Is it time for a National K9 Certification?

a proposal by Bill Lewis II

[I wrote this article back in 2010 and I think it’s just as timely and perhaps more relevant today…..]

Let me first strap on my body armor, slip into a bite suit, fasten my ballistic helmet, and adjust my computer settings to deflect “hate email” as I prepare to propose consideration for a national K9 certification for law enforcement K9 teams in the United States.  You might ask “Are you crazy?!”  “Maybe,” I reply, and add, “I’m only proposing consistency, national unity and the best defense in court.  What’s the problem with that?”

I’m not advocating one national police service dog association; I’m suggesting one national certification for police service dog teams.  I’m not saying one statewide or association certification is better than the others; I’m saying we need one certification that serves all.

As you might know, in the SWAT community, the National Association of Tactical Officers (NTOA) has made strides to standardize training throughout the country by providing training and deployment recommendations.  They are the “national advocates” but not the single governing source.  They are not trying to undermine any particular state guidelines or other tactical association guidelines.  They are trying to achieve consistency for tactical teams and their operators throughout the United States.

During my research, I found this good question that addressed certifications:  “With so many canine organizations [and individual agencies] certifying dogs, how can a department, the citizens and the courts have confidence in the awarded certification?”  [Author’s 2018 Update:  The Florida v. Harris decision best addresses this point when it described reliability of certification results by a bona fide organization in a controlled setting.]

I’ve been researching patrol certifications for several years now trying to find a certification which would be consistently more defensible in courts throughout the country and easiest to explain and justify to a jury of non-dog jurists.  I’ve been looking for one certification which is basic and uncomplicated, but will best challenge a K9 team overall on its basic job-specific performance and does not allow failures as any part of that certification process.

As part of my preparation, I use mental imaging and envision myself sitting on the witness stand as a K9 supervisor during a civil lawsuit against my agency.  I’m preparing for the Plaintiff’s attorney to attack my credibility, our training and the certification we rely upon.  And, because I’m prepared and confident because we are consistent, make good decisions, use the best certification, regularly train to those certification standards, and properly document our results; I’m ready to defend my agency, my handler and me.

However, as I envision my testimony, I am confident unless I anticipate a question that asks why we use our particular certification and why it is better than others that are also accessible to my agency and used by others.  I am reasonably certain that I can explain, but would my justification be more compelling if we used the same certification as others do nationally?

Why do we need a national certification?  What’s wrong with individuality and separate certifications?

In researching patrol certifications being used across the country, I’ve learned the three national associations (USPCA, NAPWDA, and NPCA) all do it differently with different standards and different scores and different methods of evaluating and certifying K9 teams.  That’s not a surprise and to be expected as each association wants to establish and retain its own identity, goals and membership base.  And, I don’t have a problem for the most part with retaining one’s identity and claiming “We are the best.”

I think it’s a good idea that we have these associations and they are doing well, in my opinion, in support of the police K9 community and to enhance the K9 profession through their various efforts.  However, when they are all doing certifications slightly different, though each proclaim to be national leaders in the advancement of K9 handlers and K9 programs and advocate professionalism within the K9 communities, they are not accomplishing a nationwide goal of consistency and professionalism when their certifications are different.

There is a company called Lexipol that is in the business of standardizing policies for law enforcement agencies.  Their goal is to reduce risk and associated liability for individual agencies.  Standard practices within a county or state are often compared during litigation.  When they began their research, they learned that 600 agencies in California were all conducting business under the same state laws, but their policies were comparably inconsistent and everyone wasn’t doing business the same.  They started standardizing the policy manuals so everyone in California is doing business the same or very similar and their business has now expanded outside California.  The concept and practice makes it difficult for a Plaintiff’s attorney to attack inconsistencies within an agency when compared to its neighboring agency.  Should we apply these same concepts to a national K9 certification?

I like to think I’m in tune with certification processes because I certify on behalf of two entities.  But, I’ve had to make inquiries several times regarding certain aspects of other certifications because they were not clear to me and I wanted to confirm certain phases.  And, if they are not readily clear to me, how would a jury comprehend?

Some certifications appear to be competition-based.  The associations can still conduct national competitions by regions or states to encourage camaraderie and reward performance, but the actual certifications, in my opinion, should not be contests or viewed as trials.

The performance tests for certification should be simple, yet job specific as many currently are.  The points and the subjectivity involved in some certifications should be eliminated in favor of a direct and objective pass/fail score.  Failure should not be an option in any phase of the certification process.  Re-testing should be available within a 24-hour period for the first failed phase and within 5-days for a second failure.  Agency policy, not the certification process, should address certification failures and deployment restrictions on the street after a failed phase or failed certification.

Author’s 2018 Update:  There are many agencies who believe certifications should be harder or more street-oriented than established ones and they often create their own certifications.  Certifications should be basic;  it is the ongoing documented training of a department where they can demonstrate they go beyond the basic certification standards and address more street realistic testing.  In California, we have a voluntary state-recommended certification without any representation in the event of a lawsuit.  I participated in creating our own patrol certification several years ago through the California Narcotic Canine Association (CNCA) that is similar to the state-recommended one but CNCA stands behind its certification and will defend it if necessary in the event of a lawsuit.

I believe the potential problems in litigation will occur when two or three separate certifications are being conducted within one particular state or jurisdiction.  Why one certification instead of another?  Which certification is best?  If not certified with any of the associations, why not?  An agency may find itself spending more time and money defending its certification instead of the circumstances involved with the litigation, like training, policy and/or the deployment.

What opinion on this matter does your legal counsel have?  Does your legal counsel care that the neighboring agency has a different certification?  If the neighboring agency has a different certification, how will it be viewed in court when compared to yours?  Should certifications be based on case law?  We don’t usually like to listen to attorneys unless they are actually in the process of representing us.  However, we should solicit their input and opinions now regarding a national certification in anticipation of potential problems and to perhaps limit our liability in the future.

How do we determine the best certification and discuss the merits?  Like Don Corleone orchestrating a meeting of the five families in the movie The Godfather, I think the three national associations, as well as any nationally-recognized and statewide associations that conduct patrol certifications, should schedule a “brainstorming get-together” (I like to avoid the word “meeting” whenever possible) and discuss the feasibility of one national certification.  I would recommend inviting a few attorneys familiar with the subject matter.

Is it possible that one certification process exists today that could be nationally accepted without change?  Does one certification exist today that could be accepted with only a few minor changes?

We are not good at accepting change in law enforcement and, because we are often armed and restraining a police dog, we like to take shots at the messengers or send the dog on an apprehension.  Can you imagine the cooperation, or lack of cooperation, and the process involved in trying to determine one certification?  Can you imagine trying to reach consensus?!  Make them an offer they can’t refuse! Gather input in advance by contacting and polling your members.  Conduct some tests and judge an optional evaluation process.  Visit and participate with other associations conducting certifications.  What do you like?  What do you not like?

The benefit of having the three national associations (and others) promote and utilize the same certification across the country would be overwhelmingly powerful in an endorsement of consistency, strength and unity.

As you might expect, it may take more than one formal get-together for a group of high-powered association leaders, representing the best interest of their respective association.  If considered, the process will not occur overnight and it will take some time to propose, review, finalize and approve a national certification, but I think it might be beneficial toward the advancement of the K9 profession.

I hope the three “majors” will consider this proposal for a national certification and are willing to initiate some discussion with others to work toward that resolve for the benefit of the K9 profession.  I’ll volunteer to facilitate a get-together if others are willing to work together.

Side Note:  As I conclude, I’m going to drift off the main subject of certification a little but still stay on point regarding consistency across the country.  Have you compared your K9 policy and deployment criteria with your neighboring agency and others around the country?  Should general K9 policy and deployment criteria for one agency be different from another agency?  I wouldn’t be off-base by suggesting consistency and similarity in policies for K9 deployments as well as certifications.  If you’re interested in a sample K9 policy, send me an email.  I would encourage you to review it and compare it to your policy and others.   

Bill Lewis II © 2010

This “proposal” was originally published in the June/July 2010 edition of K-9 Cop Magazine.