By Brad Smith
The Integration of SWAT and K9
When the public needs help, they call the police. When the police need help, they call SWAT. When SWAT needs help, they call for K9s.
K9s have proven to be a valuable tool in law enforcement. The key word is tool. Dogs are not perfect. They can make fundamental mistakes, based largely on their training. Their performance can sometimes be hampered by the environment in which they are deployed, causing them to not find people from time to time. But by far, the most common denominator in unsuccessful deployments is the K9 handler who simply misreads, or fails to recognize, a slight change in behavior in the dog while it is actively engaged in a search.
Handlers train the dog to give a good guard-and-bark to pinpoint where the suspect is hiding, whether that’s behind a door, in a cabinet, or inside a vehicle. But in the real world, we do not always get the strong bark and full commitment by the dog to stay with its alert. We may only get a change of behavior in the dog, and if the handler doesn’t read the dog correctly, then correct information can’t be given to the search team.
Not everyone is convinced that K9s have a place in SWAT operations. When SWAT tries to incorporate dogs into an operation without proper training and exposure, failure is guaranteed. All it takes is one negative experience to create the attitude that K9s are more trouble than they’re worth.
Reasons for failure
There are three reasons why K9s fail during SWAT operations. The first and most significant reason is inadequate education and training. SWAT teams generally know very little about how K9s work, and basic handlers typically don’t have an in-depth SWAT background. The lack of education and training on both sides can paralyze the components of the group, creating frustration and lack of confidence.
Police dogs are like any other tool in law enforcement’s bag of tricks: you need to train with them. I’m not aware of any agency that allows officers to deploy with tools such as pepper spray, batons, bean bags, or Tasers without first receiving proper training in using those tools. However, at some departments, K9s are deployed in SWAT operations with no prior training and, as expected, failures and accidents are frequently reported.
The second reason problems occur during a SWAT operation is the equipment the SWAT team wears versus what patrol officers wear during a high-risk patrol operation. Dogs are used to seeing standard patrol uniforms, but when dogs are suddenly thrown into a tactical situation in which SWAT officers are dressed quite differently, some dogs become confused. Dogs are pack animals and they are used to their pack looking a certain way. Suddenly, members of the pack are dressed in large bulky tactical vests, helmets, shoulder and arm protection, and they look just like a decoy wearing bite equipment. It doesn’t take long to accustom the dog to his new SWAT pack, but when that is not done in training ahead of time, problems will occur.
Another reason K9s often fail to perform adequately in a SWAT operation is because there is a historical difference between SWAT and patrol searches and movement. In basic K9 school, the dog and handler are always in front of the search team. The dog is allowed to roam free and search wherever it wants to. Regular patrol officers simply don’t receive the advanced tactical training SWAT operators do, and therefore the search techniques will be less proficient and can be more dangerous. Most patrol officers have a tendency to simply walk through a building or an open area and not search in a slow, methodical manner. During a K9 search, most patrol dogs become accustomed to seeing officers walking behind the handler, using little or no cover – unlike SWAT operators, who have been intensively trained to use cover and concealment.
Lastly, in a patrol operation the handler normally is in charge of the search; conversely, in a SWAT operation, the SWAT team is in charge of the search and the handler is there to assist. Some handlers have a difficult time relinquishing their leadership position and working in a structured group while deploying. My hope is that this book will help both K9 handlers and SWAT team members understand the benefits of cooperative effort.
Early challenges incorporating K9s and SWAT
In 1981, my department decided to get into the K9 business. We purchased our first police dog and within a few years we had three police dogs that would respond to critical situations within our city and surrounding jurisdictions.
Like most departments, we did not understand how K9s could benefit a SWAT team. Initially, dogs were put on the perimeter or made part of an arrest team in case the suspect fled on foot from the location. Now don’t get me wrong – those are legitimate uses for a dog in a SWAT operation, but there are many more uses for a dog.
In many K9 SWAT deployments in the early 1980s – and even today – dogs have been thrown into the mix at the last minute without any formalized training. During the planning stages of a SWAT operation or just prior to deployment, someone on the SWAT team remembers that there’s a dog on the perimeter. As an afterthought, they call the dog and handler over to the SWAT team and incorporate them into the search. We can, and should, do better then that.
In the early years, the few times we used a dog to search with the SWAT team, we had mixed results. Back then, K9 SWAT deployments and K9 patrol deployments were thought to be two different operations and the tactics were very different. In most cases, during a patrol operation, handlers were taught to be out front with their dogs and have the search team behind them. However, as I mentioned earlier, that is contrary to how SWAT operates during a slow and deliberate search. The freelance search pattern creates a problem for SWAT, because if the dog finds someone hiding deep in the search area, more than likely it has not searched the rooms closest to the entry point. SWAT must then decide whether to recall the dog from a known suspect or leave it in place and quickly move up to the dog’s location, risking the possibility that other suspects might be hidden nearby.
The goal of this book is to help remove some of the misconceptions about working with K9s and to assist you in integrating K9 and SWAT in a manner that enhances both your safety and your effectiveness – whether you are a SWAT team member or a handler.
However, I’d like to make one point perfectly clear: K9 SWAT deployment tactics should also be used in a patrol environment. That way the dog is searching the same way, every single time. K9 teams need not transition from one search style to another, and the search method becomes more effective, efficient and tactically sound. Consistency in search deployment will save lives.