By Jean Reynolds

Police canines and their handlers undergo long and exacting police training. You can expect to work with a canine team in many policing situations. Always cooperate fully with the trainer’s requests, and avoid playing with or distracting the canine. Pet dogs can be dangerous, especially if they feel threatened or cornered. Your police training will include some basic safety principles for encounters with dogs.

Canines—dogs—can be both a risk and an asset to police work. Your police training will teach you strategies for interacting appropriately with canines in a variety of situations.

Well-trained police canines have attributes that make them valuable in many law enforcement situations: Loyalty, strength, speed, and courage. Most important, canines have an extraordinary sense of smell—up to 10,000 times more powerful than a typical human nose—that makes them extremely useful in cases involving drugs and explosives. Both police canines and their handlers undergo long and exacting training that teaches them how to work together effectively in a wide range of situations.

But even officers who haven’t undergone this specialized police training may find themselves working with canines at various times. Recently a canine was called in to assist with a child-pornography cyber investigation. Of course the dog couldn’t help the team extract data from the hard drive of a computer at the scene—but it located an incriminating portable storage device that the team was unable to find.

The rules for working with a canine team are both straightforward and important: Be cooperative and respectful. Do not interfere with the trainer or the dog. Do not pet, play with, or distract the canine unless invited to do so after the team has done its job. Wait for the trainer to tell you what to do.

Pet dogs present a completely different set of issues. Because police officers often encounter dogs in citizens’ homes and yards, it’s important to observe some basic safety principles.

Even the friendliest dog can be dangerous if it feels threatened. For this reason, you need to know how to approach a dog safely. The basic rule is to avoid body language that intimidates a dog. A sideways stance is safer than approaching a dog squarely. Avoid direct eye contact; it’s better to watch the dog out of the corner of your eye.

Whenever possible, talk pleasantly to the owner so that the dog is less likely to perceive you as a threat. If you need to touch the dog, offer your hand first and allow the dog to come to you and sniff you. Scratching the dog under its chin is safer than stroking the top of its head.

Do not, of course, try to touch the dog if it seems fearful or shy. Remember that a frightened dog has only two choices: Fight or flight. Avoid at all costs making a dog feel that it is cornered and needs to protect itself or its owner.

Much police work involves interviews and other follow-up investigative steps in a home or yard where a pet dog is present. Often there’s no time pressure and no need to put yourself in danger. If a dog makes you nervous, quietly ask the owner to secure it in another room, a crate, a pen, or any other confined area. Wait patiently for the owner to take whatever steps are necessary.

These simple steps can go a long way to making dog lovers feel that you respect their very special canine friends—good public relations for you and your agency, and an extra measure of safety for every officer.