Former shelter dogs connect officers with their communities

Animal Farm Foundation trains dogs as weapons and drug detection K-9s from shelters across the country providing them to police departments free of charge

By Regina Lizik, P1 Contributor

Police K-9s help keep criminals off of the streets, but for the former shelter dogs trained by Sector K9, their work as police dogs is about bringing communities together as much as it’s about keeping them safe.

The dogs, whose training is funded by a grant from Animal Farm Foundation (AFF) and who are provided to police departments free of charge, are carefully selected from shelters across the country then trained by Wes Keeling at Sector K9’s facility in Texas. All of the dogs are trained to detect drugs, with some knowing how to detect guns and track missing individuals.

Animal Farm Foundation aims to prove that ideas about how a shelter dog behaves – particularly pit bulls – aren’t correct.
Animal Farm Foundation aims to prove that ideas about how a shelter dog behaves – particularly pit bulls – aren’t correct. (Photo/Animal Farm Foundation)

Animal Farm Foundation, a national nonprofit based in New York, believes that society has to be proactive and inventive when it comes to creating positive change. Their solution is to bring dogs and people together in a variety of ways to challenge stereotypes – stereotypes that affect dogs and stereotypes that affect people.

That’s why the dogs in the program are shelter dogs and not the typical purebred police dogs. These K9s prove that ideas about how a shelter dog behaves – particularly dogs labeled “pit bull” – aren’t correct.

But it does take a special dog to become a K9. These dogs all have the willingness to work, with the right personality and mental capacity for the job. These dogs love to play, but are also focused on the task at hand. Keeling approaches their training as if it is a game. The dogs are willing to work because they have fun on the job – although for their police officer handlers and the communities they protect, which sometimes include schools – the stakes are much higher.

Flexible training is key

Keeling keeps his methods flexible to fit the individual dog’s needs, the dog’s particular job and the dog’s chosen handler. He also focuses on building a bond between the dog and the officer. A strong bond between the two is what makes a K9 unit effective. The unit must be a true partnership where both the officer and the dog respect one another.

Keeling uses real-life scenarios for the classes and works with current K9 officers to help new handlers understand what it takes to develop a partnership with a dog. Officers also receive training on case law so that they know when to legally deploy their dog, as well as learning how to properly document training and deployments.

Officer Jody Bullard who works with K9 Athena at Dallas Independent School District says, “[The program] benefits the community a great deal by impacting young kids and bringing them closer to the police department as a whole with the help of K9 Athena. Hopefully, after they meet Athena, they walk away with a better outlook on police officers.”

K-9s build bridges between officers and communities

Regardless of whether or not the dogs are placed in schools or serve an entire community, they build bridges between people and the police officers who protect them. Officer Lucky Huff says, “The best thing about having K9 Wilson is that he did not just benefit one community. He has brought several communities together because other agencies have contacted us to do searches for them as well, thus creating a partnership between our communities.”

While these dogs may not fit preconceived notions of what a K9 should look like, they have a wide set of skills.
While these dogs may not fit preconceived notions of what a K9 should look like, they have a wide set of skills. (Photo/Animal Farm Foundation)

These dogs do all of this at no cost to police departments or taxpayers, as Animal Farm Foundation pays for the training of the dogs and a course for the handlers.

The dogs that are placed in schools help keep out illegal items simply by being paired with a school resource officer. Students know that the likelihood of getting caught with drugs or guns increases when there’s a K9 on site. Moreover, non-students will be less likely to attempt to get on school grounds if they know there’s a dog ready to sniff them out. But if someone does bring guns or drugs on school property, the dogs are there to alert the cops.

Although the K9s placed in schools are not therapy dogs, providing emotional support is a part of the work that they do. They help students de-stress, as well as the teachers and school administration staff. The dogs Sector K9 chooses for school placements have extra special personalities that are a mix of willingness to work, focus, playfulness and affection. These dogs know when to be serious and get the job done and when to bring a little happiness to someone.

The K9s and officers don’t do the work alone. Animal Farm Foundation and Sector K9 work together to provide support for the program. Keeling is always there to work with the teams if they need any assistance, including offering refresher courses.

These dogs may not fit people’s preconceived notions of what a K9 should look like or where a typical K9 should come from, yet they have a wide set of skills that match and sometimes exceed those of a traditional police dog. With their non-traditional background, the message to children is clear – you have the potential to be anything, no matter your background or what people think – and you have a community ready to support you.

About the author

Regina holds a B.A. in philosophy, world religions and classical history. She’s written for outlets like the Daily Beast covering the intersection of pop culture and religion. She fell in love with exploring the relationship between dogs and people while serving as the Viral Editrix for BARKPost. At AFF, she handles all content, as well as social and fundraising campaigns.

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