Working like a dog: Police K9s trained with desire to play in mind

Officer Ed Webb participates in training with his partner Kaos

Business Journal Writer

STOCKTON — One man, Gary Lee, has been responsible for the training of every K9 police dog who has joined the Stockton Police Department since 2003. He’s also trained every Manteca K9 from 1983 to 2005 and 2007 to now.

“A lot of people have a bad idea about what the dogs do,” Lee said of K9 officers. “They go home and they are really like family members. They are just like family pets.”

Sergeant Gabriel Guerrero, who serves as a K9 unit supervisor for SPD, retired his dog Rocky in January.

“He is just enjoying retirement now and is just a family dog,” Guerrero said.

Dogs chosen to serve as K9 officers fit a profile. They are often breed-specific, mostly Dutch shepherds, Malinois, German shepherds and Rottweilers. Sometimes they are mixed breeds sourced from local pounds.

The initial cost for a dog can be up to $10,000, with a median cost of about $4,000 to $5,000. Then, there are additional training hours paid by the department and medical costs beyond typical veterinary visits for health screenings and treatment of injuries sustained on the job.

Lee hand selects every dog based on temperament and ability. Courage and confidence are necessary, but the most important requirement is a strong desire to play.
“A play-driven dog will chase you forever because he just enjoys it. It’s a big game to him,” Lee explained.

Lee calls police dogs service dogs. They don’t run off of aggression. Aggression-driven dogs react to intruders, but if a person leaves their territory, aggressive dogs don’t chase. Play-based dogs like to chase. They may catch up to a criminal and sit and bark until their handler comes. If the criminal takes off running again, the dog is trained to follow unless recalled.

Even a dog’s bite work is based in play. As Lee explained it, dogs bite because they think it’s fun.

“Our dogs are never taught to be lethal.” In fact, in the escalation of force, dogs are rated below the use of batons because batons break bones and dogs just cut flesh. The goal of bite work, according to Lee, is to stop a suspect’s motions, not to harm or maim.

“It’s all about play. All the training is like play to them,” Lee said.

POST, the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Trainings, requires 16 hours of training for K9s and handlers each month.

“Our police department has two 10-hour days a month dedicated for training and the narcotic dog handlers train up to an additional nine hours,” Guerrero said. “These trainings include obedience, apprehension work and searching. For me, I would just do obedience work at home on my own time and just keep him social. A lot of our training is also done on the job.”
A service dog can have no apprehensions. They must be able to climb ladders, jump over objects, work in crowds, maneuver obstacles, etc. They also must be approachable and work well around people.

“Every police dog out there doesn’t make certification unless he’s a sociable dog,” Lee said.

The profile of a trainer is also important.

“As a supervisor now, I just make sure all of the handlers are getting the necessary hours and training they need. I also evaluate each apprehension that is made to make sure they are within policy and see what areas we could improve in,” Guerrero said.

Lee said successful trainers do two things — they work well with humans (because, ultimately, he is training officers how to train their dogs) and they understand what emotions drive a dog. Lee calls these drives.

“A dog that has hunt drive is a dog that will hunt for what you’re looking for,” Lee said. A successful hunting dog, an important quality for K9 officers, has to have prey drive, or the drive to chase, fight drive, hunt drive to find things and defense drive — the ability to work through pain and defend themselves while fighting.

Some K9s serve as narcotics dogs. These dogs — often beagles and Labradors — are basically hide-and-seek dogs.

“You can teach a dog to find any scent. I could teach your dog to find your car keys,” Lee explained.

Again, a job as a narcotic dog is all about play, and training looks like play, too. The best narcotics dogs are the ones that are really interested in toys, the ones who are obsessed with a ball as a puppy.

“We make his toy, the thing that he likes the most, we make it smell like what we want him to find the most,” Lee explained. By making a toy smell like narcotics and then encouraging the dog to find it they are trained to constantly hunt for narcotics. The same can be done for other scents, too.

Lee said training for a K9 officer isn’t much different than training for other officers. “You train them through mock training … then they hit the street and they have to do the work for real.”
At one point, Lee trained dogs for a security company. He said the training standards are lower than that of a police department, but dogs still aren’t trained to be malicious.

“I don’t know any agency, private or municipal, who would train their dog to do anything other than stop and hold.”

There are typically two types of security dogs hired or trained by private companies. The first kind is tasked with protecting a territory, others walk with security guards to patrol areas, often-large industrial spaces.

“You don’t see too many of them. The liability is high,” Lee explained.


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