History of police dogs
European police forces were using bloodhounds reportedly as early as the 18th century. But it wasn’t until World War I that countries such as Belgium and Germany began using dogs for guard duty. And while police dogs became popular in Europe in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that police dogs found a home in squad rooms here in the United States.
The most famous police dog, the German shepherd Rin Tin Tin, had captured the attention of American moviegoers long before then. Abandoned by retreating German forces in 1918, he was rescued by an American Army sergeant and brought back to the United States. From there, the dashing movie star made 122 films and was the title character of a TV series.
Today, thousands of K9 dog units staff police departments throughout the country. Most forces employ two K9s – as with the Brentwood Police Department – and some, like Oakley’s, a single dog. Antioch and Pittsburg also make use of K9s. Many jurisdictions share K9 officers with neighboring jurisdictions.
“Canines are just another invaluable tool from the tool box,” said Oakley Police Chief Bani Kollo. “And here in East County we share our dogs with different agencies as needed. You can never have enough canines.”
The makings of a police dog
When it comes to canine candidates, the most common choices are German shepherds and Labrador retrievers, although the Belgian Malinois is also a popular police dog. European dogs are most frequently recruited and trained, but they’re not cheap. Most canines run in the $10,000 range, and when you factor in approximately $6,000 for training, you’re looking at a fairly expensive purchase.
Still, research shows that properly trained and utilized police dogs can save a department as much as $100,000 a year. According to Dan Moore, owner of Moore K9 Training in Brentwood, what qualifies as a proper police dog is a little subjective. “Well, what makes a good dog is all relative,” said Moore, who has been training police dogs for nearly 30 years. “All police departments want cross-trained dogs, meaning they can handle basic patrol work and find narcotics also. But what you’re looking for are good instincts, self-confidence and a natural intelligence.”
But it’s a good handler that makes the dog an effective law enforcement tool. A good handler relates well to dogs, is willing to work, train and be patient with the animal, and understands the intricacies of police dogs. “Many times handlers spend more time with their dogs than they do with their own families,” said Moore. “They have to be willing to put in the time. It takes a certain kind of police officer to be a part of the canine unit.”
Lang, who worked with a canine partner at his last police job as a deputy in Mendocino County, agreed that being a canine handler requires a certain personality and level of commitment. “I’ve been a deputy with and without a dog,” said Lang. “And I have to say I kind of prefer the dog. But there is a lot that goes into having a canine partner and a lot of other considerations that come with the job. For instance, you have to remember to feed them a certain amount of time before you go on patrol so their stomachs don’t twist up. You have to stop a lot for them to stretch their legs and do their business, and most important of all, you have to trust your dog, trust his instincts. And that’s a relationship that takes some time to develop.”
When Lang was a young deputy in Mendocino County, he received a late-night call to check out some suspicious activity in town, and took his new police dog with him. The call turned into a foot pursuit, Lang running behind his dog through the heavily wooded forests of Mendocino, when suddenly the dog stopped. “I was running in pursuit and all of sudden the dog just stops in his tracks,” said Lang. “And it was pitch dark and I couldn’t really see so I just ran on by him. I couldn’t understand why he would just stop short.”
Lang soon discovered why when he found himself dropping off a substantial cliff, resulting in a few broken bones and a bruised ego. “I learned one of the most important rules of the job that night,” said Lang. “And that is to trust your dog. He knows what he’s doing. I learned that the hard way.”
Trained to apprehend, not attack
Most police dogs, and specifically those in East County, are the products of what’s called passive-alert training, meaning the dogs are trained to look for what they think is a toy, but what might in fact result in the capture of a criminal or the seizure of narcotics. “Barney is not trained to attack; he’s trained to apprehend,” said Lang. “He thinks he’s looking for his toy. To him, when given the signal, it’s a game, and the prize is the toy, which might be a bag of marijuana or a missing cell phone or article of clothing. If he’s trained properly, a dog definitely knows his job.”
But before a dog can know his job, he must understand the basics, such as obedience.
“And catching the bad guys,” said Moore. “That’s a basic that never changes.” He added that most departments these days import their dogs from Europe, primarily because they are trained and raised at a higher level than dogs in the United States. And while training techniques have altered little over the years, what has evolved are the crimes.
“Crimes have changed; training hasn’t,” said Moore. “Things are getting more violent, and they’re almost always drug related. I’ve had several handlers recently involved in shootings, whereas before, we really didn’t have those kinds of things.”
Patrol classes are about four weeks long, and the dogs are taught how to bite and release on command, trail and track missing people or items, and identify odors such as narcotics. But for training to remain effective, ongoing sessions are important.
The training also has its negatives. Expensive and time-consuming, canine teams absent while training – as often as twice a month and sometimes more frequently – can leave departments in the lurch. “The challenge is that because the K9 teams are constantly in training, we are also losing one of our most effective tools,” said Kollo. “So that’s where the mutual sharing of canines with neighboring jurisdictions is a good thing. But it can still be difficult.”
The more serious negatives, of course, are fatalities. Each year dozens of dogs are killed in the line of duty. No matter how well trained the teams are, death is an inevitable part of the job. Dogs killed on the job are often afforded the same honors as any other fallen member of the police department.
A day in a dog’s life
During a recent ride-along with Barney and Lang, it became immediately clear that Barney is anything but the stereotypical police dog. Expected to be a highly aggressive, wary and intimidating dog, Barney makes a decidedly different first impression. Although he’s lean, graceful and obviously intelligent, he’s also playful and sweet, just as happy to be petted and fussed over by a stranger (in the presence of his handler) as he is to sit at his master’s heels during the department’s debriefing session at the start of the evening shift.
As Lang walked Barney out to the patrol car to begin his beat, a group of school children preparing to take a tour of the Brentwood department spotted the handsome German shepherd. And it’s clear they know who the real star of the police department is. “Hi, Barney!” shouted one little girl. “Hey, there’s Barney!” a few more yell as Barney calmly strolls by the students, held on a short leash by Lang.
“When I saw the kids out here, I automatically put the leash on Barney and kept it tight,” said Lang. “Because even though I know he’s not going to do anything, he is, after all, an animal, and they’re always unpredictable. That’s my job: to make sure the public – and Barney – are safe.”
Typical days on the canine beat often involve a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Sniffing narcotics out of drug-infested buildings or chasing suspects by means of a single short command from the handler are not everyday occurrences. According to Lang, they’re the exception to the rule.
“Barney has never had to attack anyone yet, but he’s sniffed out a handful of things (such as drugs) while on the job,” said Lang. “He has managed to diffuse a lot more situations just by his presence, and that makes him an invaluable tool.”
And when those tools work, their efforts are truly lifesaving. Kollo recalled an incident recently where Shadow, Oakley’s Malinois police dog, participated in a pursuit on the freeway where officers had stopped a suspicious driver. “The suspect kept reaching in his waist band like he had a weapon, but Shadow was able to keep him from getting to whatever was there and he helped us put that incident to bed,” said Kollo. “And a few weeks ago there was a fugitive hiding in the cut-out bottom of a couch in someone’s home, which we wouldn’t have seen, but Shadow pulled him right out.”
When things go wrong
When a local Brentwood man’s dog was killed last December allegedly by an off-duty San Leandro police dog, questions of propriety, liability and protocol were brought into sharp focus. According to the San Leandro Police Department, the investigation is ongoing, and both the handler and dog have remained on active duty. Typically, police departments are liable when a canine hurts an individual, as might also be the dog’s handler, according to Policek9.com. But statistics on the frequency of K9-generated injuries or incidents are sketchy, partly because such information overlaps into personnel records, which are not open to the public. Kollo, however, believes that despite each department’s ability to set its own policy about how such incidents are handled, basic protocol should be roughly the same.
“A canine is subject to all the traditional policies and procedures of any department,” said Kollo. “There may be some semantic differences, but I believe the use of force policy applies.” Force policy is a set of standards applied to police officers when force is used in the apprehension of a subject.
“There are police dogs that are biters out there and there are those who aren’t,” said Moore. “Some you can take to a park, and some you have to know that you can’t. What I tell my handlers is that even though you think this is your dog, it’s the city’s property, and even if he looks like your average, run-of-the-mill German shepherd, he’s not. Common sense would dictate caution.”
When things do go wrong they can create the impetus for change. John Burris, one of California’s noted civil rights attorneys, was responsible for implementing new policy in the Oakland Police Department in 1993. In the case of Watkins vs. City of Oakland, Burris represented a burglary suspect who sustained severe bites on his feet and legs when cornered by an Oakland police dog. At the time of the incident, the Oakland department trained its dogs to “find and bite,” clamping onto a suspect and not letting go, or re-biting when a suspect resisted. As a result of the suit, the Oakland Police Department changed its canine training policy to “find and bark.”
Still, many departments argue that a well-trained canine team can actually reduce liability in some cases by reducing the likelihood a suspect will resist in the first place.
The stereotype of police dogs as lethal killers is hard to erase. And with good reason. “The public has this perception of fear with police dogs that they’re trained to attack, but they’re not,” said Lang. “They’re trained to apprehend. If Barney is told to take down a bad guy, he’ll go in and grab onto him and hold him until I tell him to let go. He thinks it’s a game. When he gets the command to search, he thinks it’s time to play and get the ball.”
Moore agreed. “I think the biggest misconception is that police dogs are vicious killers, and they’re not,” said Moore. “These are working dogs with different personalities, just like people. People think that every German shepherd is the same, but they’re not; they all think differently. Some of them aren’t very friendly, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good at their jobs. And some are very friendly and loving pets, but still know how to get the job done. They’re all different.”
Another misconception, according to Moore, is that police dogs are easy to train. “Training police dogs is extremely difficult,” said Moore. “But a lot of people look at them and think ‘Hey, how hard could it be? I trained my own dog.’ But the reality is that you have to be able to communicate with the dog, be able to read their body language and understand the techniques. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
The working life of a police dog is approximately five to eight years. Barney has been on the job in Brentwood for not quite a year, and although Lang is due to retire in just a couple of years, he’s extending his retirement to coincide with Barney’s. And once his partner retires, he will too.
“I’m stretching it out because I don’t want to leave Barney,” said Lang, who plans to keep Barney as a family pet once his tour as a deputy dog is done. “He’s a member of my family now. I could never give him up.”