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Working with K-9 teams for successful perimeter containment

A K-9 team is a great aid for patrol officers for perimeter containment when apprehending suspects fleeing on foot

This article first appeared in the pages of Police K-9 Magazine. It is reprinted by permission of the publisher and presented in partnership with our friends at Police K-9 Magazine in an ongoing effort to provide handlers and non-handlers with the best information available on issues that affect any department that has, or is considering getting, K-9 capabilities.

Article updated on October 15, 2017.

By Jack H. Schonely

Capturing a suspect in a foot pursuit requires good communication between the K-9 team and patrol officers.

Patrol officers who are chasing suspects on foot or containing a structure that has suspects inside it initiate the majority of K-9 searches. The tactics those patrol officers choose directly affect the success rate of the K-9 search that follows.

As K-9 handlers, you live for the search, and hope that you will have the opportunity to put your dog in a position to locate a suspect. Because you depend on your patrol officers, you should do everything possible to educate them about the tactics that will contain the suspect, keep officers safe and result in the outcome all of you want: a bad guy in handcuffs.

Perimeter containment is a proven tactic for apprehending fleeing suspects who are attempting to evade law enforcement on foot. If patrol officers act quickly and decisively, the chances of containment are good, but they must clearly communicate their intentions. Successful perimeter containment doesn’t just happen – it takes training, practice, discipline and good tactical decision-making by all of the officers involved.

Chase or Contain?

The decision to chase or contain a suspect is made by the primary officer in a foot pursuit. Remind your fellow officers that perimeter containment is a tactical option. Foot pursuits are dangerous scenarios for patrol officers. Numerous hazards exist, particularly at night. Rough terrain, fences, clotheslines and empty swimming pools are a few of the things that have caused serious injuries to officers during foot pursuits. The biggest hazard, of course, is the suspect being chased. Every year, officers are killed in the line of duty while on foot pursuits. Many times, a suspect turns a corner or hops a fence and then lies in wait for the pursuer. The suspect then has a significant advantage in ambushing the officer.

An example of the risks encountered during a foot pursuit occurred in Sacramento County, California. A young deputy sheriff working a gang unit was pursuing a 16-year-old suspect. The chase occurred during daylight hours and the deputy had a partner with him. As the pursuit moved through a residential neighborhood, the suspect went over a fence. The deputy climbed the fence, not knowing that the armed suspect had stopped and was lying in wait. The deputy was shot and killed.

Unfortunately, such scenarios occur far too often. We have all chased suspects over fences and around corners, but we must remember that the risk is high.

Perimeter containments are risky as well, but the risk is more easily managed. After the containment is set, a tactical plan can be discussed and completed using whatever tools are necessary to keep officers safe and to capture the bad guy. Of course, K-9 teams are one of the best tactical options for that scenario. K-9 teams train for that risk, and using a K-9 out in front of officers can keep those officers safe. I would much rather send a trained dog down a dark driveway into a backyard than run down that same driveway by myself. You must convince your patrol officers of the value of that, too.

Containment 101

Patrol often fails to follow some of the basic rules of pursuit and containment. For example, communication – or rather, good communication – is key to success. Yelling on the radio or making long transmissions does not help an officer in a foot pursuit. Patrol officers must be reminded to keep broadcasts clear and concise. Doing so is easier said than done, but if officers think about what they really need to say before they actually are in the situation, that mental rehearsal will make the broadcast much more understandable for responding officers.

Location is the most important information to broadcast clearly. Otherwise, the officer is going to be on his or her own for a while. Direction of travel and a basic suspect description are crucial as well. Many officers believe they must give a long, detailed description of a suspect while they are chasing him. I disagree. They should save as much oxygen as possible for the run and the potential altercation. During the chase, the description should be as simple as “male, white, white over blue.” The suspect’s height and weight, hair length, tattoos, build and a detailed clothing description are important after you set the containment, but are not that vital during the chase.

If the officer knows what the suspect is wanted for, he or she should get that out over the air. Again, details should be clear and concise and not take up too much oxygen or air-time. Responding officers do not need a detailed story about what just happened; they simply need to know the nature of the crime. Of course, if the officer sees that the suspect is armed – or even believes that is the case – that must be broadcast for the safety of responding officers. All of the information can be delivered in short bursts.

When an officer determines that perimeter containment is the best tactical option, he or she must immediately put that out over the air so that responding officers know exactly where to respond. Officers must then take positions out ahead of where the suspect was last seen. The more desperate the criminal, the larger the area that needs to be contained.

As I talk with K-9 handlers across the country, they all have the same complaint about the perimeters they respond to: they are too small. I have gone to many one-block perimeters in cases of assault on a police officer, knowing as I searched that the suspect most likely was not within the block. One block is much too small of a containment area for that type of suspect. Patrol officers often hesitate to contain a large area, so you must educate them about what to do during those critical incidents that every department experiences.

The serial rapist, the murderer, your agency’s Most Wanted and the cop killer are not going to act the same as a typical burglar. Patrol officers must understand that perimeter containment tactics differ for suspects in serious crimes. Officers must think big to give the K-9 team a better chance of hunting down and capturing the suspect.

Suspect Tactics

Many of the suspects you search for understand law enforcement tactics well. Criminals sit in jails and prisons and talk about such things. They learn how to best avoid capture and what constitutes a good hiding place. They know about the tools we use, including K-9s, and they are constantly trying to think of ways to beat us at the game. We need to stay one step ahead at all times and make sure that we are doing everything within our power to capture the suspect.

Your patrol officers must understand the tactics popular with criminals so that they can make good decisions to counter those tactics. Following are tactics you should be aware of:

1. One-block perimeter containments no longer effective

The first trend is that suspects will run straight through a block, rather than around it. Also, suspects have learned that hiding in the first available spot will result in meeting your dog up close a short time later. Therefore, they will run for several blocks before slowing down. If your patrol officers get tunnel vision and contain only the block in which they last observed the suspect, the best K-9 team around will not find the suspect, because he will be long gone. As a result, one-block perimeter containments are becoming a thing of the past.

2. Suspect runs, then hides

“Run until confronted” is another criminal tactic that can compromise the safety of your patrol officers. The suspect continues to move until he perceives that he is about to be confronted or observed by law enforcement, and then he quickly hides. His perception may be based on many factors, including hearing police cars arrive, seeing the reflection of emergency lights, hearing the sound of a helicopter’s rotor blades approaching, or simply seeing officers ahead of him. The reason this trend is important is because many times the suspect is hiding very close to where officers have parked their cars. The suspect is concealed, but is able to observe law enforcement actions. Therefore, officers should be exceptionally alert to their surroundings as they stand their post on the containment.

3. Suspect changes his/her appearance

Some suspect tactics are used after officers have contained the criminal inside a perimeter. Increasingly, suspects are attempting to exit the containment in a variety of ways. One thing that a majority of suspects do is to change their appearance. That can be accomplished as easily as shedding a long-sleeved shirt, or as complexly as shaving facial hair and making a complete change of clothing. A few desperate males have broken into homes and used the available clothing and makeup to try to appear to be female. Although that is a rare tactic, it certainly has occurred, and it emphasizes the fact that suspects are constantly thinking of new ways to beat us. Remind your officers that the suspect description given over the radio during a foot pursuit might not be the current description, and everyone exiting the perimeter must be cleared.

4. Suspect uses a vehicle to flee from contained area

As your patrol officers manage the perimeter containment, they must control ingress and egress. Controlling egress means every that vehicle must be stopped and checked for suspects. Trying to leave in a vehicle is a common exit tactic, and many patrol officers make critical errors in judgment by stopping vehicles only on the basis of who is driving. Just because an elderly female is driving a car does not mean that your 23-year-old male robbery suspect is not hiding in the vehicle. Every vehicle coming from the interior of the containment must be stopped and checked. Consistency is the key to success.

5. Suspect attempts to blend with the environment

The final tactic I will discuss is one that all of us need to be reminded of. We may think that the suspect is likely to be located in the deepest, darkest corner of the perimeter. However, some suspects attempt to blend in and are right in front of your eyes – possibly sitting on a front porch. Examples of blending in include suspects watering the lawn, pulling weeds, picking fruit, or picking up trash. The person alters their appearance and then tries to look as though they belong in the area. Be suspicious of everyone in and around a containment zone, and you may locate your bad guy more easily.

Teamwork Pays Off

The information in this article is only a small portion of what you and the patrol officers you support must understand and practice when it comes to perimeter containment. I have attempted to discuss the important points that you should convey to your fellow officers. When they are successful in setting up a containment zone, you will be successful in locating the suspect. A K-9 team’s success often is determined by how well officers communicate and coordinate an operation prior to the team’s arrival.

Every chance you get, you should be at roll calls, training days and even at the coffee shop, educating the officers who call on you for business. In a sense, they are your customers. When they see your dedication and your passion for what you do and why you do it, they will be more likely to call on you to finish what they have started. They also will be motivated to make good tactical decisions with their containments. Invite them to observe and even participate in K-9 training so they can see for themselves what an incredible law-enforcement tool the dog is. Handlers know the value of a K-9, but your fellow officers – your customers – need to know it as well.

Jack H. Schonely has worked as a law-enforcement officer for more than 27 years, and has participated in more than 1,900 perimeter containments during his career. Author of the book, “Apprehending Fleeing Suspects: Suspect Tactics and Perimeter Containment,” he is a nationally recognized expert who has shared his experience with thousands of law-enforcement officers across the United States and Canada. Contact him at

Police K-9 Magazine is the only national publication dedicated to police officers who work with service dogs. The magazine provides timely features, columns, and departments written by experienced K-9 trainers, lawyers, veterinarians and law-enforcement officers.