Why Are German Shepherds Good Police Dogs?


One of my German Shepherd dogs was police trained. He was boarded at a trainer’s home and my family and I would go there and work with him on a regular basis.

We chose the German Shepherd breed, in this instance, specifically to have him police trained to protect our home. But before we made this choice, we asked the following question:

Why are German Shepherds good police dogs? German Sheperd make good police dogs because:

  • They are one of the most intelligent breeds of dog.
  • They are able to work long hours without tiring.
  • As herding dogs, protection is in their nature.
  • They possess above-average strength.
  • They have exceptionally calm nerves.
  • They follow commands very well.
  • They are quick and athletic.
  • They are extremely loyal.

My GSD was trained specifically to hold on to an intruder by the arm until one of our family members returned home. And he was also trained to respond to an attack command. This fulfilled the requirements that we were seeking.

However, police train GSDs for a number of different applications. In article, we will take closer look at just why GSDs make good police dogs and the different ways in which they are used by police departments.

Overview

Police officers have an inherently dangerous job. They are sometimes faced with life or death situations involving people who are intent on causing harm to them or another person.

While police officers have a number of defensive tools at their disposal, such as a gun, taser, or baton, sometimes these are just not enough. There may be multiple aggressors or an officer may be facing a situation where they are taken by surprise.

In other circumstances, there may be a need to conduct a search in narrow and hard to access areas, or perhaps what is being searched for cannot be detected by human senses.

This is where the police dog comes in. Specifically the GSD. Amongst many other things, they are one of the most effective barriers that a police officer can put between the bad guy and themselves.

The assignment process

GSDs are as unique as their owners, or handlers. Because of this police dogs are matched with their handlers based on personality.

This process is not a simple one. It takes several weeks for a police dog to be properly matched with its handler. There is also a fair amount of scrutiny involved in this process.

The officers go through a lengthy training process to make sure that they will be able to train the dog well. A police officer is only eligible to transfer to a specialty K-9 unit for training after completing at least one or two years (depending on the department) of patrol service.

Additionally, the police officer’s prior career life is generally and specifically assessed. Questions are asked about the police officer, such as:

  • How familiar is the officer with canines in their day-to-day life?
  • Is the officer very physically active on the job?
  • Has the officer demonstrated an active role in inserting themselves immediately to handle adverse situations?
  • Has the officer actively taken on people and problems?
  • Is the officer generally responsible?
  • Does the officer possess good communication skills?

It’s also very important that the officer in question is energetic by nature, as GSD police dogs are highly active and energetic, and require the same in their handlers.

To police officers, GSDs are not pets, and they are also not just a tool or weapon. They occupy a unique role that requires a certain kind of officer.

Officers live with their dogs in their homes along with their families. So there is a very strong bond that develops between them. When most people are saying goodbye to their dogs as they leave for work, K-9 unit officers are loading their dog into the car with them.

Police dogs work to play

You have likely watched different reality shows where a GSD is deployed to chase down a threat or discover hidden contraband or explosives.

And you’ve probably noticed that each time the dog fulfills its duty, that it’s rewarded with verbal praise and then given some type of toy to play with – often a ball or a rope to tug on.

This reward is given because police dogs love to play. In fact, this is what their training is based around. The dogs are motivated to do the work because of the reward of the play that happens for a job well done.

This is called positive reinforcement – the dog is positively rewarded for doing its job well. This causes the dog to want to work.

Interesting fact: during training, dogs are often given towels as playthings to fetch and tug on. These towels serve a dual purpose.

While they are fun for the dog, they are also covered in a specific scent, such as black powder (gun residue) or a specific narcotic. This serves to make the dog associate the scent on the towel with their toy and playtime.

So when a police dog makes a find, to the dog, it has actually found its toy!

Selection of a police dog

Selecting a police dog, in large part, requires looking for a dog with a high natural prey drive.

Breeders will sometimes begin testing and training entire litters of puppies at the 6 weeks old, and during this time they are keeping their eyes open for puppies that display this drive.

The following technique is one way that breeders use to select dogs suitable for police training:

A ball will be rolled underneath a couch or other object and the puppies will naturally attempt to get it. However, some puppies will lose interest and give up in favor of something more interesting.

A puppy with a high natural prey drive will be persistent. It will not give up and it will keep trying to get the ball. It will remain focused on its target until it gets it.

Try this with your puppy at home. See how it responds. Does it give up, or does it persist? This is a good way to gauge how much of a natural prey drive your puppy has.

Knowing this can be useful in the future when introducing your GSD to other people or animals. If your dog has a higher than usual prey drive, then you know to be extra cautious in these situations.

How long does it take to train a police dog?

The amount of time that it takes to train a police dog is dependent on how the dog is going to be used. Often, when a police department receives a dog, it has already been foundationally trained in protection and obedience.

From there, the dog goes on to train with its handler for a specific application. The length of the training is dependent upon the application that the dog is being trained for.

Initial patrol training takes several weeks. And from there more specialized training can take place. For example, the Glendale, California Police Department trains some of its dogs in explosive detection, and this training takes 3-4 weeks.

After the foundational training, the dogs and handlers are required to maintain a schedule of ongoing training to keep their skills sharp.

Other types of training take different lengths of time. However, just like the continuing education required by many other jobs, police dog training requires an ongoing commitment from the dog and its handler.

How much does a police dog cost?

The cost of a police dog ranges from $8,000 – $11,000 (including airfare from Europe). This price does not, however, include training. The cost of training a police dog for patrol, detection, and tracking ranges from $12,000 – $15,000. This brings the total cost of a police dog to between $20,000 – $26,000.

GSD police applications

GSDs are used by police for a number of different purposes. Each purpose requires specific training for the dog. The length of training, depending on the purpose, can vary from 3-12 weeks.

Interestingly, the GSD often learns much quicker than its handler. So much of the training is spent on teaching the handler.

Below are the different disciplines that police dogs are trained in.

  • Attack
  • Search and rescue
  • Detection / explosive

Attack

The primary purpose of a police trained attack dog is to attack on sight, on command, or with provocation. They are trained to assess a situation and react in accordance with their training.

Because of the GSD’s high level of intelligence, they accel in this area. They are able to assess and determine a threat even if their handler is not present.

Before a dog will be considered for attack training at a police department, it has to pass a basic obedience course. The dog must demonstrate that it is able to obey the commands of their training officer each and every time, with no exceptions.

Obeying the officer’s commands is crucial because a GSD’s bite can inflict a lot of injury to a person very quickly. So if the handler tells the dog to stop, it needs to stop immediately.

A police attack dog that is not able to obey its handler’s commands is not only dangerous to individuals, but an out of control attack dog may also bring an entire police department under legal scrutiny and potentially open it up to lawsuits.

It is also for this reason that the training of police dogs is meticulously recorded for court purposes.

Police dogs and European commands

Many people believe that police dog command words are given in a European language is either to prevent a suspect from using the words against an officer or to tell the dog to release.

This is not true. So then why do police dogs receive commands in a European language? The reason why police dogs often receive commands in a European language is that the dogs are often bought from Europe where they are trained in basic behavior, in the language from their country of origin.

The reason behind giving command words in the dog’s native tongue is because it is more simple to have the police officer learn a few new words in a foreign language than to train the dog with new command words from a different language than what they were initially trained in.

Search and rescue

These dogs are trained for the specific objective of finding missing persons, often in inhospitable environments. Their areas of coverage include:

  • rescue after natural disasters
  • tracking missing persons
  • wilderness tracking
  • mass casualty events (earthquakes, landslides, building collapses, aviation incidents)

Many of us vividly remember the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. That day exemplified both the worst and best of humanity.

Included amongst the best examples were the first responders – not only the two-legged kind but also their four-legged counterparts. Many police rescue dogs combed through the rubble without hesitation.

GSDs were amongst the dogs used for search and rescue after the Twin Towers fell. Sadly some of them and their handlers also perished. But the fact that they did not survive is a testament to their bravery.

They did not give a second thought about the dangers awaiting them as they entered the burning buildings. Instead, their focus remained on the task at hand – to rescue people in danger.

Here is the example of Trakr, a search and rescue GSD that proved invaluable on 9/11. Trakr located the first survivor found.

He worked so hard and selflessly that he collapsed from smoke inhalation, exhaustion, and burns after searching nonstop through the rubble for 2 days.

Detection / explosive

These dogs are also referred to as sniffer dogs. Police use them to sniff out things like explosives, blood, money, illegal drugs, and even electronics (like mobile phones being smuggled into jails). Cadaver dogs also fit into this category.

Final Thoughts

For the reasons discussed in this article, you can see that GSDs make excellent police dogs. But don’t stop here, take a look for yourself.

Contact your local police department and ask if they have any upcoming events or town meetings where they will be discussing their department’s dogs (and they will likely have a dog with them).

As a taxpayer, you are helping to purchase these dogs. And since the dogs are such valuable assets to police departments everywhere, they are often happy to bring them to different educational functions or town meetings.

The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.

George Graham Vest – c. 1855

Hunter Reed

I've owned and trained German Shepherds for over 18 years now. I'm originally from Indiana, though I've lived in many different states and traveled extensively. The places change, my dogs don't. German Shepherds have been my constant companions. I love every aspect of training them and simply just having them around. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge about German Shepherds with the world, and I encourage all future dog owners to consider one as a companion as well. Read my story here.

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