“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.