Down – Draw – Shoot! Conditioning the K9 Team for a Gunfight

by Bill Lewis II

I’ve been watching K9 handlers working with their police dogs at ranges for over 20 years with other K9 handlers and as part of our K9 integration training with tactical teams (SWAT).  For the most part, I’m sad to report that I am usually disappointed in the lack of control I see and it becomes obvious rather quickly who trains with their dog at the range or around gunfire and who does not.

I have also been surprised to see many “experienced handlers” who have been working with their dog for a year or two and they have not introduced their dog to gunfire nor trained for their proper response to a gunfight.  Yet, these same handlers have been armed with a firearm during this time and could have possibly engaged in a gunfight with an armed suspect in the presence of their unrestrained police dog.  Why would a handler, trainer or supervisor not prioritize and address this potential deficiency?

How will your dog react to gunfire?  Is it trained to be neutral to gunfire?  Is it trained to bite someone when gunfire erupts?  Are you intentionally avoiding training around gunfire with your dog because you lack confidence and control?  How will you react with your dog during a gunfight?

As I have mentioned recently in my classes, I believe the biggest dilemma with police dog training today is that the majority of the time is spent doing dog training.  Simply said, I see a tendency to concentrate the majority of our time and effort on improving the performance of the dog instead of prioritizing the overall performance of the K9 team – both handler and dog.  We are not mentally challenging our handlers enough to prevail in crisis situations and some handlers often rely too heavily on their dog to save the day.

If K9 handlers are not properly conditioning themselves and their dog for a gunfight, handlers are going to be surprised, conflicted and not ready for battle.  More importantly, if caught unprepared without the proper mindset, the handler will more than likely not be accurate in returning fire.  The last thing on the mind of the handler should be his dog when he draws his weapon to engage a suspect armed or believed to be armed during an immediate life-and-death situation.   The handler must first have the proper mindset and be trained in tactical decision making before he prepares for battle with his dog.

It appears there are two schools of initial training to prepare a dog for gunfire;  neutral and pursuit for apprehension (“gunfire equals bite”).  The “neutral” method trains the dog to disregard the gunfire and remain static, regardless of who is shooting – handler, backup officers and/or suspect.  By doing so, the dog will not think “bite” and not ready itself for an apprehension based strictly on gunfire.

When our dogs are repetitiously trained and conditioned that “gunfire equals bite” they will begin to think and seek a bite opportunity when gunfire erupts, regardless of the source.  Normally, in pursuit training involving gunfire, a decoy will appear at a distance shooting and running and our dogs are commanded to apprehend.  However, the potential for disaster occurs in the real world as uniformed officers or plainclothes officers may also be engaged in a gunfight down range as the dog travels toward the objective – and that objective may only be the person shooting and it may not necessarily be the suspect.

For many trainers and K9 decision makers, the “gunfire equals bite” training is considered a test of the dog’s courage during a pursuit.  Some will argue that the dog must be trained to pursue in the face of gunfire if so commanded so an armed suspect does not escape.  However, other distraction-type noises can be substituted along with the occasional gunfire in training so that gunfire alone does not predicate the single response without a command.  Air horns make excellent distractions for training and are very loud.  It is the verbal command from the handler that should determine the appropriate response, not a sharp-sounding noise from a firearm.

We have patrol certifications that include decoy runaways where they shoot as they flee and the dogs are sent to apprehend.  We have K9 trials and competitions that will often do the same.  It is exciting for the spectators gathered to watch the dog in hot pursuit of the fleeing armed bad guy shooting a gun and see the dog leap for the apprehension.  So, if this “suspect shooting situation” does not occur routinely or regularly, I believe it’s good “training” if the gunfire is a distraction, not the primary catalyst for a response.  For most of our police dogs, pursuit of a fleeing suspect is not usually a problem with proper target acquisition – gunfire distractions or not.

Our introduction to gunfire at a range for the K9 team will not initially revolve around the handler shooting or target accuracy.  Obedience and control of the dog are the foundations of our introduction to gunfire.  If your dog is not obedient and lacks control before it arrives at the range, it will be a difficult and stressful transition for both the handler and dog in the presence of gunfire.

In preparing our dogs, we should perform obedience exercises within earshot of a controlled range with intermittent gunfire coupled with firm commands from the handler and compliance by the dog.  As we achieve success, we will gradually work our way closer to the source of the gunfire.  It is not recommended to first introduce the dog to gunfire at a normal patrol range, but highly recommended for ongoing training.  The introduction should occur during the basic handler school with the K9 trainer.  I’ve read several good articles that more thoroughly address range acclimation.

As training progresses at the range, I’ve watched handlers shoot live rounds into and over berms and miss silhouette targets, often not looking down range, as they fire one-handed while initially attempting to handle a leash and deal with their stressed dog.  I’ve watched guns pointed backward and upward as handlers struggled while attempting to control their uncontrollable dogs before and during gunfire.  While these unsafe actions, improper shooting stances and inaccuracies are often moderately tolerated during the introductory stages of the training, but not without strict admonishments and warnings afterward, the K9 handler must quickly prioritize and demand control of the dog to allow the handler to concentrate on accuracy.

We do not want our handler concerned about where the dog is or what the dog is doing or will do when a deadly threat is imminent or suddenly occurs and a firearm will become part of the solution.  We want our handler to concentrate on evaluating the threat and taking appropriate action.  We want and should expect accuracy.

Our handlers must be conditioned to give a quick and firm command (“Down!”) with the confidence to know the dog will respond appropriately as they now face and evaluate their adversary while they simultaneously draw their weapon prepared to shoot.  Ideally, we would like the handler to have a previously rehearsed mental picture of the scene and have a conditioned mindset ready to react with this “Down – Draw – Shoot” repertoire consisting of a verbal command and physical actions.  The exact command given to the dog and the action (down, sit or stay) isn’t as important as compliance.  The simultaneous actions of the handler following the command should be based on previous and repetitious firearms training by the respective agency or firearms instructor.

An integral part of preparing our K9 team on an ongoing basis to face a deadly threat involving firearms and subsequent gunfire is patrol range qualification.  It is imperative the K9 handler be confident and accurate and the dog must be under control.  More importantly, from a supervisory perspective, the K9 supervisor (and agency administration) must have the same confidence knowing the handler has qualified with accuracy and is proficient in the controlled presence of the police dog.  Range qualification provides an opportunity to evaluate the K9 team and its performance under a controlled environment.

Once we have trained our K9 team for gunfire, I recommend a mandatory two-phase patrol range qualification.  The handler should arrive at range with the other officers and shoot the same scheduled patrol range qualification (as the other officers) without the dog and qualify.  Then, the handler should shoot the same qualification course accompanied by the dog under control and qualify.  I also recommend that the handler perform some obedience exercises with the dog while other officers are shooting prior to shooting the qualification course with the dog to better prepare for success.

If your K9 supervisor or trainer is not present during range qualifications, your range masters should be “trained” in advance of a regular range and given a quick demonstration to show “control” of the dog while the handler is shooting.  When asked to define control, I once said to a range master, “If the dog isn’t attacking the handler or running wildly around the range biting the range masters, it is probably under control.”

I believe it is essential in regard to officer safety and potential liability that the K9 handler qualify in the presence of the dog and not merely fire rounds down range without consequence.  By insisting upon the accuracy of the shooter with simultaneous control of and compliance by the dog, we are conditioning our K9 team to react appropriately during a gunfight or other critical incident involving a firearm.

Bill Lewis II © February 2011