German Shepherd K9 Police dog with its owner

Find out the history of K9 Police dogs.

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The great history of K9 police dogs

By Scott's Police K9 Dog Trainer

Updated on the

We often think of dogs as compassionate companions. But they can do so much more than that. Historically, dogs have helped humans by providing security and protection.

The first uses were of a personal nature, and eventually, dogs became substantial components of local police departments.

Helping Throughout History

Dogs and humans have been partners for centuries. But where were the first police canines? Well, dogs have been used as guards for thousands of years, as evidenced in stories and artwork from ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome, and China. Due to their ability to smell, scout, and patrol, they were also used by the Spanish conquistador army as early as the 1400’s. 

Dogs in European Police Departments

Historically, the first record of dogs working directly with the police was in France. In the 1300s, dogs guarded docks in St. Malo. But it wasn’t until 500 years later that they became an important part of police investigations when the British police searched London for Jack the Ripper, though they were unsuccessful in finding him. 

Despite the disappointing failure in London, the partnership between humans and dogs became official as K9 training began. The police in Ghent, Belgium developed their own K9 training program. And a few years later, after the turn of the 20th Century, German police departments used dogs to control crowds and offer assistance in nearly all cities. 

Training Dogs to Help Police Departments

In fact, Germany founded the first dog training school shortly after World War I in Greenheide. The specialized training program taught dogs to follow commands that directed them to track objects and people by scent, to obey, and to attack. 

England followed the Germans by developing their own dog-training school a few years before being pulled into World War II. The British pushed their school a bit farther by basing training on dog breeds and their strengths. For example, they thought Labrador Retrievers were better skilled at the patrol, while Bloodhounds were better skilled at detecting smells. For about 15 years, Labrador Retrievers were the go-to dog for police officers until the London police department met its first German Shepherd, and that breed won the job. Eventually, Trained German Shepherds were used in police departments all over the United Kingdom. 

The Right Dog for the Job

Today, a lot of a K9’s work is helping to detect explosives and drugs. But they also help solve missing person cases, and they ride in police cars to help their human partners with patrols.

Throughout the nearly two centuries of pairing police and dogs, trainers have learned which breeds do the job the best. Most police dogs are German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, or Belgian Malinois. The breeds are selected because they are highly trainable, smart, and strong. They are also selected because they have a strong sense of smell that gives police departments an advantage over criminals. Trainers prefer to use male dogs because they are naturally more aggressive than female dogs, but the dogs are trained only to use their strength and aggression when ordered. 

How Dogs and Officers are Paired

It is expensive to train a dog to work in the police department. In some situations, owners donate their dogs, which can save police departments large sums of money. Otherwise, they have to pay thousands for a specially selected dog that is highly trained. Some of the best trainers are European, who only choose certain dogs because of their qualities and temperaments. 

Police dogs have to be matched with police officers. Together, they are considered a K9 unit. Police officers have to be some of the best around before they are given a dog as a partner. It is common for these officers to work 50 to 60 hours per week and to go through rigorous K9 dog training, just like the dog. 

Many police dogs serve for more than five years, and they usually work with the same officer for that entire time. During the time they are together, the police officer and the dog work together to solve crimes. The officer also helps the dog continue its training, as they need to be reminded of their commands and rewarded for their work. 

Many people take the opportunity to see K9 units in action at showcases. They also take the time to celebrate when police dogs retire after giving years of service.

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