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K-9 Police Dog Facts You May Not Know

These K-9 facts always amaze us! Let us know what you think!

This article appeared in Health & Fitness Magazine.

In this interview with retired Chief of Police Bill Cooper, also a K-9 unit trainer and handler, details on police dog selection, training, and the science of scent are discussed.

Q: Many people think that their dog could possibly be a police dog. Is it possible for them to donate their dog to the police?

A: That is one way we receive dogs. We call them donor dogs, and out of every 600-700 dogs we look at, only one will really end up being a police dog. The first thing we'll consider is your dog's breed. German shepherds are preferable and ideal as they have the overall best personality and characteristics suited to the job. Other breeds are often difficult to read or can be somewhat unpredictable for the types of jobs these dogs perform.

When you'd like to consider donating your dog, the training officers will come to your home and conduct a series of simple tests to determine if the dog is acceptable for further testing. For example, one test that's done is to engage the dog in a staring contest.

You've heard the saying, "Don't stare at a dog?" That's because if you lock eyes with most dogs, one of you needs to stop, or there will be a budding fight. So in this test, if your dog backs down and his eyes break the stare first, that dog won't make it on the force. We'll also look at how the dog protects its owner, or if it will. Those that don't are deemed unsuitable to law enforcement.

Q: Are there other simple tests to determine if someone's dog is suited to police work?

A: Another test is to stand up, yell, and wave my hands to see how easily the dog will startle and what its response will be to noise and movement. We look for reaction and if the dog is protective. The best response is for the dog to get between you and me.

Q: Any more tests to see if a dog would be a great police dog?

A: There are a number of others done to determine the dog's capability. Some involve physical fitness, alertness, age, and certainly the dog's personality. We look for the complete package of intelligence and skills.

Q: What are other signs that a dog isn't suitable for the force?

A: We want a dog that gets along with people, not one who's so aggressive that he can't be controlled. We don't want one who's skittish about walking over tile floors or walking up and down stairs. We need a dog that can handle gunfire and loud noises.

Q: What about physical fitness?

A: Also, the average working life of a police dog, that means time spent on the job, is 6-8 years. Many of the dogs have hip problems, which would negate most from law enforcement due to it limiting his working ability to 2-4 years, and because a police dog is such an investment, it's rare to take a dog this disorder. I had one dog with hip problems that we took and he turned out to be so phenomenal it was well worth the risk.

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Q: If you search under Google Video listings for police dog, there's a short video that shows police dogs attacking people. They show one German shepherd that jumps up at the window of a van, bites the driver's arm, and actually pulls him out of the van. Is this common?

A: I've seen that video; it was filmed in a foreign country and typically these actions involve military dogs. Police dogs are trained to grab you by the arm and pull you to the ground rather than conduct a serious attack. They are trained to escalate if the suspect escalates his violence.

Q: How many different things can a police dog do?

A: In training, there are actually 16 different jobs we train them on: trailing, tracking, both in different kinds of weather, area searches for criminals and evidence, car protection, aggression, physical fitness and agility, obedience training, fighting with humans, SWAT team training, and a few others.

Q: How long are the dogs in training?

A: They're constantly in training, but they go through a 12-week program in the beginning to teach them the basics. The best dogs are trained every day of the week for a minimum of 30 minutes on obedience and physical fitness. We have to keep up the different types of training; physical fitness is very important to their well being due to some of the environments they work through.

Q: While you're training the dogs, what are you learning?

A: How to read the dog's body language — each dog signals in different ways as he works. The handler watches the dog's behaviors and actions, including level of excitement, ears, tail, posture, speed.

Q: What's the worst thing that dampens a police dog's skills?

A: Lack of activity. Their skills will deteriorate without keeping them busy, either on actual crimes, or through training. Obviously, the busier the dog, the sharper the skills.

Q: Bill, how is it that police dogs know who's a criminal and who's a hostage when they're both in a building together?

A: In olfactory science, there's a combination of bacteria, proteins and amino acids that create a scent that all criminals have. No one else has it, including people who are afraid of dogs. Criminals produce a scent that is unique to criminals. It is a combination of fear, apprehension, resentment, etc.

Q: Is there a special diet that these dogs need?

A: Yes, they running on adrenaline a considerable part of the time they're working. These dogs love to go to work because they'll get nothing but praise when they find criminals or evidence. They need a high protein high fat diet since they're often on 10-12 hour shifts. This kind of diet gives them the calories and nutrients they need.

A special thanks to Chief of Police Bill Cooper (ret) for information provided for this article.

Other Resources on K-9 Police Dogs

  1. More Police Dog Facts Police, Military and Detector Dog info facts
  2. K-9 Training Academy This K-9 training academy in San Antonio, Texas gives you more info on the different areas the dogs are trained in.

About the Author:

Dr. Donna Schwontkowski is the editor of Health & Fitness Magazine in Sacramento, CA and a professional speaker. Find out more at, and