Obtaining and Selecting Dogs for Police Work
Selecting a dog for police K-9 training is analogous to selecting a recruit for training as a law enforcement officer. We all know that only a small percentage of the general population has the physical and mental abilities and personality to be good officers. A department's hiring process should be designed to weed out those candidates which should not be law enforcement officers as well as assure that the department hires the best candidates it can find. Books on dog breeds provide glowing descriptions of the various breeds and the functions they were bred for, creating the impression that all the individuals of that breed will fit those descriptions.
If dogs were made in a factory this might be true, but they are living beings which show as much or more variation among individuals as people do. Unfortunately, in America, the vast majority of dog breeders breed only for a pet or show market and not for working purposes. Only a small portion of the general dog population is suited for training as police dogs, whether that be for patrol, scent or detection work.
In contrast, many of the working breeds in Europe have been used and bred for working purposes since the breed were first created, so fewer of these dogs have lost their inherent working abilities. A few breeds like the Malinois and Border Collie have been bred almost exclusively for work, and these breeds have the highest percentage of dogs suitable for training in the functions they were created for. Other breeds like the German Shepherd are bred after fulfilling a working degree requirement, but these breeds are often split into "working" and "show" lines.
One of the better descriptions of what this means was given by Mike Pinksten of Olympia Kennels, an experienced trainer, importer and breeder of imported German Shepherds: "The dogs bred for the conformation shows are bred for top structure, movement and beauty, and less emphasis is placed on working ability although they must pass their Schutzhund titles with a passing score. The working dogs are bred to give a high level of performance in the service required of them, and they have a joy and love for work. The working dogs are bred not only to earn their titles but to be competitive, whether it be in Schutzhund, police or protection work."
In summary, although "show" or non-working lines produce individuals which can be used for police functions, dogs which come from "working" stock, whether it be police, Schutzhund or its variations, KNPV, Ring, herding, or hunting retriever trials for the retriever breeds, are more likely to be suitable for training as police dogs. Unfortunately, obtaining a dog from working lines does not guarantee success. All lines of dogs carry physical faults and problems just as people do. In addition, good working temperament depends on the interaction of different behavioral characteristics which may or may not be present in the right quantities.
For example, a dog may have sufficient prey or hunting drive to hunt for itself effectively but have absolutely no desire to work for a human or at his handler's direction. Each individual animal being considered must be evaluated because breeding alone will not guarantee suitability.
Evaluating temperament for police work requires a tremendous amount of experience in training dogs for police work or similar functions. Police departments or handlers should rely on someone who has had experience training and evaluating dogs for the functions the department wants to use the dogs for. Training one or a few dogs is not sufficient. The person should have had experience training a minimum of twenty or more dogs from start to finish, and sometimes that is not enough if the person cannot learn to read dogs.
Often the selection process starts with a temperament evaluation because this test is usually the most inexpensive for a department. Since some of the other writers will probably describe temperament tests in detail and have more experience in this area than I do, I will cover some of the general points in testing. One is that any dog used for patrol or detection purposes must be stable, comfortable and out going in environments which are new to the dog. Police dogs rarely work at home and must perform in places that are new to them and their handlers. Even if they work in the same area such as a prison, the situations they encounter are constantly changing.
Confidence in new environments is shown in dogs of all ages, so puppies can be evaluated for this trait. Temperament tests must be done in a place that is new to the dog.
Dogs used for police work must also show good "prey drive" or hunting drive. This is expressed in the desire to chase moving objects, seek out hidden objects and carry objects. This drive is essential to all scent work and off lead apprehension work. Even young puppies should chase toys and follow moving objects. Dogs of any age which will chase and persistently search for objects in a new, adverse environment (like a slippery floor or climbing over unstable footing) make the best candidates for detector or other scent work.
Temperament testing for patrol work is best done when the dog is over 1½ to 2 years old. The dog is approaching maturity at this age and shows most if not all of its temperamental traits. Maturity varies with breeds and individuals. Malinois seem to mature early at 1 to 2 years, German Shepherds at 2 to 3 and Rottweilers even later at 2 1/2 to 3½ years. Sometimes a dog which is not fully mature will not show a mature defense or dominance drive but would be suitable for training if trained carefully or allowed to mature before training. Even if this is so, enough of this drive should be present at 20 months to 2 years for an experienced evaluator to determine if the dog is a candidate or not. Someone familiar with the breed being tested will make the best evaluator.
Evaluating puppies and immature dogs is much harder because they tend to show submission to people and this will repress their defence and dominance drives. Someone who is familiar with the parents, ancestors and possibly siblings from earlier breedings and has raised and trained many puppies has the best chance of predicting whether or not a puppy will be a good working dog. The way a dog is raised also has a profound effect on its ability to work.
The best individuals show great confidence and drive even early in life, but most do not show significant defense drives until more mature. Insecure puppies or young dogs which show defensive aggression early usually grow up to be insecure adults. If a puppy from working parents shows confidence and stability in all sorts of environments, good prey drive and some indications that it has defense drive, it will probably be suitable.
A skilled evaluator can also determine by the dog's movement and gait whether the dog has any serious physical faults. Working dogs should have good conformation for their breed and good movement and agility. I prefer dogs with tight ligamentation and muscles rather than loose build because they seem to be less prone to injury. The size, color and overall looks of the dog are much less important that its soundness and ability to function. The high drive and hard-hitting Malinois breed has proven that size and weight are not needed to be effective in bitework.
Smaller dogs are easier to transport (I once swore that I would never work a dog I could not carry out of the woods), care for and usually less prone to injury and fatigue. A small, agile detector dog can reach more places or be put in more places by its handler than a large, bulky dog. Good looks, color and size may be important to some handlers and trainers, but a dog with good working ability and good looks or special physical attributes will usually cost much more.
Once a dog has been initially evaluated and temperament tested, it should undergo a physical examination by a veterinarian. X-rays can screen for common physical faults like hip dysplasia (dogs four months and older with the best prediction being given after 12-18 months), elbow dysplasia (dogs four months and up) and spondylosis or arthritis of the spine, which should be checked in dogs three years or older.
Other common physical problems which vets can diagnose are thyroid and clotting deficiencies, eye problems and immune system problems like allergies. Allergies and general immune system malfunctions are common in many breeds, and no department should take or buy a dog that appears unhealthy with unexplained skin sores or missing hair, as this may indicate problems which will only get worse with the stress of training and working. While physical screening is expensive, it can save some big costs in the future.
Some larger departments which have continuous and ongoing training programs and utilize donated dogs may accept dogs with physical faults such as mild dysplasia because they gamble that what use they get out of the dog is worth the risk of a shorter working life. This may be true if you also consider the number of police dogs which are killed or permanently disabled through accidents or other occupational hazards. If a dog must be retired early, it is relatively easy for such a department to train another dog. However, for a smaller department with only one or a few dogs, the early end of a dog's career can mean the end of the program because such departments usually devote a larger portion of their budgets and effort to the program as well as being more susceptible to political changes.
Traditionally in the U.S., most large departments with in-house training programs have relied on donated dogs. However, the success of using donated dogs depends on the skill and experience of those who are evaluating the dogs. While using donations may seem cheap, the costs of the evaluators' time and travel to look at dogs, veterinarian screening and boarding the dogs until a suitable position or training program is found can add up. For large departments with their own kennels and training facilities these costs may be minimal.
One disadvantage of using donated dogs is that, to some extent, you get what you pay for. While some really great donated dogs can be found, many donated dogs have physical or behavioral problems which have to be fixed or compensated for. Also, unless a department has the means to warehouse dogs and hold them until positions come open, donations usually cannot be relied on to supply good dogs to fit training schedules.
As American police officers have been exposed to dogs from imported working lines, their expectations of what a top working dog is has risen. Donated dogs from American-bred, non-working lines are becomming less attractive. With more dogs being bred from imported lines, the number of donated dogs from working lines should increase and the overall quality rise.
Purchasing a dog from a reliable working dog vendor costs more initially but should eliminate the need for extensive evaluations. Vendors usually can supply dogs to fit a department's needs and training schedule because they can warehouse and train dogs to meet those needs. However, because good dogs are expensive and it requires great skill and experience to find and train them, a department will usually pay dearly for that expertise. The real trick is to make sure that the vendor is reliable and experienced. Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous and inexperienced dog trainers and vendors, but they usually do not stay in business very long.
Some questions departments should ask of or about a potential vendor would be: Does the vendor have some or all of the dogs which are for sale at his facility? (This means the dogs can be seen before purchase and/or the quality of the vendor's stock and experience picking them evaluated) Are the dogs being kept or warehoused also being exercised, trained or worked while they are there? (Dogs need regular work or activity and regular training insures that their current training is being maintained or augmented)
Does the vendor offer or personally participate in the type of training the department wants? Does the vendor take part in competitive dog sports or other dog training? (This indicates wide experience and a desire to perfect training) How many years of training experience does the vendor have? (Minimum of five) How long has the vendor been in business selling working dogs? How many dogs has the vendor trained? Supplied to police departments?
Departments should also check with other customers of the vendor to see if they were satisfied with their purchases and see the dogs work. It is important that the vendor understand what the department wants and try to supply it. Unfortunately, many inexperienced vendors sell a department what the vendor thinks should be used, not what the department really needs.
Buying a puppy or a young dog and raising it may seem to be an inexpensive way to start a dog, but it is very risky unless the person buying and raising the puppy really knows what they are doing. With German Shepherds, the breed has so many physical problems that only three quarters of the overall population is physically suited to do police work, and most of these physical problems cannot be screened for in a young puppy. Guarantees from breeders are nice, but breeders usually only give you another puppy and not the year's time and expense needed to raise it until problems appear. This is why most police departments who have tried to breed dogs for police work have been unsuccessful. The percentage of dogs which are suitable for police work is low, and most departments do not have the time and skill to market the unsuitable puppies.
Some puppies suitable for police work can be obtained from some of the foundations which breed German Shepherds for guide dog work. The Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation (P.O. Box 142, Bloomfield, CT 06002, Tel. 203-243-5200) breeds its dogs from imported German working lines. In trying to produce the right combination for guide work, they also produce dogs which have too much drive for guiding but make good working dogs. The personnel at the Foundation have had years of experience breeding these lines and evaluating the puppies and adults they grow into. They dog an excellent job in picking puppies for work and supply them at a reasonable price with an agreement that they will not be used for breeding purposes.
Private individuals participating in the working dog sports can be sources of dogs for police work. Dogs which don't meet their expectations in performance or for breeding suitability can be obtained by police departments, sometimes at a reasonable price. One local officer near me obtained a "retired," older competition dog for nothing which required very little training to put on the street and has proved to be a sound and healthy worker for a handler who could not afford the time to train a new, younger dog when the first dog he had did not work out.
While these older dogs may not have as long a working life, they are often proven workers who do not require long training periods. They do have to evaluated and trained by experienced trainers, and their handlers should be experienced or receive the same training any other K-9 handler does, even though the dog may not require the full program. The dog and handler also must train together and become a true team before they go to work.
The real key to K-9 selection and a successful K-9 program is experience. Departments must seek out skilled, experienced trainers if they do not have them available in their own department. Training one or a few dogs is not enough.