What’s the Difference between Police Dogs and Protection Dogs?


There has been considerable confusion, even at the American Kennel Club (which novices presume to be the citadel of dogdom), about the sport of Schutzhund and the proper role of protection and law enforcement dogs. Back in the mid-1990s, the AKC sent out some strongly-worded warnings about dog clubs putting on events or demonstrations that show dog-aggression toward people. Most owners of certain working breeds were upset by this negation of their breeds’ functions, which can be defined as reasons for their existence. It resulted in an accelerated exodus of organizations that not only register, but also recognize the value of, “the total dog.”

One cannot fully expound on the exciting, thoroughly-satisfying, and useful sport of Schutzhund (translation: “protection dog”) in a short article, but I shall summarize some of the differences between that and the techniques used in police work. Cross-training is possible and often practiced, and police officers frequently purchase SchH-titled dogs and add specialized training for their work, and frequently are active in local Schutzhund clubs. Military dogs, on the other hand, are usually obtained without any advanced training because of the military’s emphasis on uniformity and regimentation, and their own training techniques and specialized needs.

Schutzhund training

Schutzhund has three equally important parts: tracking, obedience, and protection or “man work.” No dog gets the IPO (SchH)-l, -2 or -3 titles (the requirements are more stringent as the level increases) without a passing grade in all parts. When you go to a trial, watch the obedience and tracking portions as well as the bite work. You don’t know what a happy working dog is until you go to Schutzhund trials. Even though the bite work draws the biggest crowds and the most applause, this facet is emphasized by the clubs as being no more important than the others. Rules of conduct and expectations of performance are identical from one trial to the next around the world, as it is in obedience trials.

Schutzhund obedience involves similar but more demanding exercises to what you might see at an AKC-type trial. Some of the exercises are off-lead heeling in and out of a milling crowd; off-lead long down with the handler far away and with his back to the dog while “go-outs,” retrieving, gunshots and other business is going on close by; a long go-out/down command; drop while running in heel position; and a 3-meter jump with a heavy dumbbell. It involves more than in any AKC obedience class. Police obedience training may include crawling, ladder climbing, walking a narrow elevated board and other exercises you might see in agility competition. It also may have the release-from-bite command, some form of “Get ‘em!” pursuit command, staying in a car until necessary to jump out its window, “search” and “watch him” (detain a suspect) as well as the normal heeling and recall response. He is expected to know when there’s danger, but since the police dog, like the police officer, is always “on duty” to some extent, he is usually taught the command word “friend.”

Additional training for police K-9s

Sometimes a police dog is cross-trained to do narcotics searches, but this is such specialized work that more often specially trained sniffer dogs are used. In police training, emphasis is put more on the “job description,” the everyday or occasional real actions that are expected of the dog in protecting the life of its partner and apprehending wrongdoers. Obedience, to a police dog, does not mean precision heeling, clearing the high jump without touching it, immobility on the down-stay, or numerous other things you see at AKC or United Kennel Club obedience trials, or other competitions such as Schutzhund trials. To one K-9 (police dog), obedience may mean staying next to the human officer off-lead, but to another dog it may mean being restrained on leash until released for pursuit. The needs and preferences of the individuals and departments vary considerab


Tracking by the police dog is sometimes assigned to dogs not trained in bite work because much of this involves finding lost children or senile adults, or searching for cadavers or injured people under rubble, and tranquility is more important than readiness to defend or attack. But many K-9 trackers lead the police officer/handler to a hidden suspect or “bad guy” and must therefore be cross-trained in protection and disarming/apprehending skills. Take for example Flex, a marvelous K-9 on the Sheriff’s Department of Jefferson Parish, La., who went back on the job after being severely wounded in the line of duty in September 1993. At that time, a robbery-in-progress call had come in about two armed men. The first deputy arrived and saw one of the suspects leaving the scene. When Sgt. Eddie Long and his German Shepherd Dog partner Flex arrived 30 or 40 minutes later, another K-9 team had already tried to track and find the perpetrators without success. Flex was noted for his tremendous drive, love of work, and tracking and scent work. In building searches, he took very few seconds to locate any hidden criminals. In following the path of fleeing persons, he was almost perfect.

This time he led Long to an abandoned building and alerted on the open crawl space under it. Holding Flex by the leash to prevent him from getting between the two men, Long crawled with the dog to where he could see the suspect with the use of his flashlight. The clearance was low and difficult for both to maneuver. The officer could see the man was still armed and told him to lay the gun, a .357 Magnum, down and surrender. Instead the robber shot at the pair, hitting Flex in the head. The bullet entered below one eye and exited his cheek on the other side. Flex had reacted by forging ahead when the man was spotted. In doing so, he drew the fire that might otherwise have killed the officer. Long immediately pulled the dog back, and the suspect was shot dead before he could fire again. Flex had to undergo considerable surgery and recuperation, including root canal work, but is back on duty. The last time I saw him, he was 9 years old and as strong as dogs half his age.


Bite-work training of police dogs differs from the training of competition Schutzhund dogs. In Schutzhund, the “helper” who was formerly, and sometimes still is, called the “agitator” wears a heavily padded burlap sleeve, usually on his left arm. The dog is taught to, whenever the helper tries to escape or threatens the dog’s handler, bite that arm, which is the one the helper makes sure is closer to the “bad guy.”

Sometimes this bad guy jumps out from behind a “blind,” waving a small stick and making threatening noises. In other exercises he hollers threats and charges toward the handler and the dog who are positioned at the other end of the field. The dog is directed to intercept him. As the dog nears, the bad guy threatens the dog with a stick and yelling. The dog is “caught” with the padded arm and must release his grip when the bad guy stands still or when the dog is told to “out” by the handler. He must continue watching the bad guy, and then help the handler escort the disarmed prisoner to the judge.

In the three levels of SchH titles, slightly varied requirements and increasingly strenuous tasks include searching several blinds and getting two or three loud slaps on the sides with the stick. Dogs are graded as to speed, accuracy, full bite versus nibbling, obedience, courage, and enthusiasm. He must sit quietly next to the handler, helper, and crowd as the judge gives his score and critique. Schutzhund dogs not actively doing their exercises on the field can typically be found letting strangers’ kids play with them or being petted by admiring spectators.

As I said, police dog training requirements may vary, but generally they differ from those in competition sport training by a few details. Most K-9s are taught to bite the real bad guy anywhere, not just the left arm, the arm with the sleeve or the arm closest to him. A suspect with a machete or gun in one hand isn’t likely to drop it if the dog latches onto his other arm, so some dogs are trained to go after the arm with the weapon. More often the working police dog in such a life-or-death situation will bite any part of the suspect’s body that moves and continue until the person is disarmed or the dog is commanded or pulled off by the handler. Usually this happens in a flight mode. The bad guy is knocked to the ground by the dog, effectively losing control of the weapon long enough for the dog to do his job. In many police dog schools, the dog is taught to bite the fleeing criminal between the shoulder blades and thus immobilize him. You aren’t going to be able to aim a gun at or even reach behind you for a 100-pound Rottweiler, 85-pound Shepherd or even a 60-pound Malinois hanging on your back with most of his 42 teeth.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that a sport dog trained for Schutzhund competition is always “sleeve-happy.” To some the exercises are and always will be no more than a game, an obedience exercise. These are sometimes the dogs with weaker drives, poorer training, or a combination of the two. They will be so focused on the sleeve that even when the helper drops it and continues to act “bad,” they will ignore him and continue to “kill” the sleeve. That’s OK in the initial stages of puppy training because the reward for a proper bite (grip) is to be allowed to shake and carry off the dropped sleeve. But later the dog should learn that biting the sleeve has the purpose of arresting the bad guy, and the reward then becomes accomplishing this goal. The best raves and highest scores in competition trials go to the dogs who do the “bark and hold” best.

Applications in real life

Don’t assume that the Schutzhund/Protection dog who is used to turning off his aggression after the exercise will be useless in a real life-threatening situation. On the contrary, the training has among its other benefits the goal of gradually building up the dog’s confidence to the point that he is afraid of nothing. Louder and harder slaps with the stick, harder charging by the helper, stronger resistance and greater expressions of satisfaction by the handler add up to greater pleasure and enthusiasm for the “job” of protecting the owner/handler.

This carries over to situations that may arise off the field too. A member of a local Schutzhund club I trained with was mugged one night in the darker part of a shopping center parking lot, after having visited an automatic teller machine. The two robbers fled with his wallet. Our man got to his feet and reached his camper-cover pick-up truck, opened it and told his Schutzhund-trained dog to get them. Fortunately, the closest thief had the wallet, and when the dog hit him, knocked him down and then gripped his arm, the wallet was dropped. The dog continued to defend himself and bit the man on the shoulder as well, but released upon command when his owner caught up to them. In the excitement of having his dog prove himself and his training in “real life,” our man didn’t detain the mugger, feeling that he didn’t want the bother of a court case and possible quarantine during rabies record checks. Later we heard through police contacts that the robbers had been mugging several people with the same modus operandi and had complained that one night while minding their own business in a parking lot they were attacked by dogs belonging to men of another race. They tried to make a racist event out of a self-defense act.

A properly trained dog should be able and ready to perform the real thing when the necessity arises, even if only in sport competition. Police dogs’ training varies, and while many are as tractable as the Schutzhund competitor when “off duty,” there are a few who are so focused and trained in such a way that they should not be trifled with. You should ask a police officer about the dog before approaching it. It’s like the difference between a rifle with the safety on and an automatic weapon set on “armed” and ready to discharge. Because of the nature of their work, most police dogs will not be off duty often anyway, and you may not see them in their off hours.

Fred Lanting The Total German Shepherd Dog Canine Hip Dysplasia and Other Orthopedic Problems Conflict: Life, Love and War

Fred Lanting Fred Lanting is an internationally respected show judge, approved by many registries as an all-breed judge, has judged numerous countries’ Sieger Shows and Landesgruppen events, and has many years experience as one of only two SV breed judges in the US. He presents seminars and consults worldwide on such topics as Gait-&-Structure, HD and Other Orthopedic Disorders, and The GSD. He conducts annual non-profit sightseeing tours of Europe, centered on the Sieger Show (biggest breed show in the world) and BSP.

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