“Focusing on the dog first”

How many times have you seen a handler so concerned about his/her police dog and so focused on watching their dog work that they seem almost oblivious to their surroundings, their own safety or the safety of other officers?  A tragic incident occurred last year when a handler left cover officers without warning because he was concerned about his dog’s brief encounter with a suspect – placing himself unnecessarily in harm’s way that subsequently led to the death of the suspect.

Handlers will often experience “tunnel vision” as they watch their dog work and this bad practice is usually a result of their training.  Some trainers and instructors will continually hammer into handlers that they must “watch your dog” at all times.  You might miss a slight indication or a brief change in behavior.  An innocent person or surrendering suspect might appear from around the corner and you must be ready to recall your dog.  By demanding compliance of this poor practice over and over again in training, the practice will continue over to the street.  And, it’s not safe to do so!

Yes – watching your dog constantly during your initial training is important.  Yes – you might later miss a slight indication or a change in behavior.  Yes – you must be ready to recall your dog if an innocent person or surrendering suspect appears.  But – you must also be consciously aware of your environment, the potential for other people to be present and a primary safety principle known as “cover and concealment” for you and your cover officers.   You must be able to focus on more than your dog! 

When I was novicing to be an NPCA certifying official, I liked that the patrol certification required handlers to “move tactically” within their search areas.  Now, my take on moving tactically was obviously a little different having been a SWAT operator for over 25 years, and I observed various degrees of tactics by handlers as they moved and waited while their dogs searched, but the overall concept was good.  It may or may not create some muscle memory when working a real deal.

Handlers will often leave cover too quickly and move into the open and sometimes without their firearm drawn and ready if needed.  Once again, they are so focused on their dog first that they often subconsciously forget about their own safety and potentially proceed into harm’s way.  The cover officers can’t cover.  The dog will not deflect bullets heading your direction as it searches.  

In training, handlers are often discouraged from drawing their firearm because they’re being told to focus on their dog and might need both hands to restrain and control it and should rely on their cover officers.  However, in the real world with maybe only one backup officer or none, handlers must be thinking about self-preservation and watching their own ass (CYA) first instead of their dog’s.  Learn to control your dog without using your hands or relying on a leash.  Train to shoot with your dog in close proximity and shoot with your dog a short distance away. If you’re worried about the condition of your gun while being used during K9 training scenarios – use a Red Gun or something similar for training purposes.  Our unit had four of these guns for training.

It’s okay to draw your firearm when you are giving an announcement based on the circumstances if you need the extra fire power and a backup officer isn’t over the top of you or you’re separated in distance due to the terrain.  However, don’t draw your firearm if you are not prepared to use it.  Be confident and aware.  It’s okay to proceed tactically while your dog works because your cover officer(s) can’t always provide cover everywhere. When you don’t need your gun, re-holster it.  It’s okay to take your eyes off your dog momentarily as you look at your surroundings and potential threats while proceeding through a search area.  It’s called “situational awareness.”  If you only watch your dog, you will miss threats and might jeopardize your safety.

As a handler, you are often tasked with evaluating a situation and making a plan to safely deploy.  As part of that planning and subsequent deployment, you truly must be more concerned about your safety and well-being as well as the officers working with you.  Do not place your cover officers at a disadvantage because you move too quickly out of concern for your dog – and not them.  Your dog’s safety is also important – don’t disregard it – but it is not more important than you and those that protect you and depend on you.  You must openly discuss the matter with those that work with you and then insist that your training reflect the real dangers that you may all encounter on the street and train, train, train to overcome the poor practice of focusing on your dog first. 

Thanks to Darryl DiSanto for originally suggesting this “reason” and kick-starting the process for me to address it.

Take care, be safe, and focus on what’s important now….

Bill Lewis II

This “reason” was originally shared on February 18, 2015.

“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?