My K-9 instructor consistently repeated, “If it’s not on paper, it didn’t happen.” Being naive, I never truly appreciated this piece of advice until I pulled down my first load of narcotics that went to court. When I apprehended my first load, I had been a handler for about a month and it was my first experience in court. When the defense asked me for proof of my training and experience as well as my partner’s, I had all of those records, no problem — I had everything that was required. The stigma that was associated with “going to court” was reduced to nothing, and the knot in my stomach was gone (or at least reduced in size).

Always keep an extensive paper trail to protect you from having problems in court.I believe that because my agency had implemented a tight protocol for creating and maintaining K9 training records, I was as comfortable as a handler could be in that position. In court, everything comes into play. Establishing the reliability of your canine is a foundational requirement when your canine’s alert behavior is used as evidence in court. The documentation of your canine training and certification is as important as the canine training itself.

I have been taught that there are two important uses for K9 training records: court use and training use. In court, your training records document the canine’s progress and experience throughout training. Your training records allow the handler or instructor to document and identify training patterns. If there were any performance problems, they could be documented on the training sheet for diagnosis at a later time. I am aware that there are other training philosophies out there, and various reasons why training records are kept. To keep it simple, I am just going to touch on two of those reasons.

What You Should Document

One of the major reasons we keep records on canine training is to defend our canine’s reliability. There are court decisions that deal with proper documentation of policy, procedure, and training issues within a K-9 Unit, and it is important for every officer or agent who works a dog to be familiar with these decisions.

To be successful in court, your K9 training records should establish the following:

  • pre-training of the canine
  • basic training of the canine
  • maintenance training of the canine
  • canine team’s certification records
  • the team’s deployment results

Within these areas, the information that is usually sought out is the related training to discipline, diversions, and distractions used in training; training environments the canine has been exposed to; blank search areas used in training; third party assessments of training and certification; operational experience; certifications; training frequency; and threshold training. Depending on the circumstances surrounding your particular case, one or more of these areas may be exploited in order to challenge the canine team’s credibility or reliability.

Embellishments have no place in your team’s records. Training, certification, and seizures should be documented carefully and precisely. If I could only share one piece of advice with all canine handlers, it would be this: No amount of narcotics is worth your dog’s credibility — an alert is an alert.

Benefits outside the Courtroom

To be successful in the field, your training records should contain detailed information surrounding the canine’s training. Training records are one of the instructor’s most valuable tools when ensuring “conflict” in training, planning/scheduling, and problem solving. In case of transfers or temporarily assigned duty, which is commonplace in my agency, being able to refer to K9 training records allows the receiving instructor to get a feel for what the team has been trained on, so they can readily accommodate visiting or new teams to their department.

In addition, two factors that my agency has identified as important with K9 training records are verification and duplication.

  • Verification: This is something we teach at our academy to ensure that when one of our teams goes to court, the records are the record of training for that particular day, verified by someone other than the handler; a third party verifies by initial or signature that those records existed on that day.
  • Duplication: We require that the handler maintains a duplicate copy of his training, certification, and seizure records to ensure that there is always a copy available for reference — just in case.

There are a few different methods used to track the training and certifications of canine teams around the United States: the standard form types, diary types, and electronic types. No matter what method you use, care must be taken in documenting your training information. Any missing, illegible, unverified, or suspicious excerpts in your records could put your team’s credibility at risk. Established case law demonstrates the need for current, accurate records of your training and certification activities.

In my opinion, there is no one way to document your training and certification that is better than the others.

All of those I mentioned previously have their strong points; I happen to use the standard form format. I did not choose that format for any particular reason, it is simply the method I was trained with and I find it adequate for my unit’s use.

So, instead of waiting to get grilled in court, I suggest that you dust off the books and familiarize yourself with your agency’s record keeping standard operational procedures to ensure that you and your partner are prepared for the “beating” the defense will attempt to give you. You owe that to your partner and to the citizens of the United States.

I am a firm believer that you can never be too prepared for court. You are already on the right track by reading a publication (Police K-9 Magazine) that has your best interests in mind. My objective in this article is to stress the importance of the “paperwork,” just as we emphasize the “application” portion of our profession. By no means am I trying to steal the thunder of our legal experts on Police K-9 Magazine. Please pay close attention to this important area of the magazine, as it will guide you through your canine career in and out of the courtroom and allow you to learn from other agencies’ experiences in court. It just takes one court decision to affect how handlers across the United States do business.

In closing, I would like to share a quote from my K-9 instructor (Matt Devaney, Training Coordinator, CBP Canine Program): “When the s**t hits the fan, have paper [training records] in front of your face.”

Authored by: Rob Lukason
Photo credit: Phil Roeder / Foter / CC BY
Police K-9 Magazine is a contributor to K9Handler.com. This article was republished with permission, courtesy of Jeff Meyer.

Rob Lukason is a training operations supervisor with the U.S. Border Patrol’s National Canine Facility in El Paso, Texas.

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