Every dog lover dreams of taking a trusty canine companion to work in the car, allowing it to snooze under the desk all day, and then returning together to the comforts of home at night. But does that vision include also knowing the dog could spring into action at any moment to save a life or chase down a criminal?
That is the reality and daily routine of K-9 unit members, the highly trained teams of law enforcement officers, and their canine partners who both play an integral part in protecting lives and property. Dogs have been used in law enforcement since the Roman times to provide security, serve as sentries, and sniff out booby traps and land mines. While dogs were part of law enforcement teams in Europe as far back as the late 1800s, they began to gain popularity with American police agencies in the 1970s. Today, several Midlands law enforcement agencies count K-9 officers among their ranks.
In the City of Cayce, Deputy Chief Jim Crosland commands the police department’s K-9 unit, which includes five teams of officers and their dogs. He started working at the department in 1998 with a sole drug detection dog. He later left the agency but returned in 2016 with the goal of making sure Cayce had a full K-9 unit.
Jim says the purpose of the K-9 unit is to help both the officers and people in the community. “If we can have a dog on the ground at a scene in two to five minutes with a felony call or a lost child, then it’s worth every cent and time spent training,” he says.
The rigorous Cayce selection process for officers and dogs starts with the officer first submitting a letter of intent describing qualifications that could help the team. “Then the candidates go in front of an oral board, do a physical fitness test, and then usually some type of demo,” Jim says.
As part of the demonstration, candidates may have to put on an apprehension suit to make sure they aren’t scared of getting bitten. Officers use the padded apprehension suit when training the dogs to go after someone. “If you’re going to work with dogs long enough, you’re going to get bitten,” Jim says. “After that, we figure out a match for the dog and handler.”
The selection process in the City of Columbia’s K-9 unit is similarly rigorous. The K-9 team, which started more than 30 years ago, includes 11 pairs of handlers and dogs.
Cynthia Waggoner, a sergeant who has been on the City of Columbia’s K-9 team for 10 years, is currently working with her second K-9 partner, Anna, a Dutch shepherd. Cynthia says the process for the officer to join the K-9 team includes multiple steps.
“We have tryouts. It’s a selection process,” Cynthia says. “The team votes on who is the best fit for the unit, and it’s very demanding. You not only have to be a good police officer, but you also have to quickly learn new things.”
Officers who are drawn to serve in the K-9 unit invariably consider themselves to be “dog people.” Cynthia says she definitely falls into that category. “Is there any other type of person?” she says with a laugh, adding that she has always had a connection with dogs and their abilities.
“I’ve had a partner who I rode in the car with 40 hours a week. We would tell horrible jokes and hang out with each other’s friends and family,” says Cynthia. “But it’s just different having that dog connection. Dogs’ abilities are unparalleled. They can be everything from bedbug sniffing dogs to search and rescue dogs. It’s insane what you can do with them.”
The dogs also go through a selection process based on a host of tests looking for personality, drive, and sociability. “Once the dog is selected, it’s then paired with a handler based on their personalities,” Cynthia says.
While some agencies previously looked to rescue organizations for donated dogs, many now seek professional international breeders who supply dogs to law enforcement agencies around the world. A typical dog for a K-9 unit costs between $8 thousand and $12 thousand, Jim says. Most are cross-trained for apprehension, tracking, and drugs.
According to the American Kennel Club, only a few breeds of dogs are ideal for police work. German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, bloodhounds, Dutch shepherds, and Labrador retrievers are all recognized for their focus, desire to please, and tendency to be hard workers. Some are apprehension dogs that will chase a person based on a real or perceived threat. Others are trained to sniff out drugs, while still others are trackers.
Shepherds and the Belgian Malinois are herding breeds typically used as apprehension dogs because of their physical strength and high intelligence. Labs are suitable for narcotics and explosives detection, evidence discovery, and search and rescue functions. Bloodhounds are particularly adept at trailing.
“They track for good or bad people,” Cynthia says. “For instance, if we get a call about a business being burglarized at 2 a.m., and we know they’re closed, we have the building surrounded, and then we send in the dog. The dog will find the person and apprehend them, or if it can’t reach them it will bark and let us know where the person is.”
If someone is behind a door, the dog may not be able to open the door, but it will bark to let the officers know someone is behind the door.
Cayce’s Labrador retriever, Molly, is narcotics certified and used frequently for sniffing out drugs in schools. “Then we have the ‘pointy-eared dogs,’” says Cayce’s Master Public Safety Officer Hayden Clarke, who is partnered with Kimber, a Malinois. “Those are the full patrol dogs. They are primarily trained for narcotics detection, tracking, and apprehension.”
Specific training routines vary from agency to agency, but typically the officers and their dogs spend five to six weeks at a training facility before being put on the street. In Cayce, the K-9 team sets aside Tuesdays for training. In Columbia, Cynthia says they train about four hours each week.
The canine school is a controlled environment that includes a written test and a proficiency at the end of every week. The student team cannot go further into their training without the successful completion of each week. The student has to study for several hours each evening to be able to complete the fill in the blank test. The official certification is through the South Carolina Police K9 Association that will generally hold a certification week hosted by the North Charleston Police Department. Once the team certifies, they will officially be ready to work the streets.
Cynthia says that the Shandon neighborhood makes good training ground because dogs, runners, strollers, and bicycles are always around. The K-9 team tries to make training as realistic as possible.
“There used to be a house with two bloodhounds and an invisible fence in Shandon. We would set a track by the house knowing those dogs couldn’t interfere with our dogs,” Cynthia says. “It was always a learning experience for the handler, because usually it’s the human who’s the catalyst for any problems that come up.”
Jim says many of the K-9 officers in various law enforcement agencies in the Midlands know each other and were trained together. “We all know our dogs’ bad behaviors and have a tight knit group. If one of us has a dog that’s having an issue, we can bounce off ideas from each other,” he says.
When not working, the dogs will typically stay in the office with the handler or in the vehicle, which has high-tech equipment to keep the dogs comfortable and safe.
Columbia’s Master Police Officer Eric Walker, whose partner is a 7-year-old Dutch shepherd named Indy, says that when he first got her, she could not even be inside. “She was completely working all the time. Now, while I’m in the office doing paperwork, she comes with me and snores. They just get into a routine and know what they are supposed to be doing.”
Not only do the dogs stay with their handlers during the work day, but they also are with them at home when their human officers are off duty. For the Columbia K-9 unit, the department provides a 10-by-10 outdoor metal wire kennel.
“We ask the officers to keep the dogs out there as much as possible because they need to stay acclimated to weather as much as they can,” Eric says. “We don’t want the dogs to be looking for shade in summer.”
The officers are also encouraged not to treat the dogs like pets. “Imagine a giant Jack Russell. We ask them to harness that energy so the dogs are ready to work and don’t get spoiled too much,” Cynthia says.
In Cayce, Master Public Safety Officer Wilson Lewis, whose partner is Molly the lab, says, “My dog has no off switch, so in the rare instances when it’s really inclement weather, she stays in a cage inside. The other 95 percent of the time she’s outside in a kennel. If I bring her inside, she thinks, ‘Oh, it’s time to work,’ and she’s sniffing for drugs all over the house.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Cayce Master Public Safety Officer Kimberly Paparella’s Rocco, a German shepherd. “He has a good on/off switch. He knows when it’s time to relax and when it’s time to work. He loves getting attention. He’s just big and goofy.”
When it is time for the dogs to retire, the handlers often have the option of keeping them as pets. Cynthia’s first K-9 partner, Jazz, is a happily retired chocolate lab living at her home. This past summer, they enjoyed a cross-country trip to Joshua Tree, California, in a convertible. Jazz even has her own Instagram account to keep track of her adventures.
But having dogs as part of a police department brings certain risks not associated with human officers, says Todd Williams, a public safety consultant with the S.C. Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund, which provides insurance coverage to many municipal police departments. This type of general liability coverage for K-9s insures against death by accident, illness, or disease. The coverage also includes medical care for the rare occasion an officer is bitten by a dog. Todd says that over the past two years, he has seen fewer than 10 medical claims after an officer was bitten by a police dog during training.
In some instances a K-9 bites a suspect and the suspect sues the police department. “These cases are very rarely successful for the person suing,” Todd says. “They’re under arrest, and they know that there is some level of force. It’s similar if you tase a suspect or pepper spray someone; it’s a use of force. We have to make sure the level of force is appropriate.”
K-9 handlers also have to be on the lookout when they have their dogs out in the general public or at public events. They try to make sure that people, children in particular, do not assume the dogs are there for play.
Cynthia says she frequently takes Anna to the beach and lets her run. At those times, Anna typically wears her electric collar so Cynthia can be assured she has full control of the dog.
“It’s people I don’t trust, not the dog,” she says. “Then there are issues like kennel cough that dogs like Anna could be exposed to.”
In another issue unique to K-9 units, special vehicles are needed to ensure the safety of the dogs and the people they encounter. A law enforcement best practice recommends that a handler have in-vehicle technology that protects the K-9 from accidental heat death, says Todd. While no state law requires police cars to be outfitted with certain technology, most department vehicles are equipped to automatically roll down the windows and turn on the fans when an automobile gets too hot.
Kimberly in Cayce says that the back seat in her sedan has been removed and replaced with a platform. “Rocco gets the whole back seat. A temperature gauge activates a fan if the vehicle gets too hot.”
Cayce’s K-9 officers also have door poppers they wear on their vests. The popper will immediately open the car door remotely to let the dog out. “If the officers are on a traffic stop and fighting with a suspect, they can hit the door popper and unleash backup quickly,” Jim says.
What can’t these dogs do? Not much, Cynthia says. “They can do everything but host their own podcasts.”
Podcasts aside, “There’s nothing better than these dogs,” says Eric. “The rewards of working with them are immeasurable.”