Integrating SWAT and K9: How Progressive is Your Tactical Team?

by Bill Lewis II

Let me start this article with a bold and perhaps controversial statement:  If your tactical team is not incorporating or attempting to incorporate your agency’s patrol dog teams into your tactical operations, particularly when searching for a suspect whose exact location is not yet known to your team, your team is not a progressive tactical team.

I am constantly astonished to listen to tactical teams today that consider themselves progressive, yet they fail to utilize one of the best searching tools in law enforcement – the police service dog.  Police dogs have been successfully searching for suspects for more years than our traditional SWAT teams.

Tactical teams are continually sending their operators and team leaders to the law enforcement product trade shows to find the latest gizmos and gadgets to help make their operations more efficient and their jobs safer.  Many of these same teams are failing to look within their own agency to seriously consider an existing resource that has already been purchased and has been on their streets working toward the same goals as the team – find the bad guy and make the job safer and reduce risk for officers.

The primary purpose of the police service dog in a SWAT operation is to assist SWAT.  Once the police service dog locates the suspect, the police service dog has basically done its job – and then the team decides how to take the suspect into custody.

I’m overwhelmed by the number of tactical teams not using police dogs. I’ve heard numerous reasons why teams don’t use their agency’s dogs, but I’ve yet to hear one legitimate justification.  I’ll share some reasons and attempt to provide some rationalization in favor of using dogs.

Reason # 1

We tried it once but the K9 handlers didn’t want to get their dogs hurt.  The first question I would ask those K9 handlers and the decision-makers of their agency, “Does your agency place a higher value on the lives of your dogs than the lives of your tactical operators?” When encountering a building where a suspect may or may not be armed and hiding and operators must eventually make entry to locate the suspect, doesn’t it make sense to send a dog first to do a preliminary search before exposing your operators to the unknown risks?  It happens every day in a similar patrol environment with patrol dogs and patrol officers so why wouldn’t the same agency use its dogs to make a high risk situation less risky for its tactical officers.  I’m sure all of us would rather see a dog killed during an operation when searching for a suspect instead of a tactical operator.  A dog can be replaced, an operator cannot.

“If not the dog first, then who?” -Dog Tzu

Reason # 2

Our patrol dog teams train once a week and the extra training with SWAT will not be received well.  This team is the team that could probably make the transition better than most.  Their K9 teams could begin learning the skills and techniques that will be necessary for SWAT deployments prior to actually training with the team.  I would estimate that 70 to 75 percent of the necessary training for a K9 team to deploy with SWAT can be accomplished without the SWAT operators present.  The remaining training time should be devoted to the actual interaction between the K9 team and the operators through scenario-based training so they become familiar with each other while working together.   The training also allows the tactical operators to see what the dog is capable of doing during an operation.  If the extra training makes operations safer for your tactical operators, isn’t the additional training worth it?

Reason # 3

We don’t need dogs to assist us.  You’ll be surprised to hear some SWAT officers have a big ego and don’t want any outside assistance.  I recall a training session where I was informed (warned) in advance that one squad was very reluctant to have dogs working with them.  At the end of the three-day training, this squad was the most supportive of the concept and had performed the best with the dogs during the training.  Members of the squad later commented they were initially highly reluctant, but changed their minds as they saw firsthand the benefits of the dog’s ability to potentially assist them.

SWAT teams that do not use police dogs probably haven’t seen firsthand the benefits of what dogs can do to assist them or have either encountered bad experiences or heard about bad experiences.  A team that considers incorporating a police dog should do their homework and gain knowledge about the combination.

Reason # 4

Our handlers aren’t good tactical operators and wouldn’t work well on the team.   I’m sorry to report that there are some K9 handlers who shouldn’t be K9 handlers, regardless of potential integration to SWAT.   They use poor tactics in their patrol work and would possibly jeopardize a team’s tactical operations. They are not team players nor do they meet the selection criteria you have established for members on your team.  However, if your team decides that it wants to utilize dogs on SWAT because it is a benefit and will make your jobs safer, you need to openly discuss the matter with the involved parties.  If the benefit is obvious, you should begin to develop a process within your agency that will modify and more than likely improve its selection process for future patrol K9 handlers so that the process will more closely coincide with or match a lot of the same selection process for tactical operators.

If you currently have a good K9 handler, that handler should be able to make the transition to SWAT and work well within that environment.  The handler might not be as proficient in tactics because they haven’t received the proper training.  However, if they receive similar tactical training as your operators do, particularly covert training, they will soon learn to move within the line-ups and adjust accordingly.  If a handler doesn’t work well within a team environment, there isn’t much training that you can provide, in my experience, to compensate for this deficiency and that handler shouldn’t be allowed to participate with your team.

Reason # 5

Our dogs are unsociable and wouldn’t work well with the SWAT operators.   This reason is better than most when it comes to rationalizations, but brings into question the dog’s sociability in a normal patrol environment.  Sociability in a police dog does not necessarily mean let’s be best friends; it means the dog accepts those officers and operators working around it.  If the dog searches well in a patrol environment with patrol officers present, it will work the same within a tactical environment.  It’s a simple matter of training and familiarization.  I’ve seen many a patrol dog predicted to be and have initially been reluctant to be “sociable” on day one of training with SWAT who then successfully make the transition over the course of three or four days with the proper instruction and familiarization.  And, with further ongoing training, the dog should continue to improve.  If the dog doesn’t work within the environment despite training, don’t use it.

The same mind set and formalized process used for selecting potential handlers who will eventually work with SWAT should be used when selecting a new patrol dog.  At my agency, we had six patrol dogs and every one was initially selected with the intent of having it work with SWAT and they all eventually did.  When your agency starts to evaluate a potential patrol dog, regardless of the actual selection process and evaluation you use, an experienced member of your tactical team should be a part of the process.

Ideally, if your tactical team uses your patrol dogs, then every one of your patrol dogs should be suitable and eventually trained for SWAT within a reasonable number.  And, if your agency has more than one patrol dog team, do not limit yourself to one K9 team on SWAT if the other team(s) is also suitable.  Having one dog assigned to SWAT is like having only one sniper. 

Reason # 6

Our patrol dogs don’t perform well in their normal jobs so we don’t want them in SWAT.  If a patrol dog isn’t working properly on the streets, it’s either a training issue and/or you have the wrong dog and/or handler.  The issue should be addressed from a patrol level before you attempt integration with SWAT.  Address the problem first and fix it.  I’ve seen a few K9 teams go through training with SWAT that didn’t belong in that environment.  If you bring a bad K9 team into your operation, they will perform badly.

Reason # 7

Budget.  Budgets (and those who control the budget) deter and prevent patrol dogs from working with SWAT because a little extra money is needed for training and equipment.  However, the benefits far outweigh the minimal costs when you consider the liability exposure and risks involved to those operators participating in a search for a concealed suspect without using a police dog.   Administrators can do the math…the cost of a tactical operator’s life versus the cost for training and outfitting a K9 team for SWAT.

Reason # 8

Leadership.  Most police administrators do not understand the real benefits and basic dynamics of having dogs working with SWAT.  SWAT commanders and K9 commanders may not be working on the same page, they don’t want additional responsibilities, and they may have their own political agendas.  If your leadership is working toward the same goals, dogs and SWAT should be evaluated to see if they can work together to make the job safer for your operators.

I’ve listened to team members describe and provide evaluations of their latest acquisitions of SWAT tools or tools that they have recently tested, including the pros and cons of each tool.   There are some great tools being used today to assist teams.  However, various cameras, mirrors, and robots aren’t always as reliable as a police dog.  Granted, they are all not perfect nor a guarantee to find the suspect each time and each tool has its benefit, including the dog.  But, most cameras, mirrors and robots won’t locate the suspect hidden behind a closed door.  A dog is a great tool to locate the suspect hiding behind the door or in the attic, alerting a team to notify them of the suspect’s presence and usually pinpointing the suspect’s location.

The dog can also be a great deterrent and encourage a suspect to surrender before the dog is deployed or after the dog has located the suspect.  The advantages to surrender are obvious; your operators don’t have to risk entering a location and exposing themselves to the suspect or physically encountering the suspect.  Eventually, the team will need to enter the location to physically clear the location, but safer to do so when the suspect is in custody and the dog has rechecked the premises with negative results.

When evaluating your agency’s patrol dog’s suitability to work with SWAT, it is important that the patrol dog has about six to twelve months of street experience.  Obviously, street experience will vary from agency to agency depending on the work load and some will get more work than others.  The more street experience a patrol dog has, the better prepared it is to face the tasks it will be given during a SWAT operation.  Additionally, the K9 team (handler and dog) should have worked together for at least the same time period prior to training with SWAT.

Patrol dogs versus SWAT dogs.  A good patrol dog will almost always be a good SWAT dog.  Dogs assigned only to SWAT may not get the street experience or daily exposure necessary for it to become a good tool for SWAT.

Training.  If you decide that you want your tactical team to start working with your agency’s patrol dogs, you can begin with an evaluation followed by some simple training and familiarization exercises.  However, you should first seek the assistance and guidance from someone with experience in working with SWAT and K9 as well as a qualified K9 trainer familiar with SWAT tactics to get your team started before making arrangements to receive more formal training.  There are several reputable training courses being offered to integrate your K9 teams with SWAT.

Assignment for those in charge of your team’s research and development:

  • Visit other agencies that are using dogs with their tactical teams.
  • Evaluate your agency’s police service dogs or have someone familiar with SWAT and K9 deployments evaluate your dogs to see if they can assist you to make your job safer when searching for suspects and making covert entries into buildings.
  • Contact trainers that conduct training with SWAT and K9 teams.

I realize exceptions exist in every agency and every K9 team today may not be suitable to work with your SWAT team.   But, if you disregard that possibility and/or do not plan for future involvement, you are doing a disservice to your team and your operators.  Are you a progressive team?

Bill Lewis II © January 2008

This article was originally published in “Police K-9 Magazine” (January/February 2008) and also published as “SWAT and K9 – How Progressive is Your Tactical Team?” in the “CATO News” (Winter 2008).