The use of canines makes policing safer and easier. And it’s not uncommon to see man’s best friend employed in even the smallest police departments throughout the country.
These animals have instincts and intelligence that make them suitable for a range of services such as taking down criminals, sniffing out drugs or explosives, and guarding people or property.
So, how did the relationship between police and the K-9 unit begin? Let’s take a brief look at the great history of the police K-9.
To get a sense of how far back the relationship between law enforcement and the use of dogs goes, we have to go back to what’s believed to be the earliest K-9 training facility, which began in Ghent, Belgium 1899.
This facility quickly developed a reputation of being the leader in training Belgian malinois and wolfhounds.
The facility’s reputation increased. And in 1907, Brigadier General Theodore A. Bingham, a New York police commissioner, sent one of his inspectors, George Wakefield, to study at the Ghent facility.
Wakefield returned to the US with five Belgian sheepdogs to breed and put into service, which became the first K-9 training facility in the United States.
However, the program wasn’t as successful in the states as it was in Belgium, mainly because the NYPD used the Ghent training program instead of developing one of their own, which made sense because the Ghent facility was known to be the best in the world at the time.
However, by 1911, they had trained 16 animals along with their handlers and sent them out to work in Long Island’s residential areas between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. daily with mixed results.
One aspect of these animals’ training involved having men in plain clothes walk through the kennels and tease them for days or weeks, which made the dogs hostile to anyone not in a police uniform.
The dogs were trained to chase and tackle suspects, stand on their chest, and bark until the handler arrived.
Other law enforcement agencies got in on the action, including Glen Ridge and New Jersey.
The problem was that the dogs were trained to attack anyone who wasn’t wearing a police uniform. And there were many complaints from civilians who went out to take an evening stroll only to be taken down by one of these animals. Also, with the advent of the patrol car, the K-9 units were primarily disbanded.
It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1940s that the service dog came into higher prominence, thanks to their use in the military and private security companies.
These animals proved invaluable during WWII, and American law enforcement decided to make another attempt at adding these animals to their force.
K-9 training programs exploded in popularity in the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Dearborn, MI Police Department hired an ex-marine dog trainer to train four German shepherds for patrol duties.
The training included having four handlers and six months’ worth of training. This time, the animals learned how to climb walls, enter vehicles, disarm opponents, attack or release on command, and hold opponents.
Because of this more nuanced training, the dogs completed six months of patrols without a single civilian incident reported.
However, despite the success, the unit was disbanded, and the dogs were sold to the Portland, OR Police Bureau.
Portland struggled with the program despite purchasing an additional five more German shepherds and six Doberman pinschers, and the unit was disbanded there too.
It was deemed that the problem rested with the change in handlers, as there must be a strong bond between dog and handler for the program to work successfully.
Other issues, such as inadequate training and the expense of kneeling, transporting, and general care for the animals, were cited as reasons to discontinue the unit.
The Baltimore City, MD Police Department, back in 1956, started what would become the first modern K-9 unit in the US.
While many departments failed to see the advantage the dogs had over patrol cars, Baltimore’s program was so successful, that other departments took notice and began their K-9 training corps.
K-9 units are an indispensable part of policing, and even small, rural departments make use of these animals.
Dogs are perfect companions to officers because of their ability to go into places an officer can’t reach.
Because of the heightened senses that allow them to detect narcotics, explosives, and other substances that human couldn’t, as well as track suspects through harsh terrain.
While most associate the German shepherd as the de facto police dog, the fact is that a variety of breeds are used, including Doberman pinschers, Labrador retrievers, trained Belgian malinois, and bloodhounds.
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