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Why your correctional facility should have a K-9

As correctional facilities are routinely asked to do more with less, there is a place in every department for our four-legged partners


Ernie, a K-9 officer with the Covington Police Department, sits with his handler outside the Kentucky State Capitol, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Frankfort, Ky.

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

As prisons and jails deal with shrinking budgets, correctional leaders cannot sacrifice security in order to save money. With appropriate implementation, the use of working K-9s in correctional facilities can aid facility safety without draining limited resources.

The presence of K-9s has been shown to reduce use-of-force incidents and contraband trafficking, while serving as a general deterrent to unwanted behaviors in correctional facilities.

While it’s easy to find articles containing anecdotal evidence relaying the value of K-9s, the presentation of statistical data supporting the benefits of K-9s in public safety is more likely to convince policymakers.

K-9s can fill multiple functions, which is particularly important in agencies where staffing levels are critically low. A dual-purpose dog, or a dog that can perform both odor detection and protection duties, can give an agency the biggest “bang for their buck.”

A dual-purpose K-9 can perform:

  • Handler protection
  • Suspect apprehension
  • Crowd control
  • Narcotic searches
  • Building searches
  • Area searches and evidence recovery (outdoors)
  • Tracking (people)

Using K-9s as a search tool

In addition to the tasks previously mentioned, a K-9 can be trained to find anything with an odor. In a correctional setting this can include cell phones or tobacco contraband.

A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than humans, which makes them able to sense the presence of an item far quicker than their human counterpart. According to James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, “Let’s suppose they’re just 10,000 times better. If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see us as well.”

In a research study conducted in Michigan, K-9 teams showed a 93 percent success rate in locating hidden subjects during building searches compared to the 59 percent success rate of officers searching. Additionally, the K-9 teams were able to complete the searches in a fraction of the time taken by the officers.

Both the general public and inmates in correctional facilities are somewhat familiar with the sensory abilities of K-9s. They’ve either seen them in the media or witnessed dogs’ abilities firsthand. With this in mind, there is little doubt that the presence of a trained odor-detection dog that can identify various contraband helps deter contraband trafficking.

Using K-9s as a use-of-force tool

With violence in correctional settings all too common, it’s interesting that we rarely see video footage from facilities where a violent act is occurring with a K-9 present. This could be due to the fact that when K-9s are present, the likelihood of violence occurring decreases.

A 2011 National Institute of Justice research brief indicates that the presence of force options reduces the likelihood of suspect resistance, and thereby reduces the likelihood of injuries to both suspects and officers.

We can surmise two possible reasons for the deterrent effect of K-9s and other force options:

1. When inmates know there are consequences for particular unwanted behaviors they are less likely to want to face those consequences.

2. When officers are limited in their ability to use alternative types of force options they are forced to default to the tools that they have available. This can have the unintended consequence of force occurring or being escalated beyond what could have been avoided.

For example, officers dealing with an aggressive and destructive inmate will eventually resort to their available force options once de-escalation techniques have failed. This could include the deployment of O.C. spray followed by a group takedown by officers in order restrain the inmate. In this example, there is a strong probability of at least some level of injury occurring to the inmate and/or officers.

Let’s assume we have the same situation except that prior to deployment of chemical agents, officers are able to get a K-9 on the scene. This presence gives the offender an additional consequence, as well as an additional opportunity to comply. Research has shown us that this K-9 presence is enough to deter continued unwanted behaviors.

In instances where the K-9 does not deter the behavior and is deployed, the K-9 will secure the offender and allow officers to more safely move in to restrain the subject.

K-9s are often trained in a “bite and hold” technique where they learn to use their full mouths to grip and hold the offender until the subject is restrained. In this way the subject is limited in their free movement, preoccupied with the dog and may be limited in their ability to fight, allowing staff to more easily gain control.

Evidence-based practice for K-9 programs

Police and corrections are not the only entities to see the proven safety value in K9s. The medical community, the pioneers of evidence-based research and decision-making, has begun to utilize K9s to improve facility safety.

In April 2017, the UnityPoint Health Trinity Regional Medical Center in Fort Dodge, Iowa, announced they would be adding two patrol dogs to its security department to address increased violence in healthcare across the country, according to public safety supervisor Mark Gargano.

The decision to add the patrol dogs to the hospital staff came after years of researching hospital K-9 programs. Research has found that the presence of a dog at an incident involving disruptive behavior tends to resolve the situation without the use of force or restraints.

Cost versus benefit of K-9 programs

At a cost ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, the price of a K-9 may seem like an irresponsible expense. Upon closer examination however, it’s clear that the purchase of a K-9 may prove to be an investment rather than an expense. It’s been figured that the presence of a properly trained police K-9 able to be utilized as a search tool and violence deterrent can be as effective as 10 officers. At a cost of less than $1.00 per day, police service dogs can serve as a budgetary tool rather than a budgetary burden.


In today’s world of media scrutiny and financial liability, the goal of public safety is to gain compliance without force. The presence of K-9s in correctional settings provides the opportunity to deter unwanted behaviors before they occur, while also giving staff an effective tool to deal with situations when they do occur.

Whether detecting narcotics within a facility, tracking an escapee, finding a barricaded subject or being present to protect staff or offenders, K-9s working in correctional facilities are an invaluable tool. As departments are routinely asked to do more with less, there is a place in every facility for our four-legged partners.

Rusty began his career in 1997 working as a correctional officer at a men’s medium security prison. While working in the prison, he also served as K-9 sergeant, lieutenant and captain. He was a member of the Correctional Emergency Response Team for 15 years and held law enforcement instructor certifications in defensive tactics, chemical agents and firearms. In 2013 he became a full-time academy instructor where he instructed courses in several topics within the field of corrections and law enforcement. In 2019 he moved to his current position where he serves as a Department of Public Safety Bureau Chief. Rusty received his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Bellevue University and completed graduate work at Fort Hayes State University. Rusty can be contacted by email.