Mentoring your K-9 unit: Helping new handlers

Find a training action plan for new handlers to help shorten the learning curve and facilitate success on the street

By Scott Fronrath with Vincent Curcio

Congratulations! You have successfully completed a basic canine patrol school. Now what?

For starters, you and your canine partner will return to the road and start answering calls for service. So there you are, patrolling the streets and eagerly waiting for the call that will make the night. We all know the phrase: “Hours upon hours of boredom, only to be interrupted by moments of sheer terror.”

Then that one call comes in. You and your partner rush to a local business that was recently burglarized and there is evidence leading away from the business. When you and your partner arrive, everyone on scene is looking at you and waiting for you to respond. Your heart starts to race in panic because this is the first time you are going to deploy and there are many thoughts going through your head, such as: “Who do I take with me?” and “I hope I don’t mess up!” We all have been there at one time in our careers.

These types of thoughts and panic attacks are normal for many first-time handlers on their initial K-9 deployments. Such panic or anxiety can put undue stress on handlers and their canine partners. Why does this happen? Well, in many cases canine academies, much like traditional police academies, only prepare you for the basics of police work and give you a foundation to build your experiences on.

When you graduated from the law-enforcement academy, you transitioned over to your new agency. They assigned you to a field training program, usually followed by departmental policy training, including high-liability areas. After a couple of months or weeks, depending on departmental policies and your experience level, you were set free to do things your way.

In K-9, however, there is a different stress level or performance anxiety when it comes to catching bad guys with your canine partner. Everyone expects you to save the day and when you apprehend the bad guys you hear “great job” — but when you do not, everyone starts talking about how a dog couldn’t find its tail if it weren’t attached. If you have been in a canine unit for more than a few weeks, you have already heard all the jokes and sarcastic comments from road patrol. Well, this does not always have to be the case.

The Learning Curve
In almost every type of job imaginable, there is an on-the-job training program. This makes perfect sense: When someone takes on a new position, they must understand certain parameters of the job before they can ever be expected to succeed at it. Being a canine handler for the first time is a perfect example of such a situation, yet many departments do not have an on-the-job training program for their new handlers.
Ironically, the same people who don’t recognize the need for on-the-job training are quick to criticize when a canine team’s performance level doesn’t meet expectations or their apprehensions are lacking.

If you’re from a larger agency that has other canine handlers/teams that can lend a hand or deploy with you, then consider yourself fortunate. Many departments have a limited number of canine teams, and those teams often need to survive in solitude. Those are the teams that constantly have to endure the repercussions from their lack of apprehensions. Any success they achieve is entirely up to them.

I remember when I deployed on my first burglary. A perimeter was established, the on-scene officers advised me what they had, and I was assigned a backup officer. Finally, I deployed my canine partner — in exactly the same way I was trained to deploy in the canine academy. Nevertheless, I failed to find the bad guy. What was interesting to me was the response afterward from other handlers: “It will take you a year to a year and a half before you start finding people.” Their explanation was that 12 to 18 months is the time needed to develop a solid working relationship with your canine partner. I don’t know about many of you, but I thought that was unacceptable. I wanted to find the bad guys “now.” However, despite my willingness to work and to deploy my canine, it took about a year before we started to make apprehensions. Although my first canine partner and I eventually made a lot of criminal apprehensions, we had to endure a considerable amount of criticism and ridicule — and develop a lot of humility — during this “learning curve.”

Consider a Mentoring Program
Based on my experience, I recommend establishing an official mentoring program for new canine handlers. This program should be geared toward an ongoing, on-the-job mentorship, wherein new handlers can ask all of their “what ifs” and “what would you do here?” questions during actual canine deployments.

Such a program proved to be very successful with my canine unit. My agency decided to put another canine team on the streets and after several months of canine school, the new canine team returned. Of course, the administration was ecstatic about it. The first thing they wanted to do was to place this new handler with a new dog on a day-shift schedule. That may sound great, but what about exposure to real-world deployments for the new handler? There would not be any. This was exacerbated by the fact that no one on the day shift regularly worked with a canine team, so this new handler would be on his own.

The approach that another senior canine handler and I delivered to the administration was to place this new handler on a night schedule that would align with our schedules. Also, combined with the schedule adjustment, the new handler got all the calls, which afforded him a lot of leash time. I mean every call that we could give him, we did. Every time this new handler deployed his canine partner, we went with him. This proved to be an excellent resource for the new handler, and his learning curve was drastically reduced from a year to several months. Right out of the box, this new handler achieved great success by making several apprehensions. The administration was impressed to the point where they allowed this new handler to stay with the mentoring program until we said he was ready to work on his own.

What I suggest can be achieved easily if the administration and the handlers themselves can forgo their egos and ask for help. To start off new handlers on the right foot, I would recommend that in the basic canine academy they include one to two weeks of hands-on training.

The trainers or senior handlers can deploy with the new canine handlers in real situations in order to observe their starting sequences, suggest problem-solving techniques, and address any concerns with the deployment itself. This would ensure the administration that their new canine handlers are ready for the road and have predicted or prevented any issues with deployment. Offering such an assurance would enhance the success of the school and of the handlers.

Another recommendation is to foster relationships with another agency that currently has a K-9 Unit. Doing so would allow the new handler to call the sister agency’s canine unit to have one of its handlers deploy with the new handler. Subsequently, the department should allow the new handler to be mentored by the more experienced canine handler, which facilitates greater success and improved performance.

In the end, no one really knows what a canine handler does or how they do it except other canine handlers. We are in a world that is understood only by us. So, why not share the wealth of knowledge and experience with newer handlers? We are all in K-9 to do one thing — to catch bad guys!

Officers Scott Fronrath and Vincent Curcio are K-9 senior canine handlers with the Jupiter (FL) Police Department. This article is dedicated to the memory of Fronrath’s first partner, K-9 Karly.

In every job, there is an on-the-job training program.
In every job, there is an on-the-job training program. (Police K-9 Magazine Image)

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