searches, and article searches. The second certification is usually narcotics, explosives, and cadaver. My fifth dog is a single purpose dog which is certified only in one specialty such as tracking, narcotics, explosives and sometimes cadaver.
What makes up the perfect police dog? Is there a perfect police dog? In my opinion, none of them are perfect. You have spectacular police dogs, good ones and adequate ones. These police K9’s can alternate through all three of those categories on any given call, day or week. Police dogs have great days and make awesome catches and then the next day, the dog misses on a track or on a search. In that respect, the police dog is like their human partners, we have off days or moments.
My very first K9 was named Chance. He was a German shepherd and was donated my department by one of our deputies. I do not know any other information about his breeding or his origins but he was a green (non-trained) dog. Chance was social and exceled in his narcotic and obedience work. He was confident in his aggression work and seemed comfortable environmentally. We encountered a problem in his area and building searches. Chance was not comfortable searching on his own and was too dependent on me, not wanting to venture too far from me. He did not like small rooms and was not confident engaging a decoy in this environment, to the point of trying to retreat.
One of the most important characteristic in a police K9 is confidence. Having a dog retreat from a threat, leaving the handler alone is not acceptable. You can accent a dog’s confidence and you can build it to a degree. If the dog has a phobia to a certain circumstance or situation, sometimes it cannot be over-come in the amount time allotted to K9 School or ever, and that must be evaluated by the trainers running the school.
A K9 needs to be social as well. It is important to remember that many of the tasks performed as a K9 team are in the proximity of other people, civilians, and other officers.
Having worked a previous non-social K9, K9 Cliff, I had to be hyper-vigilant for anyone, other officers included, getting too close to me or him and anyone who happened to catch Cliff’s glance. Cliff was a super-diligent dog who caught countless bad guys but his narcotic work was average, his focus being the people on scene, not the scent work. It is imperative that any police dog be completely obedient to the handler which also can help in socialization.
The drive/instinct to pursue objects to source that are no longer in view is very important. This is a key characteristic to have, for example, when tracking a lost child or a suspect, the dog must have an internal drive to continue to track or search for this scent through all sorts of conditions. The hunt drive can be honed through proper training but once again, time is a factor when selecting a police dog with inferior drive. A test that our agency will do is to take the dog to a new area and then throw a ball repeatedly to different areas such as low grass, then high grass progressing into more difficult terrain. Does the dog continue to search for the ball or does it give up and return to the evaluator for another?
We like to see a dog that in spite of the weather or the terrain, insistently searches and searches until the ball is successfully located. Another test is to set a bowl of water on the field, to gage the amount time the dog will invest in the search before turning to the water bowl. Does the dog take a quick drink and then is ready to return to the game or does he plop down by the bowl or in the shade after a few throws?
My current single purpose explosive dog, a Border Collie named Lucy, will run and search for her toy and until I literally have to give up. Her previous owner would throw her ball into his large fenced wooded acreage, and then send her to search for it. She would not return to him until she found it, sometimes hours later.
In my opinion, dogs with high drives in hunt, prey, defense/ fight are going to be the dogs from which I make my selection. In short terms, Prey drive is the instinct to chase, bite and/or kill prey. Defense drive is the instinct to guard or protect the pack from a threat and physically attacking in the effort to do so if necessary. These definitions are simply stated and each drive could be expounded upon for hours. A dog that is well rounded in each of these drives is going to be the best candidates for selection. I have learned that honing these drives with positive re-enforcement makes the training much easier for the dog and handler.
Through trial and error, our agency buys our K9’s through a kennel that imports the dogs from Holland, Germany or The Czech Republic. The breeding programs from overseas are diligent in breeding for the desired drives that were discussed previously. There are many great American kennels breeding for police work exclusively. Before this became a hot commodity, it was found that a lot of kennels domestically bred for show or pet quality dogs which require different drives then Law Enforcement work.
My current patrol/utility K9, Dagger, is non-stop energy. Each day he runs numerous laps in my yard, which has a track to prove it, and several laps in the pool, usually proceeded by a playful cannonball into the water. When I first brought him home, he would only stop pacing the house to snatch a short nap and at those times everyone in the house would freeze for those few minutes of quiet. A stretch on the couch for my son would sometimes be interrupted by a surprise launch over the back of the couch by K9 Dagger onto his stomach to instigate some horseplay. Perhaps you could see the conflict for the normal citizen looking for a pet from these high drive dogs.
In summation, is there a perfect police dog? In my opinion, no there is not. The pairing of a good trainer and handler working in conjunction with a well -rounded, high drive, well-trained dog makes for a solid and superior K9 TEAM. The team will encounter many situations where the heart and drive of the team as whole or individuals dictate the success of the encounter.
Master Deputy Charlotte Raschke has worked in law enforcement since 1988. She started her career in Detention Services and worked all phases of patrol, street crimes, crime prevention, property detective and the K9 unit. She has been in K9 for 13 years as a handler, working three patrol utility/narcotic dogs and a single purpose EOD dog. Master Deputy Raschke is currently a K9 trainer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa, FL. She was twice awarded the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, the Deputy of the Quarter, and four life saving awards. She is an adjunct Instructor for St. Petersburg College’s Multi-Jurisdictional Counter Drug Task Force and Law Enforcement Today’s K-9 expert.