Trending Topics

Why PDs should equip K9 handlers with night vision and thermal imagers

Through the use of both night vision and thermal imaging, handlers can improve their senses and become as effective as their four-legged partners


In this Sept. 6, 2018, photo, Portland Police K-9 Officer Shawn Gore gives commands to police dog Jasko, in Portland, Ore.

AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

By James Careless, P1 Contributor

There’s an old saying: “A horse is only as good as his rider.”

The same is true for police K-9s. No matter how talented, intelligent and adept they are at scenting out suspects and missing persons, a police dog is only as good as its K9 handler.

For instance, if the K9 search is underway at nighttime in a poorly-lit area, then the K9 handler will have difficulty in seeing what’s going on. The officer will have a hard time keeping their dog in view, watching the animal’s visual cues as they track the scent, and spotting the suspect breaking from cover as the canine gets close.

Moreover, the K9 handler can’t rely on their dog’s superior low-light vision (compared to humans) at nighttime, because dogs don’t have this ability. That talent belongs to cats, and cats aren’t deployed by police in tracking operations.

Force multipliers

Fortunately, it is possible to expand the K9 handler’s visual capabilities at nighttime by equipping them with night vision goggles (NVGs) and thermal imaging cameras.

NVGs boost the level of ambient and infrared light in a given location. They then generate a viewable monochrome image that the handler can see through his helmet-mounted goggles or monoculars (one eye only). These video images can provide the officer with more-than-adequate situational awareness at night and in areas with barely detectable illumination (such as windowless basements).

“If you carry an infrared flashlight while wearing NVGs on a nighttime search, you can illuminate possible hiding areas without generating visible light that a suspect can see,” said Lane Critser. He is a retired K9 unit supervisor with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, a K9 instructor at Canine Tactical Operations & Consulting and a law enforcement tactical product specialist for Curtis Blue Line. “This gives you and your canine the edge in extremely low-light situations.”

Whether handheld or gun-mounted, thermal imagers measure the differences in temperature (based in the amounts of infrared radiation emitted by different items and surfaces) in their viewing area, and display those differences in different colors onscreen. Since humans are ‘hot’ (98.6 degrees) compared to their surroundings, thermal imagers can help spot suspects and victims who cannot be seen in the dark.

Advantages of handlers with NVGs and thermal imagers

A K9 handler equipped with NVGs and thermal imaging is able to see where their dog is in most low-light situations. This ability allows them to control the canine far more effectively than just sending them in blind and relying on whatever sounds the handler hears.

It also gives the handler advanced warning if the dog is about to walk into danger due to hazardous terrain or an attack from a hidden suspect. After all, the dog can’t see where they are going at night any more than an unaided human can.

The enhanced situational awareness provided by NVGs and thermal imagers can help K9 handlers to spot suspects and victims on their own, in addition to relying on their dogs to scent them out. This added capability improves the odds of meeting mission goals more quickly and safely; with less chance of injury to officers, their dogs, and any members of the general public who might be close by.

The bottom line: Equipping K9 handlers with NVGs and thermal imagers vastly expands the situations they and their dogs can work in; turning K9 search from a daylight-only to a round-the-clock operation. Adding this capability to a K9 unit is an obvious decision; just like buying patrol cars with headlights for 24/7 service.

About the author
James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering law enforcement topics.