How Police Dogs Offer Tamer Methods of Subduing Criminals, Quicker Ways to Track

Jun 26, 2013

Under normal circumstances, this four year-old Belgian Malinois is like your typical dog; friendly and full of energy. But in the midst of danger, he’s trained to identify and pursue people and things that pose harm to others.

Aries is one of six dogs within the Springfield Police Department K-9 Unit. His trainer, otherwise known as a handler, is Officer Tom Spence, a nine-year veteran with the department, who has been with the K-9 division for the last couple of years.

What you may know about police dogs is that almost all are trained to detect narcotics, as well as track other objects and people. But what you may not know, according to Office Spence, is that they are just like any other dog outside of the office.

“We want the dogs social. We want them to be acclimated to other people. But he knows when to… what’s the word? He knows when to turn it on,” Spence said.

Like the time Officer Spence responded to a domestic disturbance call where a suspect was threatening to kill himself. The individual, armed with a knife, was at first defiant in his exchange with the officer, until Spence brought out Aries.

“For a guy that wouldn’t hesitate to fight me, or maybe two or three officers, saw the business end of that dog and thought, ‘yeah I don’t want any part of that.’”

Harvey: “So this is his home pretty much during the day?”

Spence: “This is it, this is the office…”

Like his handler, Aries is on patrol roughly 40 hours a week. The back seat of the squad car serves as his office, which while the officer is away, is still on and running its air conditioner when necessary. At the end of the day, Aries returns home with the officer, where he lives. 

Imported from Holland, Aries was first brought to the department at age two, where after he was given time to decompress and get acclimated, was put through a training program lasting roughly 15 weeks. The repetition reaches into the thousands, Spence says, where dogs are trained to associate a fetch toy with narcotics odors. Pretty soon, fetch becomes not only part of playtime, but a continued training element for the dog.

“When he’s bringing the toy back to me, you know, just basic fetch, well that’s obedience. The dog knows he’s supposed to come back to me. Teach him to go out after the toy, that helps his hunt drive, his prey drive, he’s wanting to go out after that.”

One of the more common misconceptions of police dogs, according to Spence, is that they are attack dogs. But the officer notes these dogs are trained to engage, not attack, and says it’s a very controlled behavior. Plus, there are very strict guidelines for who a dog can be bit and who it can’t, Spence says. He even considers a dog’s use as a more tame method of handling rough situations compared to other options at an officer’s disposal.

“When they bite it’s not a mauling behavior. They don’t bite and bite and bite all over. They grab something, whatever they can get a hold of, latch on, and keep a hold of it. They will only let go and readjust their bite if they’re losing their bite.”

According to Spence, the more sophisticated the criminal, the more effective the dog, such as when identifying secret vehicle compartments that store illegal items.

“I’ll turn on the wipers here, I’ll honk the horn once, I’ll turn on the radio to this station, boom, this hidden compartment opens up. I’ve seen stuff like that,” Spence chuckles. “A human being’s not going to find that unless they get incredibly lucky. However a dog will find that odor of those narcotics.”

And police dogs don’t just pursue bad guys. Spence recalls an instance where a dog tracked an Alzheimer’s patient who had gone missing. Their strong sense of smell helps cut down on the need for multiple officers during a search, and limits the amount of time needed to conduct that search. Those extra minutes, or seconds, could be the difference between life and death for a victim, or even a suspect who is threatening to cause harm not only to others, but themselves.

Think back to the suicidal subject who was ready to fight Officer Spence, before agreeing to corporate upon seeing Aries.

“Say he hadn’t complied and I hadn’t had dog… what were my options? Get close enough to taser him? Well he’s got a knife. My taser has an effective range around 20 feet, you know, he can cover that in about three steps and beyond me. What am I faced with then? Deadly force? So, you look at it like that in the broad scheme of things, Aries could have possibly saved that dude’s life,” Spence said.

Harvey: “You look at it in terms of Aries saving that suspect’s life?

Spence: “His life. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely,” Spence replied.

It’s one of numerous instances were Aries took the fight out of the bad guy without ever touching him, Spence says. And it’s these types of situations that officers within the Springfield Police Department’s K-9 Unit are analyzing during their weekly meetings, to determine what worked, and where improvements can be made. 

Officers hope their dogs can serve the department for between six to eight years. For Aries, this four-year-old Belgian Malinois, that means plenty more opportunities to identify illegal drugs, track people; both criminals and those in danger, and help officers enforce laws and offer safety to citizens.