Being bitten by a large, hairy animal is terrifying. Being bitten by a large, hairy professional apprehender (read: police K-9) is even more frightening — and painful (“K-9 bite cases leave a trail of questions,” June 10). With this in mind, it’s not surprising that St. Paul police have placed parameters on when a dog handler is allowed to send his dog on an apprehension (read: bite).

On their face, the restrictions seem to make sense, but in practice, they’re one more regulation that could limit the effectiveness of the canine and, in the process, cause injury or death to the handler or others. The example of a woman bitten in a St. Paul alley was one of a canine operation gone wrong. The dog was out of the handler’s sight, and the apprehension, once observed, was further fouled by a dog that would not release its toothy grip on command.

As a former K-9 handler, I have some experience with this imperfect science. First of all, a well-bred, well-trained K-9 is as dependable as its handler. My dog and I were a failure as a team for a variety of reasons, including my stubbornness and my dog’s fears.

In the early years of K-9, departments got some of their dogs through donation and by searching shelters. While this was cost-effective in the short term and made for good PR, it was a losing proposition in the long run. Before my dog became a police K-9, St. Paul cops who worked the area where he lived had seen him chained to a tree, day in and day out. He was not a good candidate, and his unsuitability manifested itself in a fear of most things that went bump in the night. He was intelligent and did well in all aspects of training, but when searching a dark building, he allowed a natural fear to creep in, limiting his effectiveness.

Most people don’t consider what is expected from a police canine. TV and movies convince viewers that the kind of bravery most police K-9s possess is a common trait in most dogs. This is a fallacy. Consider for a moment a dog — maybe your dog or any dog you know, of any size or shape — faced off with a large man running toward it, screaming and holding a steel pipe over his head. What do you think that dog would do? If that dog belongs to the 99.9 percent of “normal” dogdom, he or she will turn around very quickly and hit the road on all four wheels.

It is normal for dogs to react to frightening stimuli, and this fear is nearly impossible to “train” out of them. It is a survival instinct. For a dog to not only face these stimuli but charge forward and attempt to control/apprehend (bite and hold until the handler can get the arrestee handcuffed) is just short of impossible, but K-9s do it. Most of the ones used today are imported dogs that have been bred with this trait of courage and bravery. This is a rare, costly, highly sought trait. These dogs will still need to display this courage under the added fearsome stimuli of gunfire directed at them — and they will do it.

So, back to the limits placed on these K-9 teams. While all police — staff, officer, K-9 officer — agree that misdemeanants and other low-level criminals should never be apprehended by K-9s, the problem is that the police job is too dynamic, too fluid to categorize criminals in any cut-and-dried manner. For instance, a K-9 handler would never consider having his partner apprehend a shoplifter, but let’s say that once the K-9 is placed back in the car, the shoplifter runs from the police. Still not K-9 material. Then the suspect carjacks a vehicle at a stop sign — now we’re there, right? And then takes the driver of the car hostage. OK, now we have a serious felony. So when the now-felonious shoplifter/car thief/abductor runs from the police, the K-9 officer is confident to send his partner after him. What about those gray areas before the carjacking? Should those be based on the handler’s experience or solely on regulation? Remember, this is one example of what could be thousands of unique situations.

My point is, one never knows what a call will develop into. The key to an effective canine team is having a well-trained dog and a handler who is prepared to use his partner at a moment’s notice in all appropriate circumstances. This same handler needs to be confident that his dog will respond instantly to his “release” command. These are training issues rather than policy issues.

Every time a new regulation is imposed on police, a significant number of criminals are allowed to avoid apprehension. It started with officers being required to inform arrestees they had a right to remain silent. While generally applauded, this Miranda “right,” which is afforded less freely in other democratic countries, allowed thousands of succinct guilty criminals to walk away. While it allowed many less affluent suspects the ability to avoid unethical treatment at the hands of police, it also allowed many savvy career criminals a “get out of jail free” card.

Dogs, like people, are not perfect, and using them to assist police, while very beneficial, opens the door to innocent citizens being injured. Training, rather than additional regulations, will limit these painful mistakes while allowing officers the full benefits of utilizing these amazing dogs.

 

Richard Greelis, of Bloomington, is an author and retired police detective and teacher.