“Forging ahead”

If you’re a handler, you’re probably familiar with the term “forging ahead” and it’s primarily associated with obedience work.  We usually aim to prevent our dogs from forging ahead of us when moving with the dog off-leash or on-leash during a normal walk, crowd interaction, obedience, trials and certifications – keeping the dog close, tight, easily within arm’s reach.  It looks good when your dog doesn’t forge ahead and it also demonstrates control.  The result is a purposeful product of training.  If your dog forges ahead unnecessarily or on its own, trouble can sometimes occur.

Forging ahead:

  1. To move ahead slowly; progress steadily.  “To forge through dense underbrush.”
  2. To move ahead with increased speed and effectiveness.  “To forge ahead and finish the work in a burst of energy.”

Unfortunately, there are many handlers today who are “forging ahead” of their backup officers and support personnel when searching, tracking, trailing or pursuing wanted persons or proceeding solo as a K9 team.  You’ve heard the stories.  You’ve read about the tragic results.  So, why has the deployment practice continued?  Do you forge ahead?  If you do – then why do you do it?

“It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” -Winston Churchill

One of the more common faults of our K9 training is allowing handlers to train alone for deployments or as a single entity for the majority of their time or training for real world searches and apprehensions without backup officers.  When this training occurs, handlers get accustomed to following their dog as it searches, tracks, trails or pursues without giving concern or relevance to the absence of backup officers.  Nothing bad ever happens in training, right? The dog is released, the handler follows.   And, you can probably predict what will happen in the real world – the same as in training.  However, it’s not a safe practice.

“We fight [deploy] like we train.”

I understand the limitations and restrictions – budgets and staffing – that often occur to prevent realistic, practical and safe training.  It’s sometimes an issue of patience – or lack of it.  It’s sometimes due to a lack of supervision and accountability.  It’s sometimes due to poor or inadequate training.  It’s sometimes due to improper mindset. However, as a handler’s training progresses, the handler (and trainer and supervisor) must realize that it’s dangerous to forge ahead of others because anticipated or unanticipated deadly threats might be encountered in an area or along a trail.

Some of you might not have backup readily available – but is your life worth waiting a little longer?  What is the risk versus the reward?  What would your family want you to do?  Some of you might not be able to officially train with others – but can you take the initiative to spend some time training others on your own so you can have better backup? Some of you will continue to forge ahead and be in front regardless – but can you seriously justify this tactic with your life potentially on the line?  Predictable is preventable.

From 2006 to 2014, there were five K9 handlers tragically killed during tracking-type deployments as they led from the front without backup close by or no backup at all.  I’d like to think each of those handlers would offer a piece of advice to other handlers today if they were able to do so that might sound something like “Wait for sufficient backup before proceeding and utilize them properly for cover as you search.”

Take care, be safe and don’t get caught forging ahead….

Bill Lewis II

This “reason” was originally shared on April 1, 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?

“Speaking without thinking”

Did your parents ever tell you “Think before you speak”?  Do any of your supervisors ever tell you “Evaluate your audience before you speak”?  Simply stated, speaking without thinking (and not evaluating your audience before doing so) can get you in trouble.

I wish I’d started a collection of “statements” by handlers and K9 supervisors that I’ve read and heard over the years that caused me to say aloud or think “Did they really say that?” so that I could share them with you but you may have heard some of the same. Many of these statements have been made in depositions by handlers and I truly wonder who prepared them in advance for their depositions.  Many of the questions being asked by Plaintiff’s attorneys are similar and revolve around the same issues; policies, use of force, Graham v. Connor, alternative options, and warnings.  As I suggest in each 360 class I teach, you should be anticipating the questions in advance and rehearsing your answers appropriately with the correct summation with or without your attorney before you participate.

Comments made on the scenes of deployments by handlers and support personnel are just as important to consider – especially after unintentional bites.  You might make a comment that doesn’t seem important or you believe it’s proper at the time – but the “bite victim” as a suspect and/or an eventual Plaintiff may remember it specifically (and it may be recorded by a BWC or other device to confirm or refute) and it may not sound good later nor assist your cause.  [Author’s 2018 update:  I have viewed several recordings from BWC’s within the past year with inappropriate comments recorded.]

The recent [2016] Lowry v. City of San Diego (U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit) case probably provides one of the best recent examples of “speaking without thinking” after the police dog, deployed for a search of a commercial building believed to be burglarized, bit the lip of an employee (Lowry) sleeping on a couch.  Shortly after the incident, according to the court transcripts, the handler told Lowry something similar to, “I just can’t believe that’s the only damage [caused by the dog bite]. You’re very lucky. She [the police dog] could have ripped your face off.”  This statement is believed to have been a strong tipping point of this incident with respect to the Court’s view of the use of force that was used for the situation. [Author’s 2018 update:  This decision was later overturned – as it should have been – but the lessons learned related to comments are still relevant for the purposes of learning.]

Becker v. Elfreich (U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit) is the second recent case that comes to mind where the handler testified that his police dog was capable of inflicting “lethal force” and that there is a probability of him doing so.  The problem with the statements related to this particular incident involves the deployment of the dog on a surrendering suspect and the use of “lethal force” to deal with the situation which does not appear to require lethal force.  I don’t think an appropriate answer regarding the “lethal force” aspect to this situation was considered if at all or rehearsed before giving it.

If and when you make comments before, during or after a deployment, take a look around before you speak and evaluate your audience of suspects, victims, witnesses, and other officers.  You may decide after evaluating the audience that some comments might be appropriate and some may not.  There’s a time to speak, a time to remain silent.

Please don’t get the wrong impression that I believe all handlers are doing this – they are not. For the most part, handlers do a decent job and some do an outstanding job.

Speaking without thinking can get you in trouble.  You might also consider this friendly warning;  You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say wrong, inappropriate or misinterpreted will definitely be used against you in a civil court.

Take care, be safe and think before you speak…

Bill Lewis II

This “reason” was originally shared on August 10, 2016

“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?

“The Retired Police Dog and Handler Liability”

I was reviewing a “release of liability” document from another agency a few days ago that addressed the purchase of a retired police dog by its handler. Here’s the wording that concerns me;

Consistent with the agreement that the canine shall be your sole responsibility and obligation, you agree to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the [municipality], the [municipality’s police department], and any of its officers, employees, agents, and assigns, current and former, from any claim, loss, damage, or other liability in any forum that is initiated or might be brought against the [municipality] (including the [police department]) by any individual that in any manner arose or resulted from the actions of the canine. This indemnification includes attorneys’ fees and costs in the event the [municipality] is required to litigate any claim or cause of action arising out of your obligation hereunder.

I had a bad flashback to the time I purchased a puppy (when I was the K9 supervisor) that I later trained and certified for narcotic detection and offered to lease the dog to my department for $1.00 per year.  Some of the language in the lease agreement resembled the language above with respect to defending and the indemnification.  When I inquired further, I learned that I would have to pay to defend the city if a lawsuit or claim arose naming the city as a defendant for the actions of the dog.  It didn’t take me long to do the math if I had to pay attorney’s fees to defend the city – and $1.00 per year probably won’t cover it.  We agreed to change the wording and the city would defend themselves for any on-duty incident [and should have included off-duty if not the obvious fault of the handler should both be sued].

I’m not an attorney but it seems to me that the same situation would occur with the language contained within the release above.  For example, if your retired police dog bites someone and you get sued – the chances are great that your agency and city/county will also get sued – and it appears you would have to pay for their defense.  Having served as an expert witness now for the past several years, I can practically guarantee you a claim or lawsuit process probably won’t be cheap and it’s time to ask yourself “Can I afford it if it happens?” instead of saying “It’ll never happen to me!”

These agreements are necessary – for both a department and a handler – but the wording can be changed in the best interest of your K9 program to make sure retired police dogs get a safe place to live out the remainder of their years.  Most handlers will say “It’s not necessary” but why risk it?

An agency should do the right thing and protect its handlers by agreeing to defend themselves if an incident occurs.  I highly recommend you take a look at your agreement now if you have one and consult with an attorney to make sure you are protected if and when the day comes and propose appropriate changes if necessary. If you don’t have an agreement other than a “retired police dog purchase receipt” that could be interpreted as “you are now responsible, not us” you might consider getting a better agreement because you are probably in the same situation with respect to your responsibility and obligation.

This is the first time I’ve shared a “Reason” where I am not personally aware of a handler getting into trouble for the described situation – but it could happen so I’d like to avoid the dilemma for you or others if possible. If this situation happened to you or someone you know, please send me a brief synopsis and its outcome, particularly if it will benefit others.

Here’s a followup on this “reason” I shared on March 6, 2015; 

You’ll recall the recent topic related to a retired police dog agreement and handler liability and I wrote I was not aware of a situation that actually happened.   Well, someone has shared a story that I will share with you as a followup to assist in emphasizing my point about taking steps to protect yourself as a handler and perhaps as a department.  

A standard agreement was signed similar to what I mentioned previously that placed the liability and any potential defense of “the county” with the handler. The retired dog “escapes” the backyard and bites an elderly man, causing very severe injury.  A claim is filed against the handler and the county.  The county steps up and offers to defend itself – even though it is not responsible to do so.  A settlement occurs – the handler’s homeowner’s insurance pays $100,000 and the county pays $75,000.   The exact cost paid by the handler to retain an attorney is not known, but believed to have been minimal as shared costs were incurred with the county to arrange the settlement.

This incident might be an exception – but it was good to read that the county did the right thing.  It was probably in their best interest to do so.   Regardless, here’s an example how you might get in trouble financially if you are not properly prepared and protected in case your department doesn’t do the right thing.  And, you might want to inspect your yard and kennel and take the necessary steps and precautions to prevent an escape.

Take care, be safe and don’t have a “it won’t happen to me” attitude…

Bill Lewis II

This “Reason” was originally shared on February 10, 2014 and updated on March 6, 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?

“Because we’ve always done it that way!”

The general response to the question of “Why do we do it that way?” is usually answered with either “I don’t know” or “Because we’ve always done it that way!”  The general response for “Why don’t we try another way that may be better?” is usually the same.  These responses along with the negative attitudes and unwillingness to implement change usually attributed to the responders are often the root causes for many of the reasons we get in trouble.

Are you satisfied with the status quo?  Do you know if there’s a better way of doing something related to your K9 training or deployments?  Are you satisfied with minimum standards?  Do you want new challenges?  Is “seeking improvement” something that might interest you?  Would you like to try something different that may be better and then openly evaluate it?  Have you heard or learned of a better way perhaps to do something that you hesitate to suggest for fear of the standard reply or negative repercussions?

Yes, the reason we get in trouble might be the primary fault of someone else not willing to change – or give change a chance – but what have you done to suggest that change or attempt it?  I know many handlers that would like to try to take their training to the next level but are stagnated with training methods and philosophies that are outdated and do not seek to improve or challenge to achieve higher standards.  Some handlers have been successful in their attempts to implement change – or try it – and some have not.

Instead of suggesting change and avoiding the “we’ve always done it this way” excuse, handlers are often content to go along with the program and not make waves.  And, when bad things happen – when trouble occurs – these same handlers (and some supervisors) wish they had been more active and persistent in their pursuit of change.

Believe me, I know firsthand how hard it is to recommend a change, make suggestions for improvement, and then be denied “because we’ve always done it that way” – but do not surrender without the proper battle.  You should know the best way to pick a worthwhile battle and initiate it.  If you want to improve personally or expand training opportunities and you have something in mind you’d like to try, be prepared and take the proper steps to propose your suggestion – and be ready to champion your suggestions!

Take care, be safe and make every day a training day….

Bill Lewis II

This “Reason” was originally shared on March 10, 2014

“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?

“All handlers are not created equal”

Yes, we usually expect all of our handlers to be “equal” as we allow them to work the streets with their police service dogs.  We expect them all to be consistent and make the right choices and make the right decisions based on our training, policies and guidelines.  But, their individual level of training and experience isn’t all the same – they are not clones – and if we expect them to all perform equally, we may be asking for trouble.

This reason isn’t just a supervisory one, it also concerns handlers.  I am in the process of creating a chart for K9 deployments to share in the next CL360 class and realized that it’s important we consider the background, training and experience for each of our handlers individually at potential deployments and not routinely assume and believe they are all the same because they are not.  Our expectations of consistent performance within a unit should be the same – but have we prepared them to be consistently similar?

Before a selection process, you have candidates for K9 handler that have differing years of experience, tenure, and previous assignments that may include patrol only or investigations or SWAT or traffic or street crimes, etc.  They may have worked different neighborhoods with more crime or less, they arrested many suspects or few, they worked busy weekend nights instead of slow weekdays, and some may have been involved in more uses of force than others.  We can’t change previous experience.

Once we have selected a handler, we expect them to attend the same training and receive the same instruction to prepare them to work as a K9 team on the street.  We expect them to comply and perform to the standards we have established.  Their certification process will/should all be the same.  However, there are many factors that will now determine how they proceed and experience their role as a handler based on their training and experience they received BEFORE their selection as a handler as well as the training and experiences they will encounter on their own AFTER their selection when working with their individual police service dog.  And, as we well know, not all police dogs are the same – but that’s another factor by itself.

As handlers, some may have more street encounters involving a vast array of decision making than others that have held the same position for the same amount of time.  Some will have more “bites” than others.  Some will work with better dogs than others.  Some will have encountered more high risk situations than others.  The learning curve on the street will not always be equal.  A decision made by one handler may not be the same made by another handler in a similar situation.  And, thus, some will have more “experience” as handlers than others who all work at the same agency.  We can’t change these experiences to make them more equal for all.

So, it’s important to always consider the background of each handler on an individual basis based on their experiences before they were a handler and their experiences as a handler in totality when we evaluate their overall performance as well as review and investigate their deployments and use of force incidents involving the police dog.  We must train equally for the same situations and ensure the same standards are equally applied – and perhaps challenge one K9 team more than the other during training based on these factors – but we cannot assume all performances and decisions will be equal in application.  All handlers are not created equal.

After first posting this reason, I received a few questions like “Good article but how does this get us in trouble?”  Here’s one reply;  I’ve recently seen supervisors and trainers treat everyone equally for street deployment reviews, training and training scenarios. By doing so, they are not seeing the big picture and versatility of their handlers and it can cause trouble when expectations are the same but handlers are not. Some handlers need more individual attention than others based on their experience and particular background. New supervisors, particularly those who have not worked a dog, tend not to see these differences initially and generated this reason based on a few conversations with them.

Take care, be safe and make every day a training day….

Bill Lewis II

This “Reason” was first posted on April 11, 2018.

“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?