“Door pops”

The term “door pop” is often a reference to both the action of a police K9 car door opening automatically when activated with a remote-type device by a K9 handler and the exit of a police dog after that door opens.  You are probably wondering if “door pops” can really cause trouble.  They can.  There have been people – officers, bystanders and suspects – bitten unintentionally following the exits of police dogs after doors to K9 cars have popped open intentionally and not.

I didn’t have a door pop when I worked – and I understand that the majority of doors that pop open are usually on the passenger side of the car.  I’m told the reason for the passenger-side placement is the dog will not be exiting on the driver’s side where it might encounter highway traffic passing by if the car were parked on the street or alongside a highway or freeway – and that makes sense – but may require a second evaluation.

One of the problems with dogs exiting on the passenger side of the car during a rapidly-evolving situation is that handlers are usually on the driver’s side during these moments – whether a bite is being commanded or the handler is simply recalling the dog.   It’s different when the handler has already exited and engaged with business on the passenger side of the car – like a traffic stop where the car’s occupants are outside and on the shoulder of the road, a front yard of a residence, or business check.

A police dog in the back of the car may have acquired target identification through the front windshield on a suspect to be bitten – but temporarily loses that visual acquisition during its exit out the side door.  If that verbal command is still being given or not, the dog may see someone else nearby upon its exit and the handler does not – and that someone might be an assisting deputy or a civilian bystander.  Trouble occurs when the dogs proceed to bite assisting officers and bystanders in these situations.

If I were a handler today, I would initially want my “door pop” on the driver’s side to test and evaluate so that I could immediately access the dog as it exits upon command and it could easily see me or hear me and I could better direct it on a bite to make sure it has target identification.  Would that require an overall awareness of my surroundings if passing traffic might occur?  Yes – but the dog should be coming directly to me, not running around, and it’s a training issue to work out those mechanics of an exit.  I was attending a training session last year where I saw a handler’s rear door pop open on the driver’s side so I doubt it’s the rare exception. 

Which side of the car is best to activate a door pop?  I don’t know.  Do you have an opinion?  Are you curious?  Do you care?  You could determine the effectiveness by tracking and evaluating all of your real-world door pops to determine which side is actually best for you based on the environment where you work and your deployments. The best side for you might not be the best side for another handler or another agency. The side that works best for one situation might not be the best for another one.

Another problem with “door pops” is malfunctions.  What happens when it doesn’t work properly?  What happens if it doesn’t open when you need it?  What happens when the handler accidentally activates it or it opens on its own?  “Malfunctions” are often cited as excuses for accidental bites.  I think handlers should prepare for these malfunctions like they should with an e-collar – what are you going to do when it doesn’t work?  Do you have a regular maintenance program to check the door mechanisms and the remote?  Is it a daily ritual?  Do you train for malfunctions?

The door pop should not be trained as an automatic exit like a gate at a Greyhound race.  The dog should await a verbal command from the handler before exiting.  “Here” (or your command) should be the command to exit and the dog should be looking for the handler after the exit to await further directions.  The exit times should vary in your training from immediate to never.  It’s better to condition the dog that “door pop means listen for mom (or dad)” followed by the recall command with no expectation of a bite. By doing so, you address the malfunction potential or accidental activation when the handler may or may not be present and observant.

The door pop should not be trained as an automatic exit like a gate at a Greyhound race.

A potential problem with “door pops” that can you get in trouble is when your dog is trained that “door pop means bite” so the dog is looking immediately for a bite when it exits with or without a verbal command to bite.   I have seen and heard about repetitive training that links bites with immediate exit so dogs are conditioned to expect it.   If the dog is trained not to exit without a command, it should be avoided. The bite should not be associated with a door pop the same as our range training that teaches neutrality with gun fire and “gun fire does not mean bite.”

Training methods will vary – but the results should be the same.  I think distances should vary for recalls – handler next to his open car door, a short distance away, out of view for short and long distances, and within view for long distances.  And, the exercises should be done with and without distractions – like a decoy in a bite suit between the handler and the car.  Two decoys in bite suits.  Dog in muzzle and civilian-dressed decoy between handler and car.  Dog in muzzle with a small crowd of calm and then loud and animated people later like a “disturbance call” between the handler and the car.  Would you call your dog in a few of these situations if real? Probably not – but if you had to, you want to be confident in your dog’s ability to bypass these potential distractions and be able to document that you did so in training.  Bottom line:  You want the dog exiting upon command and looking for the handler and ignoring any interference or distractions. 

I’ve spent a little more time on this reason than others because I think it’s an important yet overlooked topic.  I think door pops are good tools.  However, just like any other tool or technique we use, the use of a door pop requires more thought than merely opening a door hoping all will be well upon the dog’s exit and it requires training and a policy that will consider and address all possibilities involved to keep you out of trouble.  

Take care, be safe and make every day a training day…

Bill Lewis II

This “reason” was originally shared on March 30, 2016.

“Trouble” isn’t always related to incidents or predicaments that directly result in lawsuits, claims or discipline. Often times, our actions or inactions that are missed, deliberately overlooked or downplayed may lead to nothing or can later lead to mistakes or bad incidents with minimal to serious repercussions.  A reason we get in trouble can be minor or simple at first glance – or even serious – but a combination of these factors can often have disastrous consequences.   

These “reasons” are provided periodically as a collection in-progress based on actual incidents and real attitudes as well as feedback received at HITS, the CNCA Training Institute, and the “Canine Liability 360” classes.  As Gordon Graham says, “We haven’t found new ways to get in trouble.” So, as the list progresses, you may or may not read something familiar to you that you have personally experienced or seen others encounter. If you encountered or heard about it, did you learn from it?