In the early part of the 14th Century, the French Navy started to use dogs in St. Malo, France, to guard naval dock installations.1 The value of official police dogs was recognized in Europe as early as 1859, with the Belgium Police in the City of Ghent using dogs to officially patrol with the night shift. Germany, France, Austria and Hungary soon followed, with dogs becoming an accepted part of the official police establishment.2 The trend continued in the U.S., and work dogs were used extensively by our military during both World Wars. Arguably, there are anywhere between 8,000 and 15,000 police canine teams currently in the U.S.
Officers in Pittsburgh, where I’m employed, first saw their importance in 1958. The department has maintained a strong K-9 presence ever since—for good reason.
No. 1—Officer safety: Police dogs can search for and apprehend criminal suspects while officers maintain cover and concealment. This can dramatically lower officer injuries and the expensive compensation, benefits and medical bills that come with them.
No. 2—Force multiplier: The police dog multiplies the force of any police presence. From my experience, stepping out of the vehicle with a police dog during a tense, rapidly evolving scene is equivalent to bringing a group of officers: The dog’s presence and loud barking produce a psychological impact—or fear—that’s obvious and effective in gaining the compliance of a disorderly person or group.
This allows an agency to do more with less. So despite the initial sticker shock of starting a police K-9 unit, savings can be achieved long term by the agency. Also: Police dogs don’t receive the salaries and expensive benefits that officers do.
No. 3—Less-lethal force option: Courts have established the police dog’s bite as a “less-lethal” use of force (Vera Cruz v. City of Escondido).3 The use of a police dog as a force option can prevent the use of deadly force and the litigation that goes with it (Matthew v. Jones).4
No. 4—Probable cause, property seizures and prosecutions: Police K-9s certified in the detection of drugs, explosives or firearms can give officers probable cause for additional search and investigation where that cause may have been absent without the dog’s indication. This will lead to additional and stronger criminal prosecutions. This can also lead to the additional seizure of property and currency that, depending on your department’s policies, can be funneled back into your agency in the form of equipment and personnel.
No. 5—Public relations: There’s nothing more popular among children and adults in the police profession than the police K-9. Rarely does anyone remember the handler’s name, or face for that matter. But everyone remembers the dog’s name after meeting him briefly at a demonstration. This love of animals, and amazement at their abilities, makes the police canine a valuable tool for police/community relations.
K-9s are a great asset to the team. If you don’t work with them currently, consider seriously how they might improve your operations. They’re a long-term investment, but in the long run, well-trained K-9s pay their way and then some.
3. Matthew v. Jones, 1994 FED APP. 327, 6th Circuit, 1994.
4. Vera Cruz v. City of Escondido, 126 F.3d 1214, 9th Circuit, 1997.