Training Techniques

2004 National Police Dog Championships

by Fred Lanting

Huntsville Alabama’s police department was the host for the annual police dog championship competition in November of 2004, with contestants coming from all across the U.S. and Canada. It is an event where families renew acquaintances and friendships are strengthened, where skills in the use of dogs for police work are sharpened and encouraged, and where cops’ public relations as well as sports and the dog’s service to man benefit.

There are some similarities to the popular civilian sport of schutzhund (lately renamed by the Germans as VPG for Vielseitigkeitsprüfung which literally translated is “many-faceted test”). This is natural, since the VPG exercises were developed as a stylized and orchestrated expression of most of the work that a police or military dog would have to do for a living. In the police competitions, dogs have to prove their usefulness in such areas of expertise as general obedience, agility with obstacles and jumping, suspect search, evidence search, call-off from attack phase, correction of false starts, criminal apprehension, and more.

In performing the scent work, the challenges would be daunting for the average sports trial trainer-dog team. In one event, there is a 30 X 30-foot section, often in tall grass, in which are tossed two small human-scented articles such as a gun, key on a ring, screwdriver, credit card, book of matches, or other items. The handler is allowed to take his dog around the perimeter, and then sends him in to find the pieces of “evidence”.

Damp drizzly weather made for some slippery surfaces, but even when footing is dry, there are frequently some injuries and accidents in this simulation of real-life work. There were only a couple dog and handler injuries this year. The really bad weather held off until after the final competition events, but rain washed out the public demonstration that was scheduled on Huntsville’s baseball field on the last evening of the week. It would have required several vehicles and activities on the field, and would have damaged it too much.

But the competition already had been completed, and once again, the top scorer was Jeff Ellis from Mauer County, Minnesota. He and his Malinois also won the national title in 2002 and 2003. Also from Minnesota was a team of five officers from the St. Paul Police Department, each with a dog and some also accompanied by a wife. They have 21 service dogs in the city’s department, and there were some 3 or 4 additional teams from outstate Minnesota. There were also many competitors from southern states, where police-dog use has a long and sometimes mottled history.

For a die-hard GSD lover such as I am, there is always a tinge of regret that the police in the U.S. and several other countries have increased the use of Malinois at the expense of the “police dog” that started it all, the German Shepherd Dog. When, after the 2001 BSP, I last took my tour group to the biggest police dog school in Europe (Stuckenbrock, Germany in the NordRhineland-Westfalen region), I was likewise dismayed to find that they were in the end stages of a process of converting from the historical GSD to the Malinois. A very small percentage of the dogs in training now are GSDs, and those only because some of the handlers insist on them. The reasons given were several: the Mals were faster and lighter (more agile), easier to keep and feed and transport, had higher drives (no wonder… they are really Border Collies in Shepherd clothing!), and have a much lower incidence of hip dysplasia.

The SV has been dragging its feet in the realm of HD control, despite it having the best progeny testing system known, called Zuchtwert. But they have ignored the best diagnostic test (PennHIP, which has been enthusiastically adopted by vets in Denmark and Netherlands), and have continued to let noch zugelassen (dysplastic) hips be put back into the gene pool of their registry. This, and the greater difficulty that the police have had in getting donated or reasonably-priced GSDs with both good hips and suitable courage and drive, have been additional reasons why fewer Shepherds are on today’s police forces there.

The same situation, by and large, exists in the U.S. A few departments and the communities that support them, have the funds to purchase quality dogs, but the majority seem to rely on donations. The GSDCAmerica/AKC-lines dogs are almost all temperamentally unsuitable, and the imported GSD is often too expensive for many cities and sheriff’s departments. Still, there were many GSDs at the National Championship, and they did great jobs.

Mansfield Ohio’s Jim Sweat, president of USPCA, the organization that controls the annual event, told me that the 2005 competition will be held in Evansville Indiana, and the 2006 one will be hosted by St. Paul, MN. Cities are chosen by selecting from volunteer departments that offer facilities and local organization. Naturally, the weather plays a role in deciding on the dates, as it would not be feasible to trial in November in Minnesota or in July in Louisiana.

Thirty judges are used, including one chief judge and 9 novice (apprentice) judges. Five are assigned to each performance event and score the dogs in a manner not very dissimilar to the Olympic games. While the assistants tabulate the numbers and the competitors exercise and put their dogs away, other participants and caterers prepare the smorgasbord type supper given on the final evening, and await the results and a few short speeches. Cops have a probably well-deserved image of being overweight consumers of doughnuts, but these dog handlers are in quite good physical shape. I have found through personal training that much excess weight is a handicap to the hard work of conditioning dogs, especially if you do the helper work (play the part of the bad-guy). But I suspect that the more athletic individuals are more drawn to the physical activity of working dogs.

I asked some of the participants if there was anything unusual about this year’s trials, and was told that this was the first time it had been filmed by the Animal Planet channel. It will be broadcast in the Spring of 2005. Be sure to watch for it. And if you live near Evansville or Minneapolis-St.Paul, ask your local K9 officer for details on the public portion of the competition. Ask what you can do to promote the use of dogs in law enforcement, since it is proven that K9 teams reduice the number of officers required to do the same work, and are much more effective than dogless departments in many respects. To paraphrase a popular slogan of the 1960s through 1980s, “Support Your Local Policedog”.

Author Fred Lanting is an international show judge for many registries, presents seminars and consults worldwide on such topics as Structure, Orthopedic Disorders, Training Techniques, and the GSD. Fred lives part of the year in Alabama, actively trains in schutzhund, and breeds for occasional litters (his dogs and kennel in the Netherlands can be seen on ). He leads an annual Sieger Show and sightseeing tour. Most articles can now be found on and Reprint permission of these copyright pieces can be requested and should carry this or a similar notice at the end.