By Jeff Wagner

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — They put their lives on the line no different than their human handlers, and it’s all for the joy of the job.

Becoming a police dog is an intensive process, for the pup and their partner.

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That had us wondering: How do canines become K-9s? Good Question. Jeff Wagner learned how man’s best friend answers the call.

Whether navigating a busy mall or following a scent through a field, dogs have been donning the badge, or collar, to protect and serve for years.

What kind of training is necessary?

“My program itself lasts about eight weeks,” said Andrew Helgerson, president of Minnesota Canine Consulting, LLC. The company trains dogs and their law enforcement handlers for their unique crime-fighting role. He said other programs can run as long as 16 weeks.

Where do these dogs come from?

“A large number of the dogs do come from overseas,” said Helgerson.

Two of the more popular breeds are the German Shepard and Belgian Malinois.

“All those breeds are very intelligent dogs and they’re able to acclimate well to the weather. They’re athletic and they have a reputation,” he said.

Helgerson said the dogs often receive some training as puppies before they are purchased, then brought to the U.S. to be sold to a law enforcement agency where further training begins with a company like MCC.

One of the most important tactics learned is tracking, utilizing the dog’s extremely powerful nose to pick up scents.

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According to PetMD, a human’s nose has 6 million smell receptors. A dog’s nose has 300 million and the part of their brain that interprets that smell is 40 times bigger than humans’.

“You’re just basically trying to connect the dots in the dog’s brain. He learns or she learns that if I follow this scent, there’s going to be a reward for it,” he said.

That reward is often a toy, treat or praise.

Some K-9s are single purpose, meaning they focus on sniffing out items or people. That could include a search-and-rescue dog or the kind you see with TSA officers at the airport.

Multi-purpose K-9s means they can track and do patrol work for police like chasing down a suspect.

“Your typical police dog, you see it on the street working with a handler, that dog is more than likely going to be multipurpose,” he said, adding that teaching a handler when and how to properly implement the-use-of-force with a K-9 is critical. “We are held accountable to the community. When you bring that dog out of the car, you are responsible for it. You’re responsible for the actions of the dog and you must be able to influence that dog’s behavior.”

If someone attacks or hurts a K-9, that person can be charged with a felony or misdemeanor depending on the severity according to Minnesota law.

What is off-duty life like for the dog?

“Downtime is very important,” said Helgerson. “We want those dogs to be to learn how to collect themselves as well. But it’s also important, it’s very important in fact to remember that these are working dogs and we need to be responsible with them.”

The K-9 usually lives with its handler often like any other dog at home, making them partners on and off the clock.

“It really is a 24/7 job but again it’s a labor of love,” he said.

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The K-9s and their handlers maintain 16 hours of training each month and undergo yearly evaluations. A typical career for a police dog is seven to ten years.

Jeff Wagner