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Why Are Police Dogs Called K9? 9 Things You Need To Know

Why Are Police Dogs Called K9

The term K9 is used around the world.

That’s why whenever we see it…

It automatically makes us think of fearless police dogs.

So you may wonder…

Where did this term come from?

And why it can’t be K8 or K7?

Keep reading to find out:

  • The most popular police dog breed.
  • 3 main reasons why police use canines.
  • 9 intriguing things you need to know about K9s.
  • Why police dogs are called K9s and how it started.
  • And many more…

Why are police dogs called K9?

Police dogs are called K9 because it’s short, and it sounds like ‘canine.’ It’s a word synonymous with dogs. But apart from the intended pun, K9’s also a useful term. Instead of referring to the canines as ‘military or police working dogs,’ one can easily remember and spell out this 2-lettered word.

Are only dogs called K9?

All dogs trained to assist police and other law enforcers are called ‘K9s.’ But when you’re referring to the dog and their handlers, it becomes a ‘K9 unit.’

Why do police use dogs?

Police use dogs to assist them in their jobs. That includes enforcing the law and protecting the people. So K9s are trained to do various tasks, such as:

  • Catching suspects.
  • Looking for missing people.
  • Detecting drugs and bombs.

K9 police dogs – 9 things you need to know

#1: Medieval police dogs

Canines have been living with us humans for at least 30,000 years.

But a study says that domestication might be even earlier. And it may have happened in the upper paleolithic period, 50,000 years ago.

Then from the Middle East…

The practice of taming dogs spread to different parts of the world. 

And soon, many people kept canines as pets. Plus, Fidos were also used in:

  • Herding.
  • Hunting.
  • Hawking.

However, there weren’t reports of dogs being used in law enforcement until the Middle Ages.

So let me share with you the…

Earliest recorded use of police dogs in the history

According to scholars, this happened at the beginning of the 14th century.

The French were first recorded to use dogs for guarding people at St. Malo.

It’s a historic port on France’s northern coast. And canines were tasked to patrol the:

By the way, the latter refers to any shore activity by the Navy. Say for housing or military purposes.

But apart from this, there are also stories about the…

‘Slough dogs’ of Scotland

In the late 14th century, Scottish people started using Bloodhounds to track scents. 

And in this period, these Fidos were called ‘slough dogs.’

“Why’s that?”

Experts say it might be because these hounds used to search sloughs to find crooks.

But the term may also come from ‘sleuth.’ Which means ‘detective.’

Fun fact: People say Bloodhounds are at least 90% nose, 10% dog. They have the strongest sense of smell in the doggy world. So they’re the first animals whose evidence can be legally brought to court.

Reading tip: 13 Fun Facts About A Dog’s Sense Of Smell

#2: ‘Barnaby’ and ‘Burgho’

Okay, fast forward to the 1800s.

This time, many officers started having dogs as partners in patrols.

Also, this is when the infamous criminal ‘Jack the Ripper’ filled London with terror.

And here’s where ‘Barnaby’ and ‘Burgho’ come in.

“Who are they?”

They’re Bloodhounds brought by Edwin Brough.

He was a well-known dog breeder. And he trained Fidos for ‘tracking’ or search and rescue events.

Now, if these 2 dogs performed well…

The police would buy them. And London would use the Bloodhounds to aid the search for Jack the Ripper.

After several trials, ‘Barnaby’ and ‘Burgho’ did the tasks well. Which mainly includes finding the scent of a particular man.  

However, the Bloodhounds weren’t bought or used in the end.

And this made people wonder…

“Would the police have caught the killer if they took in Barnaby and Burgho?”

#3: 1st official school for police dogs

Since the Middle Ages, many officers have used canines in their patrols.

And the dogs helped catch gangs, especially at night.

So, the police department in Ghent, Belgium, thought of a great idea.

In 1899, they created the 1st service program for police dogs. And these Fidos were mainly:

  • Wolfhounds.
  • Belgian sheepdogs.

Later on, this idea spread to other countries.

And after around 21 years…

Germany opened the 1st school for police dogs

Here, people trained canines to:

  • Obey commands.
  • Attack when asked.
  • Search objects using their scent.

Then after training and breeding working dogs, Germans concluded that…

German Shepherds, earlier known as ‘Alsatians,’ are the best choice for the job. Followed by the Doberman Pinschers.

And that’s why…

#4: German Shepherds are the most popular K9s

German Shepherds Are The Most Popular K9s

So, what makes these Fidos excellent police dogs?

First, German Shepherds or GSDs are working breeds.

It means they’re the happiest when they’re doing something.

May it be carrying items or learning tricks.

So you now checked 2 qualities on the list:

These traits are important when training. And also in actual operations – as they must be able to attack in command.

Besides these, GSDs are also:

  • Loyal.
  • Confident.
  • Courageous.
  • Not usually aggressive when trained.

Now, the latter makes GSDs suitable for most police work.


It’s because they can learn when to use brute force. And wait for their handlers’ command before acting in a critical situation.

Continue reading: Revealed: Why German Shepherds Are Used As Police Dogs

#5: The term K9 was first coined in 1942

I’ve already talked about many topics…

But you’ve never encountered the term K9 so far.

Well, let’s discuss it now.

So, from the 1920s to the 1940s, the police and military were already using dogs in their work.

However, there was no official term for the canines and their handlers yet.

And it was only in 1942 when the term K9 was coined.

“How did it start?”

It all began after World War I.

Many canines served soldiers during combat. And most of these were from a German army named ‘Sanitätshunde’ or medical dogs.

Based on reports, Germany had about 30,000 military Fidos during the war.

And one of these dogs was rescued by an American soldier, Lee Duncan.

His name was ‘Rin Tin Tin,’ a German Shepherd pup.

Now, it might ring a bell for you since Fido starred in 27 Hollywood movies.

So, this craze and the continuing use of police dogs in other places may have played a role in the…

1st military K9 Corps

According to an account, the US formed the 1st K9 Corps. And they started training 7 breeds of dogs for the:

  • Navy.
  • Marines.
  • Coast Guard.

Then in 1959, the word ‘K9’ or ‘K-9’ was officially registered.

And since then, it’s been used worldwide for all police working Fidos.

#6: 2 types of police dogs

Next, K9s are classified into 2 kinds. 

And the National Police Dog Foundation, a.k.a., NPDF says it’s based on their skills.

Patrol dogs

As the name suggests, these K9s assist officers in their patrols to:

  • Enforce laws.
  • Maintain peace and order.
  • Protect citizens and the whole community.

So these Fidos:

  • Catch suspects.
  • Search buildings and areas.
  • Protect civilian and police officers.
  • Provide security in controlled areas.

Detection dogs

Now, these Fidos have highly-trained noses.

And it’s because they need to detect 2 dangerous things:

  • Drugs.
  • Explosives.

Trivia: Vets say that dogs have over 100 million sensory receptors in their noses. And you can find these in their nasal cavity. Meanwhile, we only have about 5 million of these.

You might also like: How do police dogs know who to chase, attack, and bite?

#7: Single or dual-purpose K9s

“What are those?”

Aside from the 2 types of tasks…

Handlers also train police dogs to master 1 or more jobs.

Single purpose

According to trainers, these K9s only do a specific task.

And it could be any of the jobs below:

  • Patrols.
  • Sniffing drugs.
  • Detecting bombs.
  • Searching dead bodies.

On the other hand…

Dual purpose

People train some K9s to do a combination of the tasks above. And they may have at least 3 to 5 jobs.

For example, one Fido usually detects drugs. But police can also use them in patrols and rescues.

Trivia: A study shows that single and dual-purpose K9s perform similarly. And when combined, they have an accuracy rate of 92.5%. 

#8: US police dogs serve for 6 to 9 years

Typically, K9s start their ‘career’ early.

Brokers keep them as puppies until they’re 12 to 16 months old. 

Then once they’re at the right age…

Police officers will carefully assess them one by one. 

And they’ll do it until only the ‘most ideal’ pups make it to the end.

In addition to this, it takes years to train a highly-skilled K9.

So in the US, they prefer retiring police dogs when they reach 9 years old.

But it could also be 3 years earlier, depending on the case.

“What happens to K9s after they retire?”

Thankfully, President Bill Clinton signed Robby’s Law.’

Before, these brave dogs were euthanized after their terms.

But now, the law says they can be adopted by their handlers afterward. And also other service staff.

#9: Harming a K9 is punishable by law

Lastly, police dogs serve the community by keeping the people safe and rescuing those in need.

In short, they always put their lives on the line as they work.

So, it’s only fitting that the law protects them too.

“What are the penalties for injuring a K9?”

According to a report, it varies per state or offense.

For instance, killing a K9 in Connecticut has a $5,000 fine. And a person can stay in jail for up to 5 years because of it.

But in Washington…

Harming a police dog by choice can put someone in jail for up to 10 years. Plus, it also has a  $20,000 fine.