How to start a K-9 unit in a correctional facility

From cell searches and extractions to riot control, a K-9 team can mean more productivity, more safely

Article updated September 30, 2017

By C1 Staff

Trained dogs have been used since ancient times to help track escaped prisoners and maintain civic order. In fact, it was their renowned nose and trainability that helped coin the word "sleuth," from the Scottish idiom "slough dogs," or bloodhounds. While contemporary K-9s are predominantly associated with police, their can also be of great use in a correctional facility.

German Shepherd. Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers are the most popular for corrections and patrol.
German Shepherd. Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers are the most popular for corrections and patrol. (Photo/Bill Reyolds)

Using dogs inside prisons can offer huge benefits. From cell searches and extractions to riot control, these animals, if trained properly, can mean more productivity, more safely.

Here's a rundown of what a K-9 can offer your facility:

  • Searching out cell phones: If you've read about the rash of cell phone contraband making its way into facilities across the country, you’ve probably seen the photos of dogs searching out these phones down in cells. Scientists have been able to extract the “essence of cell phone” used as an aromatic to train these dogs for searches, and the result has been an amazing crack-down success story.

  • Crowd control: Dogs are commanders nonpareil when it comes to crowd control. Even if they're not trained to bite, their mere presence makes inmates apprehensive and therefore less likely to pull a fast one. After all, less bad behavior means less use of force and fewer injuries to officers and inmates alike.

  • Searching out narcotics: Narcotics detection dogs are a big deal – and a big seller – in today's prison systems. Whereas people are extremely limited in their capacity to find small stashes of illicit substances in a massive facility, dogs have a distinct advantage. And since the flow of narcotics into a facility will can never be staunched completely, fastidious searches are the best tool you've got.

  • Acting in a patrol dog capacity: Patrol K9s are not the exclusive domain of police. In fact, these dogs serve an important function in correctional settings. In addition to crowd and riot control, patrol dogs are useful in tracking escapees and accompanying prisoner transports.

  • Cell extractions:  These dogs are trained to apprehend and take down an unruly inmate, making it safe for CERT to come in and take over.

How much is that doggy in the window?

The first thing most people want to know about K9 units is how much they cost. The answer depends on how many dogs are used, what type of training the dog receives and what type of training the handler (a person who works for the prison system how is going to handle the dog) receives.

Dogs can be trained off-site (called "pre-trained dogs") or at the facility itself. Likewise, the hander can either go to handler school or, if he gets a pre-trained dog, can attend a shorter (and cheaper) 4-week training session.

A single-purpose dog – for instance, a narcotics dog – will cost your agency about $7500 for the dog and dog's initial training, plus the cost of the handler's training. Plus, you'll need to figure in the cost of a hotel for the professional trainer as well as all of the equipment the handler will need. Ongoing costs include vet bills and in-service training, plus about $20.00 a month for food and the annual recertification fee.

Do your homework

A K9 is an important purchase, so buyer beware. Before procuring a trained K9 for your correctional facility, address the following areas:

  • Policy: Develop a sound policy that accounts for all liability issues. This provides for the safety of staff, inmates, members of the public and the dog.
  • Handler: Pre-screen a qualified and responsible handler.
  • Training area: Secure a facility (e.g., an onsite trailer) where training can take place.
  • Vet: Choose a vet who has specific medical knowledge about working dogs; also, the vet must be prepared to handle emergencies 24-7.
  • Housing: Decide ahead of time where dogs will be housed and develop a care plan. Working dogs are loveable animals, but they are not your average pet and require an unusually high level of care and vigilance.

Don't be fooled into thinking that a dog trained for patrol can double as a corrections dog. Some police kennels have been known to tell corrections buyers that their dogs can handle anything, when in reality these dogs will not be ready for a sprawling, loud indoor environment.

Sometimes dogs are donated to agencies. Of these, some can be trained and some can't – it all depends on the demeanor of the dog. If it can handle the "stress test," and has the proper drives, they could be a good bet.

Always have the dog professional evaluated before training him.

And speaking of wasted time, never underestimate the amount of red tape involved in purchasing a K9. Depending on your agency, the board, caption, warden, or all of the above may need to sign off.

The right stuff

Training a dog is hard work, so training on site is the best option. The dog needs to feel comfortable with his environment. If a dog is trained elsewhere, the transition into the actual prison environment can be fraught with dog freak-outs and set-backs.

The length of time it takes to train a dog depends on what skills they need to master. For narcotics and cell phone detection, training will last approximately nine weeks. Patrol or cell extraction dogs need 14 weeks.

A standard timeframe for training a single-purpose dog is 13 weeks. During this time period, the handler learns how to take care of the dog how to handle the dog and read its signals, as well as how to deliver courtroom testimony based on K9 operations.

Who's a dog person?

A K9 is a highly trained and valuable purchase, so it's incumbent on every agency to pick a handler who's up to the task. Most handlers are not professionals, and in many cases have never handled a dog before.

A word of caution: Just because someone shows a lot of interest doesn’t necessarily qualify him or her to take on this huge responsibility. Either the prison administrators or a professional dog trainer will screen potential handlers. Generally, an individual with good attendance (reliable, on-time), has a solid work ethic, an even temper and a kempt appearance is a safe bet.

For a few years, liability issues slowed the demand for correctional dogs. But agencies are starting to warm once again to the idea in light of overwhelmingly positive news. A solid K9 policy can prevent an incident from coming back to "bite" you. And in the meantime, these extraordinary sleuths will save your agency time, money and potentially lives. 


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