The Reality of Guard-and-Bark (Part 1)

by Bill Lewis II

 In recent years, more discussion and inquiries have resurfaced regarding the pros and cons of “guard-and-bark” (bark and hold) compared to “find-and-bite” as some guard-and-bark (G&B) agencies consider switching or have already started a transition to find-and-bite (F&B).

There are a few reasons to consider a switch – and most revolve around liability concerns, dogs making decisions on their own, safety of officers and dogs, and less work to train a find-and-bite dog.  I’ve been contacted for my opinion on several occasions so it has provided me with some insight and prompted further research. I’ve also reached out to others to assist this effort.

The purpose of this article is to explain the reality of guard-and-bark as it applies to today’s law enforcement utilization, provide some background in support of the method, and recommend a more clearly defendable policy you can take to court should litigation occur.

I’m not advocating nor suggesting anyone change their current method.  However, if you are thinking about switching from guard-and-bark to find-and-bite or vice versa, or you have recently made the transition, I encourage you to read on and consider the issues.

First and foremost, despite the type of training or deployment method that is being utilized, and to clearly address liability concerns, no handler should ever deploy their dog in a situation where a bite is not justified or anticipated.

(Throughout this article, I will intermittently use other common terms to describe guard-and-bark and find-and-bite.)

Some handlers have jokingly described their method as “My dog is guard and bark until he finds and bites.”  Actually, I like this description – but only if accompanied with proper training documentation and a written policy or guideline to support that implementation.

If you work, train or supervise a guard-and-bark police dog, I’m going to recommend you continue your training but consider a change of the traditional definition for real world deployments that could even be simply explained, for example, as; “We train the guard and bark method; we deploy to find and bite.”

Another reason some agencies are considering F&B or have already switched is the circulation of misinformation and misrepresentations by F&B advocates and/or those who would prefer to work less in training.  A few attorneys have also weighed in on the matter.  I do not believe these opinions are offered as intentional misrepresentations – rather, the opinions are provided as passionate support in favor of their preferred method, and to do so, they often tend to be one-sided.

Also, the pros and cons of either method are not often fully explained or considered – nor both sides of the debate provided with equal representation.  Many supervisors and administrators don’t understand the guard-and-bark concept as it may or may not apply to their respective K9 program and history shows they are usually negative toward and skeptical of things not clearly defined or understood – or they are influenced by those they believe are most knowledgeable.

Do you understand this bark and hold concept or practice?  Could you describe it now as if testifying in a deposition or trial?  Do you have a description within your policy or training manual of how your agency applies bark and hold?  Is it defined as a deployment tactic, philosophy, and/or training method?

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

-Albert Einstein

I’ve read studies, reports, articles and opinions that are shared in support of F&B and against G&B that require a thorough examination with an open mind to more clearly understand the issue at hand and the findings.  Many of these same writings are often shared with me during consultations and inquiries.  Coincidentally, I believe some of the “research” advocating find-and-bite has also (unintentionally) provided support in favor of guard-and-bark.

Because this is an article, not a study, I will not provide the lengthy history of bark and hold (circle and bark, find and bark) and its relations to Schutzund training, police training and deployments in Europe and the United States, competitions, and other related associations. You can further research on your own using the titles provided herein as well as others not mentioned.

The Florida Study

There are two studies that are often commonly referred together as “the Florida study” authored by Charles Mesloh titled “An Examination of Police Canine Use of Force in the State of Florida” dated Summer 2003 and “Barks or Bites?  The Impact of Training on Police Canine Force Outcomes” published in September 2006.

Because this study is widely cited in support of find-and-bite over bark-and-hold, I think it’s important to examine it more thoroughly and not so readily accept its findings on the issue at hand without further scrutiny.

Here is the primary findings from the Florida study most often cited;  Using the data from Florida canine handlers, bite and hold dogs had lower mean bite ratios (15.7) than bark and hold trained canines (22.4) and there was a statistically significant difference between the two apprehension methods.

We must first understand that this study was conducted in Florida around 2003 with only a 52% return rate (181 respondents replied) to a survey-type inquiry of defined data with no means of accurate verification or reviews of actual deployment reports to justify or explain each individual deployment and bite.  46 of the respondents (25.4%) stated their dogs were trained in ‘bark and hold’ (find and bark) but they did not provide their deployment criteria.  Some initial interviews conducted as part of the study caused a concern that some agencies were limiting (or padding) their actual bites during submittal to keep their bite ratios lower.

What the Florida study failed to clearly identify within its data collection was the number of bites related to the accessibility of the persons being located (apprehended) and any circumstances or obstacles that may have prevented a bite and its relationship to those bite ratios.

How many suspects were actually accessible to evaluate the success of either apprehension method?  How many suspects were located by the bark and hold dogs that were accessible and the dog did not bite?  How many accessible suspects were located by the bite and hold dogs that were not bitten by those dogs?  If the suspects apprehended but not bitten were not accessible, can the two methods be truly compared?

The Bite Ratio Data Collector used for the study identifies “fleeing suspect” as a separate category to track bites – but the final outcome does not identify how many of the bites were directed apprehensions of potentially visual suspects by either apprehension method.  I believe the “fleeing suspect” bite ratio on its own would be substantially higher – and perhaps equal – for both methods if the dogs were deployed in similar situations on a suspect running and clearly visible.  Would a 100% bite ratio on directed bites of fleeing suspects be acceptable?

A directed bite of a fleeing suspect or a suspect engaged in a standoff with police where the bark and hold dog is deployed directly by its handler for a “straight bite” should not be considered in comparison to a deployment by the same dog to search and find a concealed suspect – accessible or not.  A directed bite is not a bark and hold scenario for the purposes of this evaluation.  And – coincidentally – the bark and hold bite ratio should then be reduced accordingly if directed bites were removed from the equation with respect to the bark and hold evaluation.

The Florida study states; The key dependent variable for this research was the bite ratio.  As you probably know, bite ratios are not a true measure of a K9 program’s overall effectiveness nor the means alone to evaluate an individual handler’s performance.  Bite ratios do not determine how levels of force are measured when simply converted to a simple mathematical equation – nor do they “act as a barometer for misconduct and measured police violence” as indicated in the study.

Effectiveness and performance should be measured by a review of each and every individual deployment and the accessibility – or not – of the persons that are apprehended by a bite or a surrender without incident within the area of deployment.

If viewed from a different perspective, the Florida study provides interesting data beyond the bite tallies and concludes (without specific articulation) that;

  1. Bite and hold dogs failed to achieve their mission of finding and biting suspects in 84.3% of their deployments.
  2. Bark and hold dogs did not bite 77.6% of the suspects they were deployed to find.
  3. Bark and hold dogs were more effective in their overall deployments with respect to their mission and subsequent arrests (apprehensions) of suspects.

In 2011, Doug Roller wrote an article on “Find-and-Bark Training” reporting the Los Angeles Police Department experienced a significant drop in “contacts” (bites) from 45-55% under “handler control” (find-and-bite) to 12-22% when they transitioned to find-and-bark.  Although the article doesn’t provide stats or time periods, it is a significant difference compared to the Florida study using data approximation from a very active and respected police K9 unit in California.

The Florida study has been (and still is) cited and used by many agencies, trainers and investigative entities.  Should a limited study based on a bite ratio of police dogs in Florida still be considered today as the standard or means to evaluate the effectiveness of bark and hold programs across the United States to promote and justify find and bite over bark and hold?  I do not believe it should based on the data and independent variables presented.

The McGuiness Report

A report often cited on this topic is the “Bite and Hold Review Report: Bark and Hold vs. Bite and Hold” by Sergeant Gordon McGuiness from the Vancouver (Canada) Police Department.  McGuiness provides some good historical information (recommended reading) and advocates bite and hold over bark and hold with a conclusion that reads; “When the suspect is located that canine must now respond as a backup officer for their handler should the need arise.  That response should solely be based on training and commands from the handler, not what the canine perceives.”

Here’s my take on this assessment:  Police dogs are not backup officers.  Backup police officers are real people who are capable of making independent decisions with discretionary power to do so and may do so based on the totality of the circumstances without commands from the handler.  The canine is not capable of being a backup officer – it is a tool that is deployed under the commands and at the discretion of a handler.

Within his report, McGuiness shares a personal story about his response with his F&B police dog to a “break and enter” call at a home where he observes through a window a masked suspect stabbing a bound man on the kitchen floor.  McGuiness forces entry, pursues the suspect to the front of the home, and begins to take the suspect into custody when his police dog sees and “without command apprehend[s] a second suspect [armed with a knife] who was hiding directly behind [McGuiness] motionless in a dark alcove by the front door.”  He adds “My police service dog responded as trained and immediately engaged the motionless armed suspect.”

The outcome was both commendable and fortunate – but did the dog respond as trained?  The dog’s response, according to McGuiness, should have been solely based on training and commands from the handler, not what the canine perceives – and this dog bit without command a person who could have also been an innocent victim hiding motionless in fear from the intruder.  The dog acted on its own and was incapable of knowing the person standing motionless was a suspect or a victim and whether the person was armed or unarmed.

I absolutely agree that this outcome may have been tragically different with a guard-and-bark dog or a find-and-bite dog that didn’t bite on its own volition.  However, in terms of liability – in theory – if that person had been a victim hiding in fear and not a suspect, would a guard-and-bark dog present under these same circumstances possibly have prevented an accidental bite if it only barked or remained present without further action?

Many advocates of F&B will argue G&B dogs should not be making decisions on their own and F&B dogs only bite when directed – but that’s not the reality of the situation today.  Also, properly trained G&B dogs should bark and hold an accessible suspect and only bite on command or if the suspect makes a movement. It’s not really considered a decision by the dog – it’s described as a reaction based on training.

Handler Control

Trainers, handlers and supervisors of find-and-bite dogs often refer to the term “handler control” nowadays to describe their method of training and deployment – it sounds better doesn’t it?  They explain that their find-and-bite dogs operate under the direct supervision (“control”) of the handler.  One article claimed; The “send and bite” [find-and-bite dog] additionally provides a department with additional liability protection, as the dog does not normally work outside of the direct control of the handler.

All police dogs today must operate with “handler control” despite their respective training method and should not normally work outside the direct control of the handler for street utilization.  The claim that F&B dogs working under “handler control” operate within view of the handler so the handler can immediately control its actions and are therefore more effective than a G&B dog is – I’m sorry to say – simply not reality.  It’s not always safe nor practical to be in a position to continually watch and control your dog.

Ideally, all handlers should watch their dogs work in close proximity so they can potentially control the dog quickly – but in the real world, one of the primary reasons we use dogs is to search high risk areas we cannot easily view or safely access immediately – attics, crawl spaces, stairways, around a corner, heavy shrubbery, vehicle interiors, tunnels, entry points.

Donn Yarnell wrote:  “There is a huge misconception that a find & bark dog is or should be handled differently than a non-find & bark dog.  Nothing can be farther from the truth.  The handler strictly controls both types of dogs throughout the entire search and apprehension.” (from the article “The Find & Bark”)

The old premise that guard-and-bark dogs are allowed to roam off leash far away from their handlers and search on their own without direction is no longer reasonable nor applicable in today’s law enforcement utilizations.  Some exceptions may exist.  Guard-and-bark dogs should be deployed and directed in the same manner as a find-and-bite dog and kept within view (if possible) and close proximity to the handler based on the environment and circumstances.  The outcome (bite or bark) may be the only difference when an accessible suspect is located – or it could be the same.

Bill Lewis II © May 2015

Part 1 of this article was originally published in “Police K-9 Magazine” (May/August 2015).

Part 2 of this article is accessed in the “Articles” section or click