Police Dogs : On Duty with LAPD’s Four-Legged Officers

Dogs used for police work are a special breed--intelligent, athletic and agile, they are the cream of the canine crop. As a search tool, police say there is nothing better. And officers come to depend on their four-legged partners as they would on humans.

The Los Angeles Police Department has used canines since 1980 in three of its divisions. The Metropolitan Division’s K-9 search platoon primarily searches for felons, and occasionally missing persons. The narcotics bureau uses dogs to search for drugs and the bomb squad has explosive-sniffing canines.

Being an officer in the LAPD’s canine corps is no ordinary assignment. Metropolitan is a special enforcement division that also includes SWAT teams, VIP protection and crowd control. To get into Metropolitan, an officer must first put in a minimum of four years in the field.

The K-9 search platoon has 11 dogs and 13 officers, called handlers. The bond between officer and dog extends beyond the line of duty. Police dogs live with their handlers, becoming part of their families, an important aspect of socializing the dogs. The department pays for the dogs’ food, vet bills and other expenses, in addition to the initial cost of the dog, which ranges from $3,000 to $5,000.

Together, dogs and handlers have ongoing intensive training. Maintaining verbal control over their dogs is of primary importance for, for their own safety as well as that of suspects, bystanders and the dogs themselves. Search work can be dangerous even for the dogs--they’re occasionally injured and since 1980, four have been killed in the line of duty. Guidelines outlining how and when a dog should be used changed a few years ago as the result of a class-action lawsuit filed against the department by people bitten by LAPD dogs.


When K-9s Are Used

The LAPD’s K-9 search and patrol platoon is used only when a request is made to hunt for a suspect who has eluded normal police capture; officers and dogs don’t walk a beat or initiate searches.

Circumstances under which a K-9 unit is deployed:

* Search for felony suspects (auto theft, burglary, forgery, narcotics, murder, robbery).

* Search for armed misdemeanor suspect.

* In the future: The department is training dogs for urban search and rescue.

Top Dog

A police dog is trained to obey commands given only by its handler. Similar to wolves in the wild, domestic dogs are pack animals that take dominant or submissive roles. From the start, a handler asserts himself as “alpha dog,” or leader of the pack.

In Training

A dog is paired with a handler as soon as it gets to the department. Initial training lasts 14 to 16 weeks but can take as long as six months. Thereafter, daily training sessions at the Police Academy in Elysian Park combine obedience and search work to keep dogs smart and sharp. Every three months a dog must be recertified through a series of obedience, search and agility tests.

Obedience Regimen

Obedience is the foundation of police-dog training. A handler maintains control over the dog through the basics of obedience:

* Sitting.

* Heeling.

* Down and stay.

* Recall (come to handler).

- Dogs are trained to obey both voice and hand signals.

The Police Dog

The LAPD uses working-breed dogs, which are purchased from breeders throughout the country who supply dogs specifically to law enforcement agencies. Dogs have had some obedience training by the time the department gets them. They are screened to find the ones that can best differentiate between work and play.

* Age: Acquired at 18 months to 2 years.

* Adult Size: 85 to 100 pounds

* Breeds: Primarily German shepherds, some Belgian Malinois and Hollandaise herders, all of which are similar in appearance. Males are used because females tend to cost more.

* Senses: Its nose is the dog’s primary search tool. The dog’s nasal passages are more highly developed than that of other mammals. This contributes to its keen sense of smell, said to be 150 times better than a human’s.

A series of thin bones called turbinals in a dog’s nasal cavity connect to the olfactory nerve, which takes scent messages to the olfactory bulb, a part of the brain that is larger in dogs than in humans.

* Traits: German shepherds are intelligent and easily trained. They can quickly change from docile to assertive, a desired trait for “aggression” work. Powerful hindquarters make the shepherd a good jumper and able to cover great distances without tiring.

Malinois are similar to shepherds, but smaller; they run fast, bite hard and can handle Southern California’s hot weather.

With the ability to run up to 20 m.p.h., a police dog can outrun a suspect in a short chase.

* Retirement age: About 8 years old.

Search Training

A dog can search an area more quickly and thoroughly than can a human. The LAPD conducts both indoor and outdoor searches, which are simulated in training by using both man-made and natural surroundings.

A Typical Building Search

A response usually utilizes one handler, a dog and two cover officers; searches of larger areas require at least two dogs and handlers. The “find and alert” method of apprehending a suspect includes these steps:

1. Perimeter is set up around search area, preferably by officers on scene before K-9 unit arrives. Bystanders and other animals are evacuated

2. Handler approaches building with leashed dog and announces loudly, in English and Spanish, that a search with a dog will ensue if suspect doesn’t come out.

3. If suspect doesn’t emerge, handler unleashes dog, commanding it to find the suspect.

4. Dog runs through building, attempting to locate source of human scent.

5. When dog finds suspect, it alerts handler by sitting near or circling suspect and barking.

6. Handler leashes dog while other officers arrest suspect.

Outdoor Tracking

Although a dog searches also with eyes and ears, “the nose doesn’t fail” when it comes to tracking a suspect, say police. During an outdoor search, a dog picks up human scent on the ground and in the air. Airborne human scent is distributed in a cone shape. Scent is strongest at cone’s tip, near the person, and weakens as it emanates outward. Strongest, and emanating outward, where it is weakest. An air-scenting dog moves its head from side to side, running zig-zag to keep the scent source targeted.

Agility Exercises

A dog’s agility is sharpened by its jumping fences, crawling through pipes and climbing ladders, but mostly these exercises are used to build the animal’s confidence. By commanding a dog to deal with these obstacles, a handler demonstrates he has control over it:

* Fence jump

* Window jump

* Ladder

* Scaling wall

Aggression Work

The “agitate” portion of training involves teaching the dog to listen only to its handler when ordered to attack. The three conditions under which a police dog will attack:

* When ordered to by handler.

* When handler is threatened.

* When dog itself is threatened.

Although LAPD dogs are trained to bark only when a suspect is found, they will chase and bite if the suspect--referred to as the “agitator” during training--attempts to flee or attacks an officer. Handlers use protective “bite sleeves” and heavy canvas “scratch suits” in training. The bite sleeve is hard plastic covered in burlap; handler slips it on his arm and holds onto horizontal “bite bar.”

Other Valley K-9s

The LAPD’s K-9 platoon responds to calls through most of the Valley; other local units:

* Burbank P.D.: In existence since 1981. Currently has three dogs and handlers: two used for patrol, one for narcotics detection.

* San Fernando P.D.: Has one dog and handler.

* L.A. County Sheriff’s Department: Has 11 dogs in the Los Angeles Basin and a few others in outlying county areas.


Sources: Los Angeles Police Department; German Shepherd Dog Club of America; North American Police Work Dog Assn.; “How to Train Dogs for Police Work”; “Dogs on the Case”

Researched by JULIE SHEER / Los Angeles Times