Bridging the Gap by Ted Summers

Bridging the Gap
By Ted Summers

In February of 2013 the Supreme Court of The United States decided a landmark case specifically dealing with Police Service Dogs. The implications of that decision are far reaching enough that we may not have seen the full effects and may not for years. The initial case and decision dealt with narcotics detection, the training records of the K9 team, and the subsequent certifications of those teams.

In the Harris decision one question that was addressed was; what is required to establish that [a] dog is well trained? While this was specifically a detection case, it did issue a blueprint on a way to test every individual deployment of a canine, whether that be on a detection deployment to detect the odor of contraband or to track and finally apprehend a person suspected of committing a serious crime. The court did not rule out questioning the reliability where specific grounds exist. They took great care to determine what “well trained” meant. One Justice took aim directly at both training and testing standards. Justice Kagen went as far as to say;

"[…] a defendant must have an opportunity to challenge such evidence of a dog’s reliability, whether by cross-examining the testifying officer or by introducing his own fact or expert witnesses. The defendant may contest training or testing standards as flawed, or too lax, or raise an issue […]"

The current state of the canine industry is one of internal and self-policing. There is currently no National Standard nor is one on the horizon. As of publishing, there are eight states with mandatory detection and patrol certification standards, four more with a mandatory detection or patrol certifications, and a further 7 more with ‘suggested’ certifications. This only addresses teams in jurisdictional states. Federal canine teams have no statutorily mandated certification requirements. On face, it would seem we are a large group of people that just do what we want. It does not require a law degree to see that, in a use of force case, records and certifications will be extremely important. As a point of fact; certifications and records are both discoverable.

Further, no national law enforcement best practices, such as SWGDOG; no State that has a canine standard or certification; no nationally recognized canine association; no nationally recognized canine expert, endorses fielding an uncertified K-9 team. In short, 3rd party certifications are extremely important, no matter what your jurisdictional requirements are. My teams (in my home state) receive both a state and an unmandated national certification. We have teams working in states with no requirements and encourage and train for a national standard in all phases of utility. There is not a person in this industry, of note, that suggests or recommends that you forgo a certification under a national organization. Working Dog Radio recently interviewed USPCA’s Ben Shaffer and HRD K9’s Ray Murphy in episode 52(d). Eric Stanbro and Myself had a very good conversation with Ben and Ray about this topic and I encourage everyone to go listen as it will provide more context to this article.

Certifications, regardless of industry or profession, are meant to determine whether individuals are knowledgeable enough in a given occupational discipline to be labeled "competent to practice" in that area. We, as an industry, have identified a base level of competency for both the canine and the handler to determine if they are fit to deploy in a working capacity. No certification standard, for law enforcement, exists that will adequately predict the success of a team in the field on an actual deployment. To be fair, they are not meant show that. Here in lies the debate. We, as an industry, are caught between proving that we are competent via certifications and being effective day-to-day.

As mentioned earlier, the standards of all national and state organizations are poor predictors of success in day-to-day operations. Another way to say that is, having a certification does not equate to effectiveness or readiness. The major point here is we need to stop equating certification standards to deployable skills.

Case-in-point; a vehicle extraction on a felony high risk stop with the use of a long line is not addressed in any standard. The numerous skills in that engagement are not address for either the dog or the handler. Yet, it is one of the most common types of deployments for dual purpose canine teams to either use force or deescalate the force needed to for detainment. No standard addresses working near cover officers and the dog’s ability be neutral to those backing officers. The closest thing to that is verbiage that says the dog must be ‘social’ to evaluators and stewards. Finally, a massive amout of uses of force in canine come from passive engagements. Meaning, the dog is asked to engage a passive subject. No certification standard addresses this and in fact, there are some that encourage a dog NOT to engage a passive suspect and bark rather than bite (known as Bark and hold). Whether this is a good policy decision or not is beyond the scope of this article but, we, as a group see a huge amount of failures in passive engagements and it is almost always entirely due to the way the team maintains training and the way they certified.

Several years ago, we (as a group at High Risk Deployment K9, Torchlight K9, and Vaness K9) individually, concluded that we were having failures in deployments, of certified canine teams, because our certifications and training did not mirror what an actual deployment looked like. Our training did not address the component skills needed to be successful in actual deployments. I sought out to identify the individual skills, in both the dog and handler, to be successful in as many situations as possible. I then set out to systematically address each of those skills. Today, we (as a group) have canine teams working in 25 plus states that are extremely successful in criminal apprehensions. Our teams are effective, safe, professional, and consistent. It is entirely due to the shift we had in what saw as important to be effective. There is an entirely different article and discussion of those individual skills that will follow this one.

So where do we go from here?

Scenario based training. This type of training is not new. We did not invent it. I believe that it was not and currently is not widely used for two reasons. The first is lack of insight, experience, inspiration. A new handler and police officer lacks the experience, insight, and knowledge to build and design scenarios to test specific skills and weaknesses of individual teams. The second is laziness. Training to a certification standard is the way they have always done it and they don’t need to change. I call it “good enough” training. These are at the root of failed deployments and, aside from poor dog selection, are the number one reason for failed engagements.

I do firmly believe that this type of training does bridge the gap between what teams are certified to do and what they are asked to do. To address some of the problems we have started High Risk Police K9 and offer seminars to address some of the issues we see and help preserve and guide teams to being more effective while maintaining a certifiable standard. Coming back to where we started, if we are seeking to maintain our legitimacy in law enforcement, wholistic attention to our deployments, certifications, and records are needed. Having deployment and training records that mirror one another will help establish better practices and prevent undue outside influence in our industry. Scenario based training helps reinforce and strengthen our position as one of the most effective and versatile tools available to a modern law enforcement organization.

Ted Summers is the co-owner of Torchlight K9, Working Dog Radio, and HRD POLICE K9. From its base in Tulsa Oklahoma, Torchlight K9 has fielded teams in 18 states and 3 countries. His specialties are detection and apprehension work. He has been an instructor at numerous conferences and seminars dealing with high risk deployments and proper decoy work. He is a certified senior level PSA decoy and Instructs CLEET accredited courses in Oklahoma. 

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