Dogs were one of the first animals to be domesticated, and from the beginning of our association with them, they have been helping humans by protecting us and assisting in our work.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that in time we’d come to give them jobs – and not just any jobs, but jobs in law enforcement, solving crimes and keeping the peace. These police dogs are called K9 dogs (or K-9 dogs), a pun on the word “canine,” and in many law enforcement agencies, a police K9 dog is considered an important part of the force. In fact, did you know that in some places, police dogs are sworn in just like human officers, and deliberately hurting or killing them is considered a serious crime?
Can police dogs be any breed?
The short answer is “not necessarily”; there are certain traits and abilities that make a dog breed more suited to this kind of work than other breeds. So what makes a good police dog? They should be intelligent enough to learn commands and trainable enough to be taught to follow them. Depending on what they’re going to be taught to do, they may need to have an excellent sense of smell or be strong and aggressive enough to apprehend subjects. This means that certain police dog breeds, like the ones in this article, are going to have advantages over other breeds.
However, it’s important to note that a dog’s temperament matters too: how much is the dog naturally inclined to work as a police dog? Many breeds have the strength or sense of smell necessary to do police work, so it may be sometimes more useful to look at the dog’s willingness to be trained than at its breed.
Types of police dogs and the jobs they can do
Police dogs can fall into a few different categories:
- Detection dog breeds use their sense of smell to search out explosives, ammunition, or drugs.
- Search and rescue dogs also use their sense of smell, but their targets are missing persons and suspects.
- Cadaver dog breeds use their sense of smell to find human remains.
- Attack dogs are used to find and help apprehend suspects.
- Patrol dogs are used, as the name suggests, on patrol; they’re a good all-around dog with who can track, search, and apprehend.
What breed of dogs do police officers use?
Here are the 5 best police dog breeds in service in the US today.
Several related breeds fall into this category: the German Shepherd, the Dutch Shepherd, and the Belgian Shepherd, particularly a variety called the Belgian Malinois dog. These breeds are what many people picture when they think of police dogs, especially the German Shepherd dog breed (although the Belgian Malinois may have overtaken them in popularity recently).
All of these dogs descended from a common ancestor, a shepherd dog. Like all the dogs on our list, they’re considered working dogs: they have a task to do, rather than just being used for companionship by humans. Specifically, the shepherd dog, as the name suggests, is a herding dog breed, having been developed for herding sheep.
The very traits that make them good shepherd dogs also make them great police dogs: they’re strong and athletic and can show force when they need to, but they’re also intelligent, trainable, loyal, and obedient.
These breeds make great patrol dogs and guard dogs, and their sense of smell and curious nature also makes them great detection dogs and search and rescue dogs. All these traits also make them great military dogs; they’ve served in World War I and II and can be found in militaries around the world. A Belgian Malinois, a military working dog named Cairo was part of one of the Navy SEAL teams that took out Osama bin Laden.
Breeds such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are often used as K9 dogs because of their keen sense of smell. This is because of their origins as gun dogs: hunting dogs bred and trained to retrieve game that’s been shot by their owners (hence the name “retrievers”).
This training as a hunting dog gives Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers a number of traits that make them excellent police dogs as well: steadiness and calmness, willingness to be trained and listen to commands, and intelligence. Their great sense of smell-originally intended to help them find downed game-makes them great search and rescue dogs, detection dogs, and cadaver dogs, able to find missing persons, specific substances, and human remains. They were also used in the Vietnam War as part of Combat Tracker Teams, using their sense of smell to find injured soldiers and enemy personnel.
It’s interesting to note that some of the same traits that make them great police dogs and gun dogs also make them great therapy dogs, psychiatric service dogs, and guide dogs. Two notable Labrador Retrievers, Salty and Roselle, received medals for guiding their blind owners out of the World Trade Center during the September 11 attacks.
This breed of dog is one that Hollywood has taught us to fear, as they’re often shown as fierce attack dogs. It is true that they make great guard dogs because of their strength, tenacity, and intimidating nature; in fact, they were bred for these traits. But breeders have managed to lessen their aggressive nature over time, and as long as they’re trained well, these canines can be obedient and well-behaved. In fact, various studies have shown them to be of average or even low aggressiveness, especially toward their owners and other dogs.
These canines’ tenacity, strength and intimidation factor make for a great police dog. Tunga, a Doberman Pinscher currently employed as a police dog in India, is credited with having helped to solve 60 cases of theft and 50 cases of murder over her career.
They also make great military dogs; the United States Marine Corps named this breed their official war dog during World War II. A Doberman Pinscher named Kurt was the first dog to be buried in the National War Dog Cemetery in Guam and is memorialized in a sculpture at the cemetery.
The bloodhound is the original police dog. This hunting dog was originally bred in the Middle Ages for tracking game, but its incredible sense of smell and tenacity in tracking its quarry meant that it was used for tracking people from very early on in its history: there are legends of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace being followed by these dogs, which indicates that these dogs were known for being good at tracking humans in the early 1300s.
In fact, the word “sleuth” comes from these dogs: in the Middle Ages, they were sometimes called “sleuth-hounds,” based on the Old Norse word “sloð,” meaning a track or trail. “Sleuth-hound” came to be used to refer to an investigator or detective, and was then shortened to “sleuth.”
These canines’ sense of smell is what makes them such a popular dog breed for police work. They don’t have the speed, strength, or agility of many of the other dogs on our list, but their noses cannot be beat: the average dog has 125 to 220 million olfactory receptors-which is significantly higher than a human-but the bloodhound has up to 300 million. There are reports of bloodhounds tracking a scent over many miles, sometimes when the trail has gotten quite old: in 1954, a bloodhound found a family 330 hours, or more than 13 days, after they went missing.
This makes these dogs excellent detection dogs, search and rescue dogs, and cadaver dogs.
This is another dog breed that many people instinctively fear, as they’re often shown in movies and television as aggressive, dangerous canines. This isn’t entirely without basis: these sturdy, strong dogs have been used since Roman times as watch dogs, and can be intimidating when they need to be. However, they were also used as herding dogs, and have the intelligence, confidence, and steadiness necessary to thrive in that task. Despite their reputation for aggressiveness, they tend to be even-tempered and good-natured.
This means that while they are great guard dogs, they also thrive as police dogs and military dogs and have been used in that capacity since before World War I. It makes for a great patrol dog, as it has strength, speed, and a good sense of smell which makes it a good all-around police dog.
Rottweilers, when trained well, are known to be gentle giants who are very protective of their owners and others. One extraordinary story from the UK made headlines in 2010: a Rottweiler named Jake went to investigate screams in a nearby park and ended up stopping a sexual assault in progress, then stood guard over the victim until the police arrived. Jake, who was a rescue dog, received a medal for bravery from the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).
Which is the best police dog?
As you can see from our list, that will depend on what tasks the dog needs to perform. Any of these police dog breeds could be a great police dog, along with some other honorable mentions:
- American Pit Bull Terrier
- German Shorthaired Pointer
- Giant Schnauzer
- Border Collie
- Basset Hound
- Boxer Dog
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
Whatever the selected service dog, a police K9 dog is an invaluable team member addition to any law enforcement group.
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