How to update your tactics for police K-9 tactical tracking

While some argue about terminology —tracking versus trailing — let’s consider some strategies to reduce the risks K-9 handlers face when they get close enough to a suspect to be ambushed

Police K-9 tactical tracking — tracking down fleeing fugitives — occurs with certain frequency and can place handlers and officers at risk of ambush. Handlers who track are fully aware of the many dangers they face when trailing behind their dog and yet, so few take the time to modify their tactics — even when doing so might serve to counter these obvious threats. 

Unfortunately, the way handlers are trained in basic K-9 fundamentals during their initial K-9 academy often becomes a standardized way in which they deploy a dog for years to come without updating their techniques. 

When a Pack is a Team
Tactical tracking is a team concept. Teams train together and work in concert with one another on movements and formations. They practice so every team member can reasonably anticipate how to swiftly maneuver into various positions without the risk of total confusion or misunderstanding about what is developing in an intense confrontation. The reactions of other team members will be anticipated and expected just as any professional sporting team moves with purpose and precision to take advantage of their adversaries. 

What if we use the word “pack” in place of the word “team” — would it change your perceptions of what’s important to this training concept? 

Think about a “team/pack” training and working in concert with one another. We should include the dog into our training so that he is less likely to misunderstand what he is supposed to do around the team/pack during moments of extreme violence like a shootout. Just as the team learns to work together, so too will the dog.

The “team/pack” includes both SWAT operators with a dog, and patrol officers who accompany the dog and handler, and they too must train with the team/pack.

Going from Static to Dynamic
Most K-9 teams are introduced to tracking in a relatively sterile environment with very few distractions. Eventually, the training environment and terrain becomes more contaminated and filled with distractions. Early in these sequences of training, the dog should be introduced to officers who will accompany the handler as cover. 

Historically, cover officers trail behind the handler and dog in various formations. These traditional military search formations must be modified to provide closer support for the handler should an ambush take place and the use of lethal force makes it necessary to protect the life of the handler.

Just like when officers are taught to shoot in the academy, they are taught to draw and shoot from a very static and safe environment. But as the officer progresses and becomes more comfortable with his firearm, the officer is taught it isn’t safe to stand in the open and fire his weapon.  He’s taught to use whatever cover and concealment is available and to shoot from different positions to make his body profile as small as possible.

K-9 handlers oftentimes fall short of advancing their tactical conditioning in tracking and will remain at the fundamental levels, which they learned in a basic K-9 school. Unfortunately the old adage “training like you deploy” carries over into the street for handlers that track. 

When the handler sets off on his first “real-world track,” he does exactly how he was trained.  The dog goes first, the handler is behind the dog with both hands on a leash and his back-up officer(s) are behind him with their guns out.  

The handler has no way to defend himself.  Everyone that has the capability of shooting the suspect is behind the handler,  which  also means the handler is at risk of being shot in the back. 

It’s much safer — and more tactically sound — for the handler to bring at least one back-up officer next to him. This gives the handler a better chance to survive a shooting and allows him to concentrate on his dog. This small adjustment in the positioning of cover officers helps reduce their reactionary time to a spontaneous encounter. If a suspect suddenly opens fire, the cover officers will not have to move to avoid shooting the handler. 

Evolving Training and Tactics
Handlers must teach their dog to “down” upon command and remain in that position until given a release command. This can be a difficult — but not impossible — task to accomplish after years of unrestraint at the end of the tracking lead. From the beginning of training, however, it can be a cohesive adjustment that doesn’t create conflict and extreme distraction from following the odors along the trail. 

Solidifying a rock-solid “down” should be the centerpiece for much of your tactical training, but it will also give you more control to keep the dog from interfering with your cover officers if they are actively engaged on a threat. The last thing you want is for the K-9 to be biting the cover officer who is attempting to return fire. In a scenario like this, you can imagine the intense desire of the dog to become actively involved in the fight, but you must be a handler first and have great verbal control of the dog to prevent an accidental bite from happening.     

A lot of handlers are told the dog and the handler must be in front and the back-up officers — the argument being that the dog isn’t used to the officers being next to the handler. 

In the end, it is all how you train and what you expose the dog to — you adapt the dog to your searching style, not you to the dog’s style.

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