Police Dogs: Just the Facts

Dogs have been part of law enforcement for centuries, but specialized training of dogs began only at the start of the 20th century.

Last Updated on May 22, 2015 by

In the centuries since humans began domesticating dogs, their toughness, trainability, and loyalty made them ideal candidates for employment as guardians and protectors. Their early functions included hunting, defense, and refuse disposal in the camps of itinerant and migratory hunter-gatherer populations. As humans settled down, dogs did likewise, and the tasks they performed changed accordingly. Dogs took on new duties, ranging from home protection to pest control to sport hunting. Naturally, as our societies developed specialized police departments to maintain peace and order, police dogs and K9 units have developed to meet their needs.

A brief history of police dogs

Police dogs developed as a result of the unique skill sets that they brought to bear as hunting dogs. It is no coincidence that in the pre-modern and early-modern periods, prior to the establishment of forensic science, some of the earliest “police dogs” were Bloodhounds, utilized specifically for their tracking abilities. From the 12th century right up to the dawn of the 20th, long before the founding of specialized law enforcement departments, the historical record shows hound-type dogs employed by constabularies in the British Isles and on the European continent.

As humans migrated from rural areas into rapidly growing urban ones over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, not only did modern, organized police departments become necessary, but so too did modern police dogs. Major urban centers in England and France began using dogs for police work regularly in the 1880s and 90s, with varying degrees of success.

Over the next few decades, police dogs started coming into their own as law enforcement officials in Belgium and Germany implemented the first formalized and dedicated training programs. These police dogs, and the closely-bonded K9 units that grew out of their increasingly valuable work, have been integral parts of police departments ever since.

What functions do police dogs serve?

Early police dogs served basic functions: They would accompany officers on foot patrol at nights, both to defend police and pursue or attack suspects in flight. Today, some police dogs may take “oaths” and become officers upon graduation from training academies, and others have their own badges.

Just as human police departments grew and law enforcement jobs began to encompass all parts of what we now consider modern police work — investigation, detection, pursuit, and forensics among them — police dogs became increasingly specialized. Depending on the size and resources of a given department or sub-unit, police dogs may serve either a combination of functions or be specially trained to accomplish a focused set of tasks.

The duties of police dogs in modern K9 units include crowd control, search and rescue operations, and tracking and pursuit of suspects and missing persons. Some police dogs are trained in the detection of illegal substances that range from narcotics to explosives to poisons.

Police dog training and service

The fundamentals of police-dog training include agility, endurance, and, most importantly, obedience exercises. Basic training for the average police dog depends on the company or organization that offers the service. Training for police dogs begins when a dog is just about a year old. The best regarded and most dependable police dog training programs consist of daily routines and can last anywhere from 12 to 16 weeks before a dog enters service.

Beyond these introductory programs for dogs, the best K9 units also take the human officers into account. Human officers in K9 units may be trained in animal behavior, and some even live with their canine associates. Departments with K9 units may encourage officers and their police dogs to continue training on a regular basis. When they are able to stay healthy, active, and effective at their jobs, police dogs can serve in their home departments for as few as six and as long as 10 years. Police dogs who reach retirement age frequently make permanent homes with their handlers.

Police dog breeds

The original police dog heritage is reflected in the cartoon mascot of law enforcement in America, McGruff the Crime Dog, who debuted in 1980. However, as soon as dogs began dedicated training programs for police work in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, so too did specialized breeding programs to develop police dogs. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most popular police dog breeds from that time to the present are the Belgian Malinois and the German Shepherd. Some of the best police dog training programs in the world are still to be found in Belgium and Germany, and even in the U.S., these imported police dogs respond to basic commands given in Dutch and German.

Different police dog breeds are required for the variety of tasks they are called upon to perform. Where tracking, pursuit, and search and rescue are concerned, top police dog breeds include Australian Shepherds, Beagles, Bloodhounds, Labrador Retrievers, and Dutch Shepherds. When it comes to sniffer dogs who locate narcotics and explosives, trusted police dog breeds include the ones just listed, along with Basset Hounds, Schnauzers, Spaniels (English Cocker and English Springer), and Weimaraners. Finally, special crowd-control police dog breeds include tough, hardy dogs like Doberman Pinschers, Neapolitan Mastiffs, Pit Bulls, and Rottweilers.

Taking a bite out of crime

If you come across a police dog on duty, it’s usually best to keep your distance. While you may see police vehicles with K9 emblazoned on the side, seeing police dogs themselves is relatively rare. These are well-trained, highly disciplined, and functional dogs. When they do appear, it’s all business. Many states in America have laws on the books to protect police dogs from abuse or assault by members of the public in the execution of their duties. These laws are meant to keep us safe as much as these hard-working dogs, who devote their lives to our protection and safety.

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