There are many myths, rumors, beliefs and general misconceptions that deal with the use of K9 in the Law Enforcement community.  Much of this comes from television shows that sometimes mingle the training of Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs with that of Police dogs.  While both groups utilize canines very successfully, their training may be very different.  This article will explain the different types of uses that the Police K9 is generally trained for.  By following the guidelines in this article, it will greatly increase the chances of a successful canine use.

Drug Detection

A canine that is trained and certified for drug detection can be a valuable tool in many drug cases.  The most common uses of a K9 for drug detection will fall into 2 categories:

  1. Probable Cause – A positive “alert” by a trained and certified K9 has been deemed by the courts to be probable cause for a search warrant or warrantless search under the motor vehicle exception.
  1. Locating drugs – Using the K9 to locate hidden or concealed drugs.

Traffic Stops

This is probably the most common use of the drug detection K9.  The courts have ruled that having a trained K9 to sniff the “air” around the outside of a lawfully stopped motor vehicle is NOT considered a search.  This must be done within a “reasonable” time period after stopping the vehicle.  The “reasonableness” of the time will vary from situation to situation and must be able to be articulated by the stopping officer.  In other words, what factors gave rise to the officer believing the presence of drugs may be in the vehicle.  Detaining a driver for up to 45 minutes has been deemed in certain cases to be reasonable.  If you believe that the vehicle may contain illegal drugs of abuse and you do not have consent or probable cause to search the vehicle, you can request the K9 unit.  The dog can legally sniff the exterior of any lawfully stopped vehicle or any vehicle in a public place.  A positive alert from the dog will give you probable cause to then search the vehicle. 

If you have called for a K9 unit for an exterior sniff of the vehicle, you do not need to have the occupants leave the vehicle while you wait for the dog.  They can remain in the vehicle.  If their engine is running and the vehicles air conditioning or heat is on , leave it on.  This only makes it easier for the dog, as the air that is inside the vehicle is going to be pushed out at window seams, door seams, vents, etc…

Locating Hidden or Concealed Drugs

If you have a vehicle stopped and have probable cause to search the vehicle (plain sight, officers sense of smell, etc…) or consent, go ahead and search the vehicle.  If you suspect that the vehicle may contain drugs that have been concealed in a location that you have not been able to find, call for a K9 unit.  It’s fairly easy to conceal items in a motor vehicle that would not be found during a routine search by hand.  The unique abilities of the dog will assist in locating drugs that have been hidden in such places as hidden compartments, door panels, spare tires, wheel wells, etc…

How to assist the K9 Unit on a Traffic Stop

If you have stopped a vehicle and have requested the K9 Unit, there are a few things that you can do to help out.

  1. If you have already searched the vehicle and have located any contraband and removed it prior to the K9 Units arrival, please advise the K9 Handler of what you removed and its location in the vehicle.  In most cases, the dog will still alert on the area where the drugs have been removed.
  2. If you noticed anything out of the ordinary during your search of the vehicle, i.e. missing or new screws on body parts or molding, carpet that has been tampered with, any compartment that you can not open, etc…again, advise the dog handler of this.  Also, if you see any “hazards” to the dog (needles, razor blades, poisons or chemicals) also notify the handler prior to the use of the dog.
  3. If you have already removed any occupants of the vehicle prior to the K9 Units arrival, please make note of where each of the persons was sitting when they were in the vehicle.  Many times the dog will show a positive alert on a seat or part of a seat where someone had been sitting.  It’s a good possibility that the person may be holding drugs on their person and the odor has transferred to the seat in which they had been sitting.
  4. Watch the driver, occupants, and other vehicles.  The K9 handler will be busy watching his dog for changes in the dog’s behavior during the search.  Your responsibility is to watch for outside hazards to the K9 team.


Utilizing K9 for Drug Searches of Buildings and Open Areas

If you are searching a building or open area (fields, yards, etc…) for drugs, you can greatly reduce the amount of time it will take by utilizing a K9.  A trained dog can search an area or room much faster than a complete hand search of that same area.  Please keep in mind items #1 and #2 from above (How to Assist the K9 Unit on a Traffic Stop).  Be especially watchful for any poisons, chemicals or other hazards to the dog.  If the building or open area that you want searched has any pets in it, please attempt to remove them or contain them prior to the K9 Units arrival.



There is nothing more frustrating to an officer than to have the “bad guy” run off and disappear into the darkness or wooded area.  We all want to catch them and everyone knows that when you call the K9 unit in, you’re going to get them.  Right?  Well, maybe.  Most of it is going to depend on what you and any other units do prior to the K9’s arrival.  If the original officer at the scene and any backup officers follow a few simple guidelines, the chances of a successful track will be greatly increased.

First, let’s dispel a few misconceptions when it deals with tracking.

  1. Generally you do NOT need a scent article for the dog to “follow”.  Yes, some dogs are trained for specific scent searches (this is actually called “trailing”), but these dogs are used mostly for Search and Rescue personnel and not for Police K9 units.  The exception to this would possibly be for a police department that is utilizing a Bloodhound.    The normal police K9 will be trained for “tracking”.  That is; following a person by their footsteps and any ground disturbance created by those footsteps.
  2.  If it’s raining, it won’t do any good to call for a K9 because all the scent has washed away.  This is absolutely FALSE.  In most circumstances having a little rain actually increases the ability for the dog to follow the track.  When there is high moisture content in the air, it traps and holds scents close to the ground.
  3. The dog can not track on concrete, asphalt, etc…  Again, this is FALSE.  While it does make it a little harder for the dog, a well trained K9 will be able to track on any surface.  How much traffic has been on the road, how windy it is, and the length of time since the person fled will be of greater importance on hard surface tracks, but they are very much possible.


How to Assist the K9 Unit On A Track

  1. If you are the original officer on the scene, get as much information as you can in reference to the suspects description, why they are wanted, and EXACTLY where they were last seen.  Once the K9 handler arrives on the scene, they need a place to start.  By showing the handler the last point of observation on the suspect it will reduce the amount of time in trying to find the “track”.
  2. If the suspect has run from you and you believe that you can catch them on your own, then by all means chase after them.  But, if during your chase it becomes evident that you will not be able to catch them, stop.  Take note of the exact location of where you last observed the suspect and call for the K9 unit to come to you.  The track should be started from that point.
  3. Do NOT have any responding backup units out walking around trying to locate the suspect prior to the dogs arrival.  This just adds more “tracks” to the area and makes it much harder for the dog to locate your suspect.
  4. DO get responding backup units to set up a perimeter with their cruisers.

(See information on Setting Up A Perimeter)

When the K9 handler arrives on the scene, they will usually need at least one other officer to go with them on the track.  Ideally this would be the initial officer arriving at the scene and calling for the K9 unit.  They will normally have the most information for the K9 Handler and the best description of the suspect.  If you are the officer going with the K9 team, just follow the directions of the K9 Handler.  The main function of the backup officers going with the K9 unit is to provide protection to the team.  During a track the handler will be focused on watching his dog and may not see any persons or hidden dangers in their way.  If it’s dark out, try to use your flashlights sparingly.  Its not a good feeling when your out tracking a “bad guy” at 0 dark thirty, and your backup officers are continually backlighting you, thus making you an easy target for anyone with a gun.  Back up officers do NOT need to be watching the dog.  Their job is to watch and listen for any movements or suspects hiding in the area.

Setting up a Perimeter

When attempting to locate a suspect that has fled on foot, a perimeter must be set up in order to contain the suspect in a given area.  Having a good perimeter will drastically increase the chances that the suspect will be captured.  It only stands to reason that the more confined of an area in which the suspect has to hide, the easier it will be to find them.  Here are the key points to remember when setting up a perimeter:

  1. Keep in mind the actual length of time between when the suspect was last seen and the arrival of the backup / perimeter officers.  When faced with a fleeing suspect, time seems to slow down for the initial officer.  What may seem to the officer to have only been a few minutes can actually have been much longer.  Someone attempting to flee on foot can cover quite a bit of ground over a short period of time.  With this in mind, the perimeter must be set outside an area in which the suspect has had time to travel.  In most situations, the perimeters tend to be set too close to where the suspect was last seen.  When this is the case, the suspect is probably already outside the perimeter by the time it is established.  Always remember that it is easier to tighten a perimeter than it is to expand it.
  2. Perimeter officers should NOT BE MOVING OR BE BLACKED OUT.  The whole idea of the perimeter is to contain the suspect in a given area inside the perimeter.  All perimeter officers should remain with their cruiser, STOPPED with ALL AVAILABLE LIGHTS ON.  The idea is to have the suspect see the cruiser and believe that if they come out of where they are hiding, they will be seen.  If we can get the suspect to “go to ground” or to stay in one place and attempt to hide, the K9 will be able to catch up and locate them.  In most cases the perimeter officers tend to drive around looking for the suspect.  It is too easy for a suspect to see the officers cruiser moving and just wait until the cruiser has moved past them before they escape outside the perimeter.  If circumstances are that in which any perimeter officers will be in an area where they can not be with their cruisers (on foot), they need to make sure that this information is known to the K9 handler.  Again, if at night, these officers need to keep their flashlights on to attempt to make the suspect stop and hide.
  3. Perimeter officers should ideally be in a location in which they can see the other perimeter officer ahead of them and behind them.  Understandably this is sometimes difficult to do in rural areas or when only a few officers are available.  All attempts should be made to utilize any available officer from surrounding agencies in order to achieve this goal.  Too many officers tend to want to come directly to the scene of where the suspect initially fled.  In most circumstances this is a waste of manpower.  It is the OIC’s responsibility to direct responding officers to begin setting up a perimeter.


Building Searches

You’ve received a call for an alarm drop at a local business.  Upon your arrival you find forced entry into the building or have reason to believe a suspect is still in the building.  Utilizing a K9 for searching a building will greatly increase the odds of finding the suspect and greatly reduce the odds of an officer getting injured.  A trained K9 utilizing their sense of smell can locate a suspect hidden in a building much more thoroughly than a few officers doing it by themselves.  Just as with a track, there needs to be a proper perimeter set up around the building before the K9 is deployed inside.  In most circumstances this can be accomplished by having an officer deployed at diagonally opposite corners of the building.  The perimeter officers should be far enough back away from the building to be able to see each of their 2 sides at one time.  During the search, the K9 unit will need some officers to go with them to act as backup.  Again, just follow the directions of the K9 Handler.  Always attempt to stay behind the handler and not get between the handler and the dog.  If you find yourself in a situation in which the dog is coming towards you, just remain calm.  Do not attempt to run from the dog or try to get away from them.  Attempt to get the handlers attention and they will call their dog back.  There are numerous situations each year in which backup officers get scared of the dog and needlessly shoot it fearing an attack.  If you are afraid of dogs or have any aversions to them, let the handler know this prior to entering the building so that another officer may be utilized.  Once the K9 unit and backup officers have entered the building, no other officers should enter the building unless requested to do so by the K9 handler.  Make sure to notify the K9 handler if there are any known hazards inside the building (i.e. chemical warehouse, open pits, running machinery, etc…) or if there is the possibility of a “friendly” still inside (cleaning crews, evening workers, etc…).


Area Searches

Area searches are utilized when you have a suspect contained in a given area outdoors but do not have a good location from which to start a track.   An area search would be utilized only when a good perimeter has been established. (See information on Setting Up A Perimeter).  During an area search, the K9 will most likely be “off leash”.  Again, the K9 handler will probably need an officer to go with them during the search.  As with the building search, just stay with the K9 handler and take any directions from them.

Article (or Evidence) Searches

Besides locating people and drugs, the police K9 is also trained to find any articles that have “fresh” human scent on them.  Unfortunately this type of use is not utilized enough.  At any crime scene there is always the possibility that the suspect has intentionally or accidentally dropped something.  Many times these items could be easily overlooked by the investigating officer as they may not be visible (under thick brush, etc…) or may just appear to be part of the surrounding area (trash or debris laying in area).  By utilizing a police K9 in the area around the crime scene, the dog will locate any items that still retain human scent.  Many dogs are able to locate a given piece of gravel that someone has held in their hand and dropped back down to a gravel road.  Obviously this can come in useful when looking for any evidence left at a crime scene.  This can also be very useful when trying to locate a piece of equipment that an officer has accidentally lost while on duty.  K9s have been utilized to locate lost cell phones, ASPs, flashlights, keys, etc…



Attempts should be made to have a K9 unit be one of the officers involved in a pursuit of a motor vehicle, as a good majority of these pursuits involve the suspect attempting to flee on foot after their vehicle has been disabled in a crash or other means.

All pursuits tend to increase the officer’s adrenaline, making them susceptible to tactical mistakes.  Officers should follow these guidelines if they are involved in a pursuit and a K9 unit is also involved:

  1. The K9 unit should be the 2nd or 3rd vehicle in the pursuit.
  2. If the suspect vehicle becomes immobilized, DO NOT RUSH UP TO THE VEHICLE ON FOOT.
  3. Take a position of cover and watch.
  4. If a suspect attempts to flee on foot, DO NOT CHASE AFTER THEM.  The dog will be sent and will make the apprehension.  The dog may bite any officer that attempts to chase after the suspect.
  5. If the suspect vehicle is immobilized and they have not attempted to flee on foot, then standard Felony Stop procedures should be utilized.  Once all visible suspects have been taken into custody, the K9 can be utilized to clear the vehicle for any hidden suspects.

Crowd Control

While most K9s can be very effective in moving or dispersing a large crowd, many departments have policies prohibiting such use.  If requesting a K9 unit for crowd control, make sure you advise the K9 handler of what you want the K9 for.  They will be able to tell you if their department permits such a task.

Apprehensions By K9

The following procedures should be utilized at anytime a suspect has been apprehended by a K9:

  1. If the K9 has been sent to apprehend a suspect, do not chase after the dog or the suspect.
  2. Once the K9 has engaged the suspect, remain behind cover and continue to use proper tactics.  Just because the dog has apprehended one suspect does not mean all threats are gone.  There may be more suspects hiding or the suspect may have a weapon.
  3. Follow the direction of the K9 Handler and be alert for other threats.
  4. Each situation will be different and the K9 Handler will use different commands and directions for each incident.  In some cases the handler may be the one that secures the suspect and in other cases the backup officers may be the ones taking the suspect into custody.
  5. After making an apprehension and the suspect is in custody, the K9 may still be in a higher alert level.  Do not approach the dog or handler in an attempt to pet or congratulate them unless the handler gives permission to do so.
  6. A life squad should be dispatched to attend and treat any injuries to the suspect.  Photographs should be taken at this time to document any injuries.  The K9 Handler will need full information from the arresting agency for their reports.


  • If you’re unsure what to do, ask the K9 Handler!  They will gladly tell you how to assist them.
  • Spend some time attending a few training sessions with your local K9 Units.  Most K9 units conduct training on a regular basis and are more than happy to have you attend!
  • Keep in mind that every SUCCESSFUL use of the K9 Unit will depend on everyone working together.


This article was written to give some direction for non-handlers to use when calling for a K9 unit.  Handlers from different jurisdictions may utilize different procedures and tactics.  Please contact the various department handlers in your area for more information.



Sgt. J.W. Patrick

Ohio Department of Natural Resources