Trained dogs have been used since ancient times to help track escaped prisoners and maintain civic order. In fact, it was their renowned nose and trainability that helped coin the word "sleuth," from the Scottish idiom "slough dogs," or bloodhounds.1 And while contemporary K-9s are predominantly associated with police, their use in corrections is making a comeback.
Using dogs inside prisons is a huge benefit, says former corrections and SRT officer Bill Reynolds, who now runs the Philadelphia-based Reynolds Canine Academy. From cell searches and extractions to riot control, these animals, if trained properly, can mean more productivity, more safely.
Bill Reynolds, right, trains a German Shepherd. Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers are the most popular for corrections and patrol. (Photo/Bill Reyolds)
"In the amount of time it takes one CO to completely search a cell, a dog can search four more. If a fight breaks out, a dog will equal six officers. When a dog comes on the block, inmates tend to find their cells a lot faster."
What can a K9 offer your facility?
1. Searching out cell phones If you've read about the rash of cell phone contraband making its way into facilities across the country, you’ve probably seen the photos of dogs searching out these phones down in cells. Scientists have been able to extract the “essence of cell phone” used as an aromatic to train these dogs for searches, and the result has been an amazing crack-down success story.
2. Crowd control Dogs are commanders nonpareil when it comes to crowd control. Even if they're not trained to bite, their mere presence makes inmates apprehensive and therefore less likely to pull a fast one. After all, less bad behavior means less use of force and fewer injuries to officers and inmates alike.
3. Searching out narcotics Narcotics detection dogs are a big deal – and a big seller – in today's prison systems. Whereas people are extremely limited in their capacity to find small stashes of illicit substances in a massive facility, dogs have a distinct advantage.
"Dogs can smell narcotics in the vents, they're can smell it in the peanut butter, they can smell it in the mattress," Reynolds said. "Dogs can smell narcotics through just about any masking odor."
And since the flow of narcotics into a facility will can never be staunched completely, fastidious searches are the best tool you've got.
4. Acting in a patrol dog capacity Patrol K9s are not the exclusive domain of police. In fact, these dogs serve an important function in correctional settings. In addition to crowd and riot control, patrol dogs are useful in tracking escapees and accompanying prisoner transports.
5. Cell extractions These dogs are trained to apprehend and take down an unruly inmate, making it safe for the CERT to come in a take over. (Also read Dave Young's piece, K9 for use in CERT and SORT.)
How much is that doggy in the window? The first thing most people want to know about K9 units is how much they cost. The answer depends on how many dogs are used, what type of training the dog receives and what type of training the handler (a person who works for the prison system how is going to handle the dog) receives.
Dogs can be trained off-site (called "pre-trained dogs") or at the facility itself. Likewise, the hander can either go to handler school or, if he gets a pre-trained dog, can attend a shorter (and cheaper) 4-week training session.
A single-purpose dog – for instance, a narcotics dog – will cost your agency about $7500 for the dog and dog's initial training, plus the cost of the handler's training, according to Reynolds. Plus, you'll need to figure in the cost of a hotel for the professional trainer as well as all of the equipment the handler will need. Ongoing costs include vet bills and in-service training, plus about $20.00 a month for food and the annual recertification fee.
Do your homework A K9 is an important purchase, so buyer beware.
Before your facility initiates the procurement of any trained dog, these pieces must be in place:
Policy: A sound policy must take all liability issues into account. This provides for the safety of staff, inmates, members of the public and the dog.
Handler: A qualified and responsible handler must be pre-screened and ready to go.
Training area: A facility (e.g., an onsite trailer) where training can take place must be secured.
Vet: Choose a vet who has specific medical knowledge about working dogs; also, the vet must be prepared to handle emergencies 24-7.
Housing: It needs to be decided ahead of time where will these dogs be housed and how will they be taken care of. Remember: K9s are loveable animals, but they're not your average pet; they require an unusually high level of care and vigilance.
"I tell everyone who contacts me the same thing: Be very careful from whom you buy the dog, and make sure you have a contract in writing – both a guarantee of health and training," Reynolds said.
Don't be fooled into thinking that a dog trained for patrol can double as a corrections dog. Some police kennels have been known to tell corrections buyers that their dogs can handle anything, when in reality these dogs will not be ready for a sprawling, loud indoor environment.
"A corrections K9 has to be excellent on slick floors and around large numbers of inmates yelling and throwing thing at them," Reynolds said. "Professional trainers run screening tests on the dogs to make sure they can handle it."
Sometimes dogs are donated to agencies. Of these, some can be trained and some can't – it all depends on the demeanor of the dog. If it can handle the "stress test," and has the proper drives, they could be a good bet.
Always have the dog professional evaluated before training him, Reynolds says. "This way, we don't waste the prison's time or our time washing a dog out."
And speaking of wasted time, never underestimate the amount of red tape involved in purchasing a K9. Depending on your agency, the board, caption, warden, or all of the above may need to sign off.
The right stuff Training a dog is hard work. Reynolds suggests making it easier on yourself (and the dog) by training it on site. The dog needs to feel comfortable with his environment. If a dog is trained elsewhere, the transition into the actual prison environment can be fraught with dog freak-outs and set-backs.
"Dogs need to be able to search prison cells with cinder block walls, not a bedroom with sheet rock walls," Reynolds said.
The length of time it takes to train a dog depends on what skills they need to master. For narcotics and cell phone detection, training will last approximately nine weeks. Patrol or cell extraction dogs need fourteen weeks.
A standard timeframe for training a single-purpose dog is thirteen weeks. During this time period, the handler learns how to take care of the dog how to handle the dog and read its signals, as well as how to deliver courtroom testimony based on K9 operations.
Who's a dog person? A K9 is a highly trained and valuable purchase, so it's incumbent on every agency to pick a handler who's up to the task. Most handlers are not professionals, and in many cases have never handled a dog before.
A word of caution: Just because someone shows a lot of interest doesn’t necessarily qualify him or her to take on this huge responsibility. Either the prison administrators or a professional dog trainer will screen potential handlers. Reynolds said he’s developed a pretty good knack for determining who would make the cut. Generally, an individual with good attendance (reliable, on-time), has a solid work ethic, an even temper and a kempt appearance is a safe bet.
A lot of people apply to be a handler, but it's a very tough job.
"Some handlers go through 12 weeks of school, then come back and think, 'I'm just going to push a button and the dog's going to work' – then they don’t work their dog," Reynolds said.
That makes the whole K9 unit look bad.
Training from experience Reynolds is one of a handful of trainers in the country dedicated to correctional K9 training. He says his background as a corrections officer and SRT member is invaluable to the work he's doing now.
"I know what it's like to be around 10,000 inmates, and what kind of dog will be able to handle that," he said. "I train these dogs based on what I saw."
For a few years, liability issues slowed the demand for correctional dogs. But agencies are starting to warm once again to the idea in light of overwhelmingly positive news. A solid K9 policy can prevent an incident from coming back to "bite" you. And in the meantime, these extraordinary sleuths will save your agency time, money and potentially lives.