Whatever your opinion is on dogs as pets, it is clear their professional relationship with humans has been a fruitful one. Indeed, modern science believes canines have historically excelled at making themselves useful to humanity because they were, in a very real sense, built for the job: by doing little more than culling aggressive wolves and keeping their friendlier relatives around, our ancestors began the semi-inadvertent task of shaping these bespoke companions between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Much has changed since the Upper Paleolithic era, but the canine continues to prove its partnership is far from a one-way arrangement. These days, no title illustrates the skills they bring to the table — and the respect and prestige those skills have earned — than the words first responder. And though a few other domesticated creatures have also been promoted to the human world’s firehouses, police stations, and prisons over the years, none cover our weaknesses or outperform our technology like the common dog does — making the world’s oldest domesticated animal one of the world’s most useful as well.
History of firehouse dogs highlights slate of skills first response dogs have to offer
Further, the traits that make canine first responders so useful have not changed much since the days of flint tools and nomadic tribes. Today, the dog’s comparatively high land speed, amazing sense of smell and (perhaps more-amazing) ability to read human body language and emotional cues make it a full-stack employee in the first response world.
Take the Dalmatian’s long-established role as the official dog of firehouses across the country. Although their value to firefighting teams has not translated to the modern era as well as some other roles, that certainly was not the case a century ago. As Live Science notes, the animals proved quite adept at running alongside horse-drawn fire carriages, making them ideal for protecting department horses from attacks (and unaware members of the public from trampling). Moreover, Dalmatians showed a particular ability to bond with horses, animals that have also long shared a unique partnership with humans.
Though Dalmatians have downscaled to a mascot role in today’s firehouses, the long-distance endurance and bonding ability many breeds display still have numerous practical applications today. Simply looking into a friendly pup’s eyes can increase production of stress-fighting hormone oxytocin in humans, which could be especially important in a high-stress, high-stakes field like firefighting.
Other firefighting skills dogs bring to the job veer away from the emotional and more toward the practical. Labrador retrievers have found much success in arson forensics, where their strong noses, high trainability, and what State Farm calls a, “‘love to work’ attitude,” make them perfect for sniffing out potential accelerants. As with other dog-centered skills, the four-to-five-week training these arson dogs and their handlers undergo is less about teaching career-critical skills than learning how to communicate using them. While dogs have always been able to smell, getting them to alert humans to their findings is still largely beyond evolution’s grasp.
It’s all in the nose: How the olfactory organ helps police
Like with firehouse dogs, the police dog’s professional history is long and extremely varied, spanning multiple decades and thousands of miles. The first-ever police dogs were deployed as a cost-saving measure in Ghent, Belgium beginning 118 years ago, according to Classroom. These animals kicked off a veritable craze in Europe, with several other policing agencies following their lead soon after.
Shortly after, U.S. police followed suit. Per the same Classroom article, an NYPD lieutenant travelled to Ghent for training and returned to the States with five dogs in tow. As we all know, police dogs have been tracking, tracing, and chasing all manner of suspects and material goods ever since, with a distinct focus on that little black dot at the tip of their snout.
To be sure, even a non-police dog’s nose is a masterclass in innate skill. It can pick up smells in the range of parts per million, and sometimes parts per trillion. Though the mechanisms behind this highly impressive skill are complicated, the high-level explanation has to do with canine physiology’s sharp separation of respiratory and olfactory functions, according to NOVA. Where human noses host roughly six million olfactory “sensors,” a dog’s features up to 300 million. More impressive, a human’s nose is an all-in-one breathing-and-smelling device, while a dog’s nose contains an organic “router” that splits the two functions into highly specific processes: part of the air it draws in through its nose is earmarked for respiration, while the rest is used only for smelling. The slits on the sides of a dog’s nose further augment this ability.
These anatomic differences lead to abilities that separate canines from all other police animals, not to mention police themselves. A dog’s nose can do things a skilled detective could only dream of, literally pulling incredible finds out of the air. As the NOVA piece notes, some of the most impressive stories an officer hears or shares comes from a K-9 unit’s olfactory acuity. Whether they are following individual nostrils to tree up an escaped convict or sniffing out drugs that have been concealed in a variety of strong-smelling, scent-blocking containers, everyone knows a tale about a dog’s nose leading amazed officers right to the point of interest.
Generations of genetic enhancement through breeding have only sharpened this skill in certain dog breeds. Bloodhounds — a common police breed so adept at tracking wounded prey that they are believed to be named after the skill — boast several unique scent-trailing features: long ears that “scoop” smells up towards the nose and snout skin-folds that trap scent particles for longer holding and delayed consumption. Even the dog’s low-bodied, almost slumped appearance lends itself to long periods with its nose toward the ground.
Of course, a dog’s value to police does not stop at the snout. As one candid Reddit discussion with a K-9 handler notes, the canine people-reading ability makes it great for inherently spotting hostile suspects (and the officer’s pensive or defensive attitude towards those suspects), and every dog’s love of chasing things that run make it a formidable foe when that suspect decides to try their chances at fleeing. Taken in total, then, police dogs offer a slate of skills perfectly suited to suspect interactions: gauging intentions, chasing runners, and finding hiders.
Purchasing, working with dogs isn’t all fun and games
Of course, getting a dog into a sniffing, chasing, or partnering state is not easy or cheap. A K-9 unit working in real professional capacity (that is, taking more than a mascot role) must undergo intensive screening and training to ensure it is trustworthy enough to take the role. The city of Glendale, CA, for instance, pays roughly $20,000 to get a dog ready for “patrol and detection” duties. The dogs, some of which come with a significant amount of baseline training prior to purchase, undergo a four-week training regimen alongside their handlers, and receive intensive continuing education after the fact.
Police and other professional dogs come from recognized sources and respectable breeders, which itself can represent significant expense. The majority of K-9 officers, for example, are sourced from respected European and US-based sources. One source claims “purchasing and shipping” a dog from Europe can cost $8,500 or more alone. On the other hand, an untrained single-purpose dog from a reputable U.S. source can cost $4,500, with costs rising when the K-9 is purchased from a vendor that pre-trains them.
As mentioned above, training these animals is less about introducing new skills than training them to communicate the abilities they utilize as a matter of course. Almost all education is reward-based in some manner. Specialists training dogs for identifying illegal drugs, for instance, first teach dogs to sit when they recognize the targeted smell, then move onto toy- and food-based rewards for recognition of the individual odors. This basic-but-critical aspect of dog psychology should be familiar to anyone with dog experience: If you have seen an intelligent dog lose its mind when it hears the word “treat” or “walk,” you know just how reward-driven they can be.
Perhaps less known are the strains this partnership can place on the typical K-9 handler. Though dog-loving officers and even civilians around the world have undoubtedly all considered how fun it would be to work with a canine colleague, the reality can be surprisingly taxing. Officers accepted into K-9 programs must have spotless (or near-spotless) records and an innate skill with animals, according to Police One, since the “ability to bond” with dogs is not always a teachable job skill. Moreover, they must be comfortable dealing with the public in a PR capacity, since a K-9 officer’s job is guaranteed to be heavy on community outreach.
Meeting qualifications is not the only challenge, either. K-9 officers are, “required to maintain [their dogs],” even when they are off-duty, according to the same piece. Like other officers with specialized skills or equipment, they are also called on to attend crime scenes that require their presence more than an officer without a K-9 unit would. This can place additional strain on the officer’s family life in a field that is already notoriously stressful in that regard, and a serious consideration to make before applying to any K-9 program in earnest.
Dogs aren’t tools in first response — they are partners
Still, for officers that understand the risks and challenges, a K-9 post can be extremely rewarding. Career Profiles says, “most active K-9 officers report a high level of job satisfaction,” a stark contrast to sometimes-low satisfaction rates in other branches of police service.
At a higher level, however, the use of dogs in first response fields (and related fields, such as corrections) illustrates a true mutually beneficial relationship. In a career that often requires high-speed foot chases, long-range detection, and an occasional measure of intimidation, a furry, fanged partner fills gaps even the most well rounded human officer could not. In other words, canines do not excel in many first response roles because we shoehorned them in — they fit so well because nature and human intervention built them to be great companions to begin with.