Recently I watched a vehicle pursuit on the TV news. Several minutes into the chase, the suspect eventually jumped out of the car and ran on foot from police. A news helicopter was recording the entire event. As the suspect was running through the streets attempting to elude authorities, a K-9 handler pulled up and stopped his vehicle next to the suspect and released his K-9 partner in an apparent attempt to apprehend the suspect. The dog came out of the vehicle, with no clear focus and initially ran past the suspect. Officers eventually tackled the suspect and the dog ran around still unsure of what to do or how to do it. Based on the video, some may say, it was a poor dog. Others may say, poor training. And some may portray the failure of the apprehension as poor handler direction. It could have been any of these reasons or a combination of all of them.
Patrol dogs are expected to have many positive traits that allow them to do the job that we expect them to do. Physical abilities, search work, social structure within the handler’s leadership and controlled aggression are just a few. Depending where you work, aggression may be needed on a recurring basis or it may be infrequent when you use your canine in a use of force situation. I once heard a handler say that she thought her department did not need the type of aggressive dog a “busy” department did. The handler’s reasoning was because the area she worked was a “low crime” area. I thought this reasoning was weak. Suspects that commit crimes in any area can drive a car, move or visit another area as well as anyone else could. If or when aggression is justified and reasonable, the amount of force needed would be the same no matter where you live or how big your department is. That being said, if a dog is ever going to be used in a use of force situation, preparation is essential.
Keeping Things in Context
When aggressive encounters or use of force situations go bad, there are usually one or more components missing from the K-9 team operation. Some of the missing components may be poor selection of the dog, inadequate training or ill-advised deployment. What I see more often than not is that the bridge that should connect training to reality is missing. A parallel taken from the firearms range would be how many agencies qualify with their firearms once a year by standing a few feet from a stationary paper target that does not shoot back. Compare that to a real gunfight where some one is moving and shooting back. It is a totally different context. The same goes for bite work and aggression training. On the training field most everything is controlled, usually in an environment that does not resemble the real world. Handlers are more relaxed and emotions are not the same as they may be on the street. In many training programs decoys are wearing equipment and displaying body language that is different than the way most suspects behave in real life situations. It is no mystery why we see videos and hear stories of K-9 deployments that miss the mark. Not only can they miss the mark, but when deployments go bad, it puts many, especially the handler at risk. None of us are immune from mistakes or mishaps. But, proper training will determine the odds of success. When a dog “fails”, unless he doesn’t have what it takes genetically, it’s not the dog’s fault. The late, great German military dog trainer and breeder from the late 1800s, Max Von Stephinitz said “Let the trainer examine himself when his dog makes a mistake or doesn’t understand the exercise and ask himself, “Where am I at fault?”
Many problems on the street often begin with the selection and training of the patrol dog. This is especially true regarding aggression. If a dog has a hard bite on equipment or he can jump six feet through the air to strike a decoy, it does not mean he will perform the same way with a real suspect. Most suspects trying to elude or hide do not act, look or smell like the person you use as a decoy in training. Neither do many dogs bite for the same reason in training exercises as to why they may bite or show aggression on the street. It is our job as handlers and trainers to transition aggression training to reality. While we cannot duplicate everything that may happen on the street, we can and should train as close to reality as possible. Before “reality training” is introduced, the dog must be genetically able to stand up to this type of training. He must also be mature enough. And lastly, he must have basic training well established. Many titled dogs or so called “pre-titled” dogs have the foundation in aggression that is sufficient to move onto reality training. So called “green” dogs do not have the recommended foundation and need to be trained in the basics before intense reality training begins. Reality training can cause stress, so progress is should be done one small step at a time. It is best that handlers and trainers have experience in reading and manipulating canine behavior when coordinating reality based training. Before a police dog goes into service he should be able to center on the “man” and not just on equipment.
Posturing and Focus
If a dog is not needed to make contact with a suspect, but is expected to show aggression toward “the man’, proper training in this area is also necessary. Displaying aggression without contact is called aggressive posturing. Examples would be a warning or intimidation during a “felony stop” or a warning is being given to a suspect in hiding. The patrol dog should display controlled aggressive posturing toward suspects whether physical force is used or not. If a situation escalates and the dog is needed to bite, a dog will not engage a suspect if he is not focused or he is confused as to what is expected.
Bite and Hold
When justification is present and the dog is needed to bite a suspect, it is important that he not only bite properly but also hold the bite until the suspect is no longer a threat or the dog is signaled to release. If a dog does not bite and hold, several negative issues arise. The dog may not defuse the threat, the handler and public may be more at risk and the dog may cause more injuries, thus increasing liability.
Dogs bite or show aggression for different instinctive reasons. They are motivated by different “drives”. The three primary drives that motivate a dog to aggression are prey drive, defense drive, or frustration. When a dog bites equipment in training, most of the time he bites out of his inborn desire to seize prey. This satisfies his “prey drive”. Biting a real live suspect may pose a different context for the dog. Dogs are social animals and humans are gregarious to the dogs pack instinct. From a dog’s perspective, he may see humans as companions. Many dogs are inhibited to show genuine aggression towards humans without proper training. When a police dog is needed to show aggression towards a person not wearing traditional bite protection equipment, many dogs have a conflict. Our training should be designed to overcome any confusion on the dog’s part to show aggression toward a suspect that is not part of a training exercise.
Training and conditioning is how we accomplish the sometime difficult task of transitioning the dog to reality. Once the dog has a strong base in bite work, which also would include outs and recalls, advancing to the bite suit is a must. Many of the titled dogs that are purchased have experience with the bite suit, but the experience is limited to sport dog training and competitions. As police dog trainers, we need to make sure the dog will grip a leg in any context necessary. A real suspect may have his arms under him, presenting a threat. Or the only target available for the dog may be a leg. If a dog will not apprehend a leg, the deployment could present a greater risk reference officer safety. Or it could allow the suspect more options in eluding officers. Training should also include hidden sleeves. Hidden sleeves allow more realism to the training. Training with agitation muzzles are important as well. When creating scenarios, muzzle training gives the decoy more choices as to where and how he positions his body. The dog has more target areas and the look and smell of standard equipment can be eliminated. Professional and experienced trainers should be coordinating muzzle training. All precautions that the muzzle is securely fitted are a must.
One of the best exercises regarding aggression training is “line agitation”. I like to refer to it as “behavioral sparring”. When done properly, line agitation can form associations with aggression and what may happen during a suspect confrontation on the street. When done correctly, line work can raise the confidence level of the dog more than most exercises. When doing line agitation or any aggression conditioning, your decoy must be skilled in reading and reacting to canine behavior. Bite suits, hidden sleeves, muzzles and proper decoy actions will prepare your dog for realism. Plan exercises that will resemble what the K-9 team will likely experience while in service. Some of this training should be safely done in the environment that the dog works in, not always the pure training field.
In summary, there is no one exercise or training philosophy that will guarantee success in every use of force situation. Exposing the K-9 team to as much as possible in training and always allowing the dog to succeed will strengthen your odds for success when it’s time for action. Know your dog and know your limitations as a K-9 team. Don’t place the team in a situation you’re not prepared for. Whether you work in a “low’ or ‘high’ crime area, it only takes one incident when controlled aggression may be necessary.
When tactics and safety have been met, in the dog’s mind, make training like reality and reality like training.