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You’ve seen them on TV, in the movies and even in your own neighborhood. They’re cute and cuddly, but have a bite as big as their bark. They’re police dogs, and they’re here to fight crime and save the day!
Police use canines, called appropriately “K9s” in English-speaking countries, to provide police departments certain skills humans lack. For example, an average dog’s sense of smell is almost 50 times more sensitive than a human’s. Also, the brute appearance of police dogs is intimidating enough to prevent confrontation from a criminal (HowStuffWorks). Not to mention, police dogs are also much faster and stronger than most humans, and can provide the force necessary to take down an escaping suspect. Together, a police dog and his carefully-chosen handler make up what’s called a “K9 unit.”
The two most common breeds utilized by police are the German Shepherd and the Belgian Malinois. Most of us recognize the German for its impressive size and no-nonsense demeanor, but the Malinois might sound less familiar. The Malinois is a slimmer version of the German Shepherd and hails from the Netherlands. Much like the German, it is prized for its speed, agility and intelligence. Labrador Retrievers tend to be used for responsibilities that require a high level of attention and focus, such as sniffing out explosives that can detonate from sudden movement, while German Shepherds handle more aggressive tasks. Most police dogs are males left intact (unneutered) to preserve their natural aggressive instinct.
The first police dogs were actually Bloodhounds, not German Shepherds. With their keen sense of smell, Bloodhounds were used by police in Europe as early as the 18th Century to track criminals on the loose and missing persons. After WWI, countries like Germany and Belgium started using dogs for specific purposes, such as guard dog duty. Police dogs didn’t join American law enforcement until the 70’s, but over the past few years, the US has made notable advancements in their K9 training.
Before being trained for specific duties, all police dogs must be experts at basic obedience training. This means that the dog obeys his handler’s commands without hesitation, which is crucial in a high-risk, emergency situation. Training a police dog to do specific tasks is an intensive process, but includes continual rewarding of the dog. For example, the dogs are trained to sniff out drugs by teaching them to associate drugs with a fun game of tug-of-war. After the K9 unit plays a game of tug-of-war with a scent-free towel, they will then play using a towel encasing a drug such as marijuana so that the dog recognizes the smell of marijuana as the smell of his favorite pastime. It’s a highly effective process with results that translate into real life situations.
In our nation’s current climate of tense police-to-citizen relations, using K9 forces can help reduce police departments’ liability. K9s often prevent the injuries and struggle that arise from a suspect resisting an officer’s commands, which in turn prevents lawsuits against the department. If a K9 unit ever does encounter a lawsuit, the court will often judge in favor of the police because a dog’s training provides strong evidence that he acted appropriately in any situation.
At the end of a long and tiring work day, a police dog will go home to his owner, who is often also the handler, to enjoy the company of his family. It just goes to show how versatile dogs are to fulfill different roles in our lives; hardworking crime fighters by day, loyal family companions by night.