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Police K9: The Case for a Verbal Out

During my time as a police K9 handler an elephant in the room whenever it came to bite work training was always the verbal out. There are several schools of thought on verbal outs for police dogs regarding the functionality of a verbal out and the tactics surrounding it. Some trainers demand a verbal out from their dogs, while others are ok with not having a verbal out because it is rarely used on the streets. The arguments each way are valid, and trainers, handlers and administrators (in that order) should develop a training program and standards that fit their mission and will hold up in court.

The Hard Out or Tactical Out

Before we dive too deep into the verbal out, it’s important to acknowledge the need for handlers to be trained and able to perform a physical removal of their K9 from the bite. The “tactical out” or “hard out” as I often hear it called is usually the best way to remove a police K9 who is actively engaged with a suspect while being taken into custody by back up officers. The tactical out gives the handler physical control of the K9 in an environment that is often chaotic, confusing, confined, and dark. The tactical out limits the chances of a re-bite, and more importantly for me, kept my back up officers safe and allowed them to do their job without the fear of being bit in the chaos.

The Verbal Out When I Needed It Most

Real world experience is a great teacher. Although I always worked hard to maintain a verbal out with the police dogs I worked with, I generally always peeled my dog off the bite when it was deployed in the real world. Over the course of my K9 career, I was blessed to work at an agency that was very active and had great patrol officers who went out every night to “hunt.” They didn’t just answer calls, they shook the bushes and pro-actively hunted evil. This generated many opportunities for me to deploy my dog. There are two distinct deployments that stand out in my mind in which a verbal out was not only necessary but helped create a safer environment for me and probably limited civil litigation.

The first deployment I will share occurred when an aggravated robbery was dispatched and I happened to be around the corner. The home owner interrupted a trailer theft in the middle of the night and the home owner confronted the suspect. The suspect responded by pulling a gun and shooting at the home owner. The home owner retreated and called 911. I saw the suspect vehicle in the area and the suspect fled in his vehicle as soon as he saw me. The suspect pulled into a large apartment complex in a neighboring city and fled on foot. I gave chase on foot with my K9 partner and sent him to apprehend the suspect. The apprehension was successful, and not knowing if the suspect was still armed, I took cover on a patio and gave verbal commands which the suspect complied with. I obviously didn’t want to approach the suspect for safety reasons, however I was also in an unfamiliar apartment complex outside of my city and back up officers were trying to locate me. Time on bite became a concern. Even with back up, I wouldn’t want to approach a suspect that was potentially armed if it could be avoided. Distance was my friend. When a police officer deploys their K9 partner to apprehend a dangerous suspect, they must ask themselves what is objectively reasonable? I always compared a K9 bite to other less than lethal options. Could I continually use a night stick on the suspect until back up arrived? No. Could I continually tase the suspect until back up arrived? No. Why would it be reasonable to allow my dog to continually bite the suspect until back up arrived? I had a compliant suspect and I knew my dog would verbally out. I explained to the suspect what would happen if he fled, fought, or made any furtive movements once the dog was removed. I verbally outed my partner from cover and my dog returned to me. The suspect remained compliant and was taken into custody without incident once back up arrived. The suspect later gave me a compliment at the hospital that I appreciated more than any award or recognition from my agency when he said, “sir, you’ve got a really good dog.” Coming from a career criminal that would now likely spend the rest of his life in prison, that was the highest form of complement.

The second deployment occurred in an area that was high in copper thefts. Several electric companies were being broken into regularly and copper was the target due to its high value at the time. While I was patrolling, I parked my squad car in a neighborhood and walked into the high crime area. As I entered an alley that backed up to one of the electric businesses, I saw a suspect emerge from the fence line carrying spools of copper. I gave verbal commands for the suspect to stop, and he fled back toward the business. I deployed my K9 partner who gave chase. The suspect fled back into the business through a small hole that he cut in the chain link fence. The hole was barely big enough for my K9 to crawl through, however he did, and physically apprehended the suspect. Back up was on the way, and once again I was alone with a suspect that was compliant with commands while my dog was on a bite. The bigger problem I had, was that my dog and the suspect were in an area that I could not physically reach. The business was fully enclosed with barbed wire and no officer on shift that night could physically fit through the hole that was cut. Our options for extracting the suspect out of the business were to cut a larger hole with breaching tools which would take several minutes to arrive or wait for the owner of the business to arrive. This was again a situation where a verbal out was the right thing to do. The suspect was complying and I was able to verbally out my dog and down him near the suspect while back up arrived, and then finally call my dog back to me. Without a verbal out, my dog would have been on a bite with a compliant suspect for an excessive amount of time.

The Verbal Out for Certification

It’s not uncommon for police K9 units to prepare for a certification in order to meet a minimum standard set forth by their administration, a vendor, or a third party organization. A great deal of regular training revolves around scenario based training, and training in the environment the K9 team deploys in, as it should. When certification time rolls around, handlers will often scramble to clean their dog up and the “out” is usually a focus of attention for certification. Most certifications should be looked at as a minimum standard and in my opinion, every K9 team on the street should be able to pass a certification at any given time, after all, it is a minimum standard. Police K9 teams should have a certification program that tests basic elements of the team’s capabilities in the settings and environments they deploy in.

The Verbal Out During Scenario Based Training

In my opinion, one of the most common reasons for police dogs struggling with a verbal out stems from how scenario based training is set up. Let me preface this section, with the acknowledgement and support I have for scenario based training. It should absolutely be happening regularly and be the core training for experienced K9 teams. The problems that I see arising are caused by how the scenario ends. As trainers, we often script a real world scenario for the K9 teams, brief the scenario, safety check everything twice, and run the scenario at “game speed.” Most scenarios in K9 training end with a decision for the handler to send his dog to bite, or not send and navigate the scenario in other ways. When the dogs are sent to bite, they are often taken off the bite hard, with a physical removal of the dog by the handler while the apprehension is made. For most police dogs, biting is one of their favorite things. When we only allow a limited bite, physically remove the dog from the bite, and then put the dog in the patrol car for the next 1-2 hours while other teams run the scenario, we are naturally building a desire for the dog to stay on the bite as long as possible and not want to release. As trainers and handlers, we have to consider the mind of the dog and how we condition them to our training scenarios. Sometimes we train the handler, sometimes we train the dog, and sometimes we train the team together. Usually scenario based training falls into the “training the team” category, but as trainers we need to understand that in the midst of scenario based training, it might be necessary to slow down the scenario and train the dog. When a training issue arises during scenario based training, don’t be afraid to shut down a scenario and go back to training the problem in front of you.

The Verbal Out During Bite Training

A common problem I see in police K9 training, is handlers that are physically removing their dog from the bite while simultaneously saying the out command over and over. All this does, is build frustration in the dog, and diminish any value the “out” command might have. The out should be taught and maintained away from bite work, and kept clear and clean during bite work training. Out should mean out, just like sit should mean sit. In my experience with dogs who do not like to out, there is a history of single bites in training, perhaps at the end of a track, at the conclusion of a building search, or during scenario based training when the suspect / decoy is in custody. One of the best ways to reward a dog for outing is to allow them to bite again. When dogs figure out that outing is not the end of the game, and there is a possibility of another bite when they out, they are much more likely to play the game, and out, in hope they will be allowed to bite again. Scenario training or single bite training events can be trained in this manner. Complete the scenario, and go from training the team to training the dog. Allow multiple bites and outs at the end of the training scenario and train the dog. Many handlers that have dogs with outing issues often shy away from bite training because their dog “doesn’t need any bites.” I would argue that those dogs should be biting more. One of the best ways to train an out is with numerous bites.

The Foundation of a Reliable Verbal Out

Too many times I see dogs that have an out problem and the solution is to use positive punishment (hard corrections) to make the dog comply. Some strong police dogs learn to fight through the corrections to maintain the bite. This creates even more problems relating to stress on the bite and the dog digging in and fighting through the corrections. An alternative approach is to teach the dog that by complying, they will receive their reward again. I once trained a dog that had an out problem so pronounced that he would not out anything. Decoy, article, toy, ball, it didn’t matter, everything was a fight for the out. The root of this was poor conditioning to the out. To fix this problem, I started with items that were less desirable for the dog to hold in its mouth such as metal pipes. We played out games with the pipe until the out was solid. Then we moved to blocks of wood and had success. The progression after these items was PVC pipe, tennis balls, tugs, bite sleeves, and finally a bite suit. The dog had to be reprogrammed to understand that the out command was not the end of the fun, but more likely to mean the fun would continue.

In a perfect world, I love to teach the out to the dog away from bite work, usually with a ball or tug. As soon as the dog outs the item, it receives it again. When introduced properly and with a high number of repetitions, this method caries over flawlessly to bite work. Keeping the out clean should be a priority in any bite training. Even if as trainers we deem a verbal less than necessary, it still shows a level of control over our dog that is not only impressive, but gives the public faith in how we train.

Police K9 trainers should constantly be progressing and challenging the K9 teams under their guidance. When it comes to training the out, I always error on the side of over training. “Just because we don’t need it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t train it.” I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

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