This article was written by Shana Parsnow. Shana leads our Working Dog Division at Highland Canine Training, LLC.
In this article, Shana talks about important factors that K9 unit administrators should consider prior to selecting a dog for their unit.
Over the past several years, I have worked with an array of different agencies and their K9 units from all over the country.
If your agency is looking to start a K9 unit, or exploring options to add new dogs, I strongly encourage you to read this article. The point of this article is to talk about common pitfalls I see departments make when purchasing K9s – and how to avoid them.
The importance of planning
Planning is the absolute key to starting and maintaining a proactive K9 unit. In my opinion, quite a lot of planning needs to be done during the initial selection process – I am referring to the selection of vendors, dogs, handlers, equipment, etc..
Even before selecting dogs, having handlers ready to take on the job is important. However, the most important part is actually selecting the right handler. The ‘right’ handler is someone who is proactive and truly wants the position for the right reasons. Let’s face it – you can hand anyone a leash, but not everyone has what it takes to build a solid team.
It is important that the handler you’ve selected has a full understanding of the amount of responsibility it takes to be a K9 handler. Not only is it a lot of work, but it’s also a multi-year commitment. Obviously, things happen, and handlers may have to be switched out, but avoiding it if you can is beneficial to the dog and reduces the cost of additional handler training.
How to select a vendor
Next, let’s talk about selecting vendors. There is so much that plays into this decision, and it is a decision that has a significant impact on your unit’s future success. We all know that budgets play a huge role, but ultimately the proper research needs to be done to find the best fit for your unit for the best monetary price.
First thing’s first, visit the vendor’s facility. See what resources they have to offer, and ask about how long their training programs are. If selecting a green dog, I would highly recommend staying away from programs shorter than eight weeks, as it is just simply not enough time to cover all bases.
Next, take a look at their guarantees and ensure you fully understand them. Health and workability guarantees are included in most trained K9s, which is very important – at the end of the day, they are dogs, and things do happen. Talk to the trainers about your plan for maintenance training with the team, as most vendors are more than happy to help with issues and continue training free of charge.
Secondly, handler training. In-depth handler training is an essential part of ensuring your team is going to be successful. You could have purchased the best dog out of the batch, but giving it to a handler who doesn’t understand how to read the dog or properly maintain the training is just asking for disaster.
The key to a successful K9 team is an understanding. By that, I mean the handler must be taught the basics. Handlers are always eager to do the fun stuff such as patrol work, but they must first learn to walk before they can run. Seek handler training that teaches handlers the fundamentals of the dog’s training, and in-depth instructions on how to read the dog when it is working.
I would strongly advise giving handlers some time to get in a normal routine and offer them allotted time to train before sending them straight to a national certification after their initial handler course. Certifications are important, yes – but ensuring your handlers have the time they need to train properly is equally as important.
During the process of deciding which type of K9 is beneficial to your agency, equipment needs must play a role in that decision. Almost every agency I have worked with is lacking some type of equipment, which results in lack of productivity. Always ensure that your agency’s K9s and their handlers will have all of the equipment they need to properly do their jobs.
If budget is an issue, there are several options for grants and fundraising opportunities. Most are usually surprised how much people are willing to give their local department’s K9 unit! Understand that certain equipment will wear out over time and require replacements. If you are not sure what equipment your team needs, I would recommend reaching out to your K9 trainer.
Things to consider before adding a new K9 to your unit
There are several different things to look at when selecting the newest K9 to add to your unit, and I am only going to touch on a few.
- The most important thing is that you purchase a dog that best fits the needs of your agency. For example, if you need to put a K9 in the school system, do not go select the Dutch Shepherd at your local vendor just because it looks cool. Always ensure that the K9 is the proper fit for the agency, as well as the handler the dog will be paired with.
- I would recommend having the handler selected prior to purchasing a dog. The handler’s home life often plays a large role in the suitability for a particular dog. A lot of time and money can be wasted on trying to force a dog who is an improper fit into a specific situation. There are several trainers out there that would be happy to help you select the best fit for your agency.
- Maintenance and continued training are often where most agencies struggle. In most states there is a 16 hour monthly minimum of training to be completed by a K9 team. When the average number of hours in a month is 730, that number seems small. But in reality, it’s not how many hours the handler trains – it is the quality of the training that matters more. Several K9 units get in the habit of skipping monthly training or doing the same thing in the same location every training day. Trust that I have seen it first hand, and it is not beneficial to anyone.
I cannot express enough that you must allow your handlers to branch out to train. Just because your handler completed handler school does not mean that they are ready for every situation that will get thrown at them. To me, it’s like telling the patrol squad that they completed BLET and don’t need to learn anymore. Allowing handlers to attend seminars, conferences, and out-of-state training is critical to their success. The research should be done by the handler to find new opportunities to build their team. If a handler is not coming to you with training ideas and options, and does the same thing every training day, you may need to evaluate your handler selection.
A K9 unit can be an amazing tool when planned and selected properly; on the other hand, it can go up in flames if the proper measures are not taken.
Ultimately, when tossing around the idea of starting a K9 unit, or adding new dogs to an existing unit, make sure to do the necessary research before you jump into it.