By, Linda Porter
The demands and expectations on our trailing K9 teams today far outweigh traditional standards of years ago. Rollback fifty years when trailing dog handlers were chasing suspects through farmlands, mountainous forests or swampy bogs. Back then, trailing dogs were strong assets to rural law enforcement agencies and search teams but there wasn’t much use for them in big city environments.
The handlers of yesteryear didn't have to deal with massive urban sprawl, superhighways, tracking over huge areas of concrete and asphalt, 6 to 8-foot fences at every turn, bumper-to-bumper vehicle traffic, multiple distractions, and super contaminated city streets. It was rare to hear about dogs tracking down people in heavily populated urban environments. In fact, some of those old-timers would have laughed at our modern attempts to work dogs through heavily
populated city streets, and yet we are still seeing success in the new world.
Since then, things have changed and expectations are at their highest for modern trailing teams. Just as detection and patrol dogs have had to rise to new challenges, so too, do our trailing dogs. Bad guys are badder, weapons are more powerful, courtroom testimony is more complicated and our K9s are being deployed in heavily contaminated urban environments that just weren’t the norm not so long ago.
The environments we are required to trail in nowadays have become extremely challenging. With the crime rate skyrocketing in larger cities, urban deployments are now commonplace with a high demand for service in inner-city areas. Handlers must spend more hours per year training their K9s to work effectively in highly populated and contaminated environments. In addition to these challenges, what used to be acceptable deployment practices for high risk urban or rural deployments are no longer tolerated for K9 trailing teams responding to high-risk callouts.
I hope in this modern world we are all aware of the personal risk involved in any type of high-risk K9 deployment and especially where tracking is involved. Tracking armed suspects or even lost people has never been, and never will be, a totally safe practice. Although I believe trailing dogs are still an important tool for locating people, they can expose K9 officers to extreme danger even in the company of the best tactical teams or support personnel.
Suspects always have the upper hand. Especially in rural environments where good concealment, time to plan an ambush and the opportunity to choose where and when a confrontation will take place are all advantages a suspect will use to kill an officer or avoid being captured. A K9 officer’s chances of surviving a confrontation with an armed and hostile suspect are not high and even less without experienced cover officers.
In today’s world, it is imperative that departments, officers or search groups fully understand the personal risk involved for handlers during a trailing deployment and never allow trailing teams to deploy alone or with inexperienced personnel. K9 deployment procedures for call-outs involving armed suspects should be carefully considered before sending out inexperienced or unpracticed shift officers for cover.
Training for street officers & first responders
Departmental policies and procedures should ensure that trailing teams deployed in both rural and urban environments have adequate and experienced support on all deployments.
Street officers should be educated as to their roles in supporting and covering a K9 trailing team before being sent out with the trailing team. Support personnel should be trained in visual tracking skills and street officers should be educated in how to move in tactical formations with a trailing K9 to safeguard the handler or other team members in case they are called to assist on a tracking deployment.
Ideally, the handler should be one of the first to arrive at a scene to collect a scent item, locate a foot track and find a suitable starting point for the K9 however, that’s not always possible. First responders to a location where a trailing dog may be useful should be trained in scent article collection or foot track protection in the event a handler is delayed in responding. If proper scent collection procedures are followed and care is taken to protect the foot-tracks of a subject, it may increase the trailing team's chances of a successful deployment.
With increased liability, officer safety concerns, challenging inner-city environments and complicated courtroom testimony, K9 trailing teams need to attend ongoing training and certification annually if possible. This training should include attending well established and recognized training programs with a focus on tracking or trailing to stay current on new training methodology, case law, courtroom testimony procedures and changing certification standards.
So how do we meet these challenges and increase our overall performance, knowledge, safety and find ratios?
Deploy often and on as many calls as possible to gain the most valuable experience.
Keep expectations in perspective and in keeping with the dog’s abilities.
Train in the environments you will be deploying in.
Don’t avoid training through problem areas.
Provide training for support personnel in visual tracking, scent collection and foot track protection, K9 tactical formations and a general knowledge on how the K9 functions during a deployment.
Make sure handlers attend a recognized tracking or trailing program annually. Continuing education, weekly maintenance training, and proofing protocols should be standard for LE and SAR.
Training records should be meticulously maintained for courtroom testimony and handler reference.
Handlers should brush up on case law case to help establish themselves as reliable in court.