Tryouts for Officers and Dogs for San Diego Police K-9 Unit

Editor's Note: The San Diego Police Department has selected six new K-9s from a training facility in Riverside County for its newly expanded K-9 unit. The K-9 unit just selected five new handlers and one sergeant from its patrol ranks following the tryouts in March.

The San Diego Police Department is expanding its K-9 unit, and will begin interviewing officers this week to fill at least 4 new handler positions.

It's the first time in two years the department has offered tryouts for its officers.

The candidates passed the challenging physical tests during an all-day tryout in March. That's when full time K-9 handlers and command staff evaluated the candidates' endurance and ability to follow instructions under pressure.

"The big thing is leadership and the ability to multi-task. Each test in and of itself will not tell the full story. It's a combination of the whole thing. There's no way to replicate what we're going to ask them to do in the field," says Lieutenant Duane Voss.

The first physical test to becoming a K-9 handler is picking up the dog. Most are Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds.

"It's kind of a test of the nerve, to see if the potential candidate has the ability to pick up a live, squirming animal, and put them onto a table," says Sergeant Casey Gini.

Officers must be able to pick up a 70 pound bag, the average weight of a K-9. They must toss the bag over a 6 feet wall, the height of most backyard fences, then climb over it.

Another test of strength for the officers is lifting a 70 pound bag into an attic, then pulling themselves up into the attic behind the dog.

"That's a job specific task. We'll deploy (the K-9) when it's unsafe for an officer to go in and take that person into custody," says Sgt. Gini.

Then comes a new qualification test. Officers hold a 50 pound kettle bell under their chin for 30 seconds. This simulates the strength it requires to physically pull back the K-9.

"When we take the dog off a bite, we want to have physical control of the dog so he doesn't re-bite the suspect, or he doesn't bite another officer," says Sgt. Gini.

The test most of us are familiar with involves the bite suit. A K-9 is released from its leash, runs towards the officer, and bites the suit.

"Part of it is nerve. It's the ability to catch the bite without injuring an animal. And the strength to deal with that animal and take 10 steps back," says Sgt. Gini.

The timed obstacle course is a test of endurance. Candidates run 185 yards in a bulky bite suit, allow the K-9 to hold its bite for 30 seconds, then get back up again within 10 seconds.

K-9 tryouts also include firearms skills. Accuracy is measured at 25 and 15 yards, a standard proficiency test.

Then at 7 yards and 5 yards, there's a new pressure test. Officers must be able to hold and drop a leash in one hand, while firing a weapon in the other.

"We're evaluating their ability to follow instructions under stress," says Sgt. Gini.

Many of the candidates build up their skills for months, or even years, trying to get into the K-9 unit.

"'I've been working hard to get myself prepared, with going to the practice tryouts and practicing the shooting," says Officer Joel Van Proyen.

He currently works in patrol at Mid-City division, and has been riding along with K-9 officers whenever he can, over the last year.

"Instead of being assigned to patrol in one division, you can help out wherever it's needed around the city," says Officer Van Proyen.

The candidates also know becoming a K-9 handler will make them valuable to the force.

"It's definitely unique, in that you don't see a lot of people higher ranked than you are coming to you and asking, what do you want to do? What do you think?" says Officer Christina Berg.

The K-9 unit is staffed around the clock. Currently, at least two K-9 officers are on patrol on every shift. Lt. Voss says his goal is to have three to four dogs per shift.

Lt. Voss also wants to implement a full-time training staff at the K-9 unit, and purchase equipment K-9 handlers can use as diversionary tactics while on patrol.

"Our officers are thinking a lot more legally than patrol officers. Can we deploy the dog? Because the dog in the back seat is a use of force. Is it going to meet the requirements and the protocol of the law? Is it going to meet the protocol and requirements of the San Diego Police Department? So there's a lot on their plates when they're responding," says Lt. Voss.

The police department uses its K-9s to help neutralize threats.

"I've got droves of incidents where the dog shows up and just the mere presence got the submission of a suspect. We can only speculate what may or may not have happened. But we can guarantee in those cases, the suspects were taken into custody without further incident," says Lt. Voss.

The 4 new K-9 handlers will be chosen in May. Their three month training academy begins in June.

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