How Police Dogs Turned into Cybernetic Hunters
Technology is making working dogs stronger and more dangerous, by design.
A City of Miami K-9 goes through demo exercises in 2007. Image: Getty
A German Shepherd lies on a stretcher in a sterile exam room, tucked in a fleece blanket. The room's perimeter is lined with men in crisp khaki uniforms, handguns strapped to their sagging utility belts. A shrill beep sounds over a radio, and an impassive dispatcher's voice is heard over the men's gentle sniffling.
"TBP 743, Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office to all units, clear channel for last call. Standby on all radio traffic. Sheriff's Office to K-9 Argo… End of watch for K-9 Argo. On October 10th, 2015. Rest in peace, K-9 Argo. TBP 743. Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office. Clearing out at… 11:16."
Four more beeps. The dog lifts his head, and the uniformed men step forward. "Good boy," mutters one man between sniffles, ruffling the fur on its head. The dog's jaw plops open as he pants, and the titanium caps on his incisors catch the glint of the fluorescent exam lights. Another hand reaches forward to pull the blanket over the dog's shoulders as he nestles into the stretcher and closes his eyes.
On October 15, a police dog named Argo from Hidalgo County, Texas, was facing euthanasia after a battle with an aggressive strain of bone cancer. As a local hero of the South Texas law enforcement community, Argo was granted a last radio call—a traditional ceremony which suspends activity on the police scanner to put out a final "call" for a fallen officer.
A lieutenant's grainy cellphone video of the intimate service went viral. In the following week it was picked up by The Today Show, Fox News, MSNBC, Buzzfeed, and The Daily Mail. As the video spread, the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Department was inundated with outpourings from the strangers across the world, ranging from donations and emotive poems, to an open invitation for a free fishing trip from a charter boat company across the country.
Within a few days the video had been shared hundreds of thousands of times, a spectacle of public mourning.
Argo was one of thousands of dogs in America working for the state, referred to within the law enforcement community as K-9s. The mechanism of the modern K-9, with which many are unfamiliar, delineates it as more of a weapon than a pet. Engineered and imported from Europe by breed specialists, dogs on the force are now equipped with titanium teeth and thousands of dollars' worth of protective technology, from ballistic vests to custom canine body cams.
The majority of domestic K-9s are "dual purpose," meaning they're trained rigorously to both sniff out drugs and protect their handlers by any means necessary. Traditionally and presently, most dogs are trained from puppyhood primarily to relish in the activity of biting and tearing into human limbs, and to detect of drugs or IEDs.
Tales of K-9 heroism abound, which is one reason they're so beloved by their handlers—and the public. When a French bomb-sniffing dog named Diesel was killed in a police raid following the Paris terrorist attacks in November, tens of thousands of people tweeted in support. And for human police officers, the dogs' singular sense of mission inspires their own loyalty.
"They don't sleep in our houses, and they don't play with our families," Sergeant Michael Goosby, the chief K-9 trainer for the LAPD's Metropolitan Division, told the New York Times in November. "They exist for one reason: hunting bad guys."
But these dogs are dynamic systems. Their capacity for decision and error is both their biggest flaw and greatest strength. The dog, a learning machine, makes its own exceptions to situations based on an array of variables, including tells from their handler. Since these decisions ultimately lead to reception of a reward, then they are no longer innocent agents but cybernetic mercenaries, with decision making that is open to influence.
Given their inherently imperfect judgment and the dire consequences of their mistakes, why do dogs remain in the forefront of law enforcement?
Argo was imported to Central California from a Czech kennel in 2006 by bovine genetics giant Michael Osmundson. In 1998, Osmundson's artificial cattle insemination company Creative Genetics released the ProCross system, a trademarked cross-breeding technique that is internationally renowned in the dairy cow community. The success of his agricultural empire has allowed Osmundson to pursue his true passion in the meticulous import, breeding, and training of German Shepherds. This second business, Kreative Kennels, is carried out on a sprawling property in Oakdale. Osmundson plans each litter with careful precision, considering the genetic makeup of the pup's antecedents.
"It all comes down to knowing your animals—knowing each dog and its personality," he tells me over the phone. Although he works tirelessly to strike a perfect balance of "nervy" and "stable" dogs, he says that his breeding program is attuned more to health than personality traits, attempting to overcome the genetic hips and elbow problems that have plagued the breed since its inception.
With the help of his family, a six-man staff of experienced trainers, and a group of women focused on early socialization that he refers to as the "puppy gals", Osmundson is one of the most sought-after working dog breeders stateside. The dogs available to purchase from Kreative Kennels run the gamut, ranging from family pets, to personal guard dogs, to highly attuned soldiers for use by the police and military. According to Osmundson, "probably 90-95 percent turn out exactly the way we've planned," in no small part thanks to his careful eye toward the art and science of optimal genetics. Argo, however, was not bred under Osmundson's watchful eye.
"We got him from some close friends over there," he says. "They used to be very involved with government breeding programs. We have our own agent that we have test every dog before we buy 'em."
On the KK website, he states, "we started searching in Germany and the Czech Republic for people who we could trust so we could find dogs for our breeding program. Those people have done a great job in finding excellent dogs for our program. Our breeding goals are to breed many top police-type dogs per year… We want to breed dogs that are very dominant and serious with very high drives and active aggression." [emphasis theirs]
The significance of Argo's Czech origins are not lost on Osmundson. For the duration of the Cold War, the notoriously ruthless Czech Border patrol, known as the Pohranicni Straze, created a state-sponsored K-9 breeding program. The K-9s produced were exceptionally aggressive, intended to stop any Soviet defectors to Western Europe. Current-day breed aficionados boast that the P.S. dogs caught and killed 20-30 escapees per day on the borders between East Germany and Austria. The New York Times reported that dogs on sliding leashes were stationed along the un-walled sections throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The ruthlessness of the Czech dogs are etched into the cultural memory of the Cold War, and the Platform of European Memory & Conscience, an anti-totalitarian research group, recently called for trial and punishment of P.S. dog handlers for war crimes, although the dog breeding program continued long after the fall of the Iron Curtain. According to one former P.S. veterinarian, the police kennels produced over 1,500 puppies between 1991 and 2005.
Going back three generations in his detailed family tree, one of Argo's ancestors carries the Czech surname "od Police," which translates to "from the police"; after four generations, many of his ancestors hold the surname "z Pohranični stráze" ("of the Border Patrol"). After the Cold War, dogs like Argo's predecessors were folded into Czech and German police departments.
There are, like Osmundson's colleagues abroad, former P.S. soldiers who raise and train the descendants of war dogs under military guidelines for private clients. A fully-trained adult dog sells for between $7,000 and $10,000. The dogs are purchased by middle class families seeking a highly aggressive personal protection dog, Western European and Israeli military forces, American law enforcement departments, and intermediaries like Osmundson who can fine-tune a dog like Argo before it hits the streets.
His prices are on the higher end. But purchasing a working breed dog from a meticulous professional like Osmundson does help some people sleep at night, knowing that the dogs he designates as "green" will be ideal family companions, and that dogs he deems suitable for police are destined for a lifetime of hard work.
But working dogs like Argo face a new threat.
The introduction of Boston Dynamics' canid military robot prototype, BigDog, triggered the dystopian visions that torment our collective subconscious. Several writers have considered the ethical and dystopian implications of this self-righting mechanical monster, and most have concluded that we should accept a menagerie of robotic animals as inevitable in our military future.
The unease with BigDog is in stark contrast to the veneration of the US military's working dogs, one of which was apparently deployed during the capture of Osama bin Laden. Military working dogs are media darlings. Their adventures, both real and imagined, have recently spawned several bestselling books and at least one film, Max, which grossed over $40 million in 16 weeks.
Working dogs are engineered as much as they are bred. Several universities, including the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, operate multi-million dollar programs to perfect the genetics of working dogs. Add to that an entire industry dedicated to technology enhancing the mettle of K-9s, spanning from elaborate vehicle cooling systems, dog-sized ballistic vests, and head-mounted cameras with accompanying recon units, to treadmills, obstacle courses, and nutritionally-enhanced raw carrion diets to keep them in top shape.
But advanced technology does little to improve the precision of weaponized K-9s. Despite a lifetime of training, dogs are inherently imperfect machines, and high-stakes errors do occur in the field. In the event of a broken leash or a misinterpreted signal, there is little that can be done to stop an attack once it starts. The dogs are unaware of the line between excessive and necessary force, lacking the situational awareness to decipher the grey area that is our American judicial system. As a result, the dogs, when they are "on" and ready to work, tend to latch onto anything that runs. They are unlikely to distinguish between good guys, bad guys, and the fleeing innocent. An accidental death or debilitating injury can therefore be blamed on enthusiasm, a hard-working dog simply doing what it was trained to do.
Weaponized dogs have been used as tools of war and control for thousands of years, tracing as far back as Ancient Greece. Yet throughout the latter half of the 20th century, human rights groups have questioned the necessity of dogs who bite to maim, most visibly during the Civil Rights movement and again in the wake of Abu Ghraib.
In August of 2009, Argo arrived in South Texas via airmail. He was the newest addition to an armada of dual-purpose law enforcement dogs working in Hidalgo County, a small community in the southernmost tip of Texas, abutting the Mexican border.
Dr. Justin Cerelli, Argo's veterinarian, told me in a phone call that he's under contract for dozens of K-9s throughout the region, including two police departments, the Border Patrol, US Customs, the Constable's Office, and the county school district. (K-9s accompany school resource officers in this district at the behest of the FBI.)
With a per capita income of $14,222, Hidalgo County is one of the poorest counties in the United States. The Hidalgo County Sheriff's Department Facebook page is a throwback to the Wild West, continuously updated by staff with the 2015 equivalent of wanted posters fluttering in the sun-drenched Texas sky. Features such as "Wanted Wednesday" are posted to track down small town crooks like The Bubble Gum Bandit, whose total haul ultimately was worth $750.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office has a long and well-documented history of corruption, with a track record of officers implicated in the drug and arms trafficking that flourishes near the Mexican border. The department has faced internal strife in recent months. On December 10, Sheriff J.E. Guerrera announced the suspension of a deputy for a DWI, the third alcohol-related offense by a deputy in the span of a few weeks.
Law enforcement in Hidalgo County doesn't balk when it comes to outfitting their K-9s with the latest equipment and care. The cottage industry of police dog technology is a booming, with popular retailers of highly specified technical gear like Argo's custom "SHERIFF" vest moving half a million dollars' worth of product per year. One of the most popular vendors is Kentucky-based Elite K-9, owned and operated by a former police officer.
Agencies like the Hidalgo County Sheriff spare no expense when it comes to veterinary enhancement. When I spoke with Argo's veterinarian, he declined to go into detail about dentistry, which is pertinent to K-9 veterinary practice. One of the only hazards, in fact, of long-range track and bite is that the bite is so hard (with a force that has been likened to getting run over by a small car) and so prolonged (it takes several minutes for officers to catch up to a dog "holding" a suspect) that the dog's incisors often break. As a solution, veterinarians across the country replace broken teeth with sharp titanium points.
Dr. Erich Rachwitz, a veterinarian in Bellevue, Nebraska, described the procedure as "blinging out" the dog. At a cost of $600 to $2,000 per tooth, the colorful expression feels appropriate.
The bling has also been heralded as an intimidation tool, presumably to warn victims in the half-second gap between the flash of metal teeth and the moment they sink into flesh.
"The four big canines are what you first see when a dog opens its mouth or bares its teeth," Jim Watson, the secretary of the North American Police Work Dogs Association, said in an interview with The Telegraph. "So having metallic canines will draw a person's attention and scare them more. If the dog is barking and someone sees the sunlight sparkling on his metal teeth, it may encourage the person to back down."
There is no escape once the jaws are set and tearing; thanks to training exercises intended to desensitize dogs to self-defense tools, the dogs bite harder when struck with sticks. Harming a working dog is considered felony officer assault. In 2013, a 19-year-old who attempted to cross the border through Hidalgo County stabbed a Border Patrol K-9 when it bit down on his leg, which he argued in court to be an attempt at self-defense. He served a six-month term in federal prison, and was faced with a $100,000 fine.
Working dogs used by military handlers are trained in IED scent detection as well as biting. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the training and work ethic of a bomb-sniffing dog can mean the difference between life and death. Although bomb-disarming bots deployed under the US military's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (now Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency) have saved tons of lives, the capability of a dog's bomb-scenting abilities are beyond replication. After spending $19 billion since 2004 on attempts to create bomb-detection robots, the JIEDDO program failed to create any device that out-sniffed a dog. At $50,000 or less, a kitted-out K-9 is much cheaper.
However, the sniffing itself is not so much a problem as the fact that they bring potential bias and error to police and military encounters. In a recent study, scent detection dogs have been determined to be up to 80 percent inaccurate. A handler can also easily manipulate a dog to falsely detect drugs, a loophole that has resulted in K-9 scent detection being ruled as barely more accurate than a coin flip in a recent federal appeals court decision. Sometimes the dogs are determined to signal only in reaction to tells or small shifts in body language by their handler.
The same goes for dual-purpose dogs like Argo. As a result of years of targeted training and breeding, Argo and K-9s like him are ultimately making life or death decisions. This thought process can be seen in a video by the Durham, UK Police, which recently outfitted their K-9s with $22,000 custom canine body cams designed by Tactical Electronics. In the video, a K-9 is sent to chase someone posing as a decoy down on a field, then the back of a car, and finally running into a mockup apartment during a simulation of a no-knock raid, excitedly searching for a suspect among decoy mannequins:
It's not just the military and police, either. As detailed in a 2006 report from Human Rights Watch, work dogs are also being used by prisons. Mike Knolls, a member of the Special Operations Unit of the Utah Department of Corrections, describes the effectiveness of using K-9s to drag noncompliant inmates out of their cells: "Obviously a dog is more of a deterrent [than a Taser gun]. You get more damage from a dog bite. I think it's right up there with impact weapons."
A Connecticut inmate describes his long-term injury from a cell extraction dog, which bit his left hand as he reflexively tried to block the dog's bite: "[I]t sank its teeth completely through my hand… I lost a lot of feeling in my middle and ring fingers and I have a 'pin and needles' feeling in my index finger and thumb. This is due to multiple nerves being severed from the dog bite."
And yet, K-9s remain esteemed by the general public. Dogs are the fuzzy, beloved law enforcement mascots of which PR dreams are made. Their popularity has helped police and military soften their image, as the dogs themselves are divorced from danger and menace. Many departments even use dogs as community outreach tools, orchestrating community events and school visits to put a furry face on men in uniform (this sometimes backfires).
After several decades of lionizing weaponized dogs, people like Argo's tens of thousands of mourners trust that K-9s are normal dogs with petlike motivations. Many smaller police departments are even able to use third-party nonprofits or donations from outreach events to pay for their K-9 programs.
Conservative pundits are calling for armed drones at the border, but dogs like Argo are already on the ground, without widespread pushback. Weaponized detection dogs working on behalf of the state are likely to continue to beat out replicants like BigDog for the foreseeable future, because they remove accountability from the handler for committing acts of violence and conducting unwarranted searches. And dogs, even with all the technological trappings, are a bargain.
For now, at least, they are keeping their robotic competitors at bay.
When I ask Osmundson if he remembers Argo, he sighs and recalls him fondly. I can hear the smile break through in his voice. "Argo was a great dog. A big dog, he was the ideal shepherd dog, he was very loyal, very loving, very sweet, but also very protective of his handler and very willing to go get the bad guy. He was a super super dog."