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First responder in the woods with her search and rescue dog

Episode 50: How Broadband Tech Can Enhance K9 Operations


April 07, 2021

Public safety K9s can be trained for a wide range of services, from search and rescue to bomb and drug detection. These dogs work across urban, rural, wilderness, and disaster settings, and can sometimes end up a mile away from their handler. As technology advances, handlers are exploring ways technology – such as trackers and live-streaming cameras – can enhance K9 operations, keep dogs and handlers safe, and improve situational awareness and mission success.    


Jennifer Harder
FirstNet Authority Director of Roadmap Domains

Travis Hull
FirstNet Authority Domain Lead – User Experience

Jason Collins
Sergeant, Broomfield, Colorado, Police Department

Adrian Peech
Police Officer, Broomfield, Colorado, Police Department

Don Casias
Search-and-Rescue K9 Handler (ret.), Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association and Maryland Task Force 1



Narrator: You're listening to Public Safety First, a podcast to help you learn about the First Responder Network Authority and how you can be part of the future of public safety technology.

And now, your host.

Jennifer Harder: Welcome to this podcast for the First Responder Network Authority. My name is Jennifer Harder and I’m the Director for Roadmap Domains here at FirstNet. I was also a K9 handler for 12 years with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Search and Rescue K9 Unit. We thought today that we'd talk about some of the opportunities for applying broadband technologies to the way that we operate with our K9 partners, really thinking about all the different ways that we can enhance and make more effective some of the different dog operations that we have in public safety today.

Narrator: You're listening to Public Safety First, a podcast to help you learn about the First Responder Network Authority and how you can be part of the future of public safety technology.

And now, your host.

Jennifer Harder: Welcome to this podcast for the First Responder Network Authority. My name is Jennifer Harder and I’m the Director for Roadmap Domains here at FirstNet. I was also a K9 handler for 12 years with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Search and Rescue K9 Unit. We thought today that we'd talk about some of the opportunities for applying broadband technologies to the way that we operate with our K9 partners, really thinking about all the different ways that we can enhance and make more effective some of the different dog operations that we have in public safety today.

I wanted to introduce a couple of handlers that we have with us. We've got Travis Hull, who's here out of Kitsap County, Washington, and he works a search and rescue K9 named Cody. We've got Jason Collins and Adrian Peech here from Colorado, who work in law enforcement K9s. And we've got Don Casias, who was working a USAR, or urban search and rescue, K9 out of the Virginia area and some of the task forces back on the East Coast. So, welcome, everybody. Thanks again for joining us.

Gentlemen, on the law enforcement side, we'll start with you. Generally speaking, for anyone who's not aware, what sort of things are the law enforcement K9s trained to do?

Jason Collins: This is Jason. I handled for about 20 years, I got promoted to sergeant. I'm the supervisor for the K9 unit now and [Adrian] Peech is now the head trainer for the K9 unit.

The department that Peech and I work for, our dogs are trained for apprehension and for narcotics. We don't have any bomb dogs, just narcotics and tracking, as well as building searches and area searches.

Jennifer Harder: And how about you Peech? What kind of animal are you working today?

Adrian Peech: My dog, I work a German Shepherd, dual purpose, German Shepherd, find and bite.

Jennifer Harder: Excellent. How about you, Don? Let's introduce where you came from with your search dog.

Don Casias: My name is Don Casias and my main dog was a German Shepherd. His name was Kodak. I did wilderness search initially. I started as a wilderness, also did water search. And then I evolved into disaster training and I was part of USAR with Montgomery County's Task Force One. So, we did everything off lead. Ours was all predominant air scent.

Jennifer Harder: Fantastic, and for those of you who may not know, air scent really is the concept of being able to find any human being in a given area, correct?

Don Casias: Yes.

Jennifer Harder: Doesn't matter who it is? We're just looking for them.

Don Casias: Well, yeah. Bill Syrotuck came up with this idea. He was looking at the skin rafts, the shedding of the skin, the epidermis, which happens all the time. And with stress, we shed off more of these skin rafts. And so, what his idea was, is to use the air, use the wind, the direction of the air and use that as a way of training the dogs to smell that, because they have a better sense than humans. And it's amazing when you watch them work, when a dog hits that scent and they're just gone, they just go into wherever it may be, the void, into the woods, and then we train them to come back out. So, it's a fun type of training for the dogs.

Jennifer Harder: Fantastic. And then, Travis, talk to us a little bit about how you operate your dog, also in search and rescue, but maybe a little bit differently.

Travis Hull: Howdy y'all. Travis Hull. My dog is Cody. He's an Australian Shepherd and we're a trailing dog, which means we're scent specific. So, it's kind of the classic what you've seen on television, where we'll collect the scent article from the subject that we're looking for and then I'll send my dog. So, he'll go looking for that specific person. A little bit different. I'm with my dog all the time on about a 20-foot lead. So, giving him enough room to work without me influencing him too much and carrying the trace behind. And then we'll be working in both wilderness and urban areas, as we have subjects go missing in both of those. But similar to what Don was just talking about, it's really using that specific scent profile so we can go find that lost subject in the woods or in an urban scenario where we've got to discriminate from other individuals.

Jennifer Harder: Yeah, and the urban scenario certainly can be a challenge, I think, for yourself and for Adrian and Jason, for you guys as well, when you were trying to find the one person you're looking for, as opposed to the 50 other people who may be in the area.

Adrian, I want to kind of pivot over to you for a second, and some of the ways that you talk about operating your dog. When you speak about the dogs being off leash and really going to do the job they're going to do, how often in your world are they out of your immediate control or sight? Do they move off into areas where they're moving faster than you? They're moving out into a search pattern farther than you can see?

Adrian Peech: That happens pretty much most building searches and area searches, and that's why it's so important before we deploy our dogs that it meets the criteria for the use of force that the dogs may implement at the end of that search. So, when we are doing the area search and the building search, tactically for our safety and the officers with us, they're going, moving ahead and clearing the room or clearing the area before the officers move up, which we obviously still visually check it. But they're the ones that are clearing it first before we move up there. So, in a building, he's several rooms ahead of us and in an area, depending on the movement of the wind, he can be out of sight 30, 40 yards.

Jennifer Harder: One of the technologies we've been talking a little bit about, kind of, that's slowly coming into the space is the ability to have some varietal of tracker on that dog to be able to track where the animal is, even if you can't see them. Is that the type of thing that is more beneficial maybe in an outdoor environment? Do you have needs to be able to know where your dog is, even though you're not right there with them in a building?

Jason Collins: I think what we typically use GPS for is for training so we can actually see where the dogs tracked, how long and how successful the tracking was. We can actually set one up with the decoy who's setting that track and then watch the dog work it, and compare the two GPS patterns just to show the consistency of the dog and how well the dog tracked from point A to point B. Same with deployments on the streets. If we had a tracking device on the dog, and we confirmed later where the suspect had ran or where he was apprehended, we could actually compare that GPS with where we located the suspect and where it started.

Jennifer Harder: So, maybe a little less real time, sort of where the dog is. But that forensic capability. Exactly where you have been.

It sounds like that training capability is fantastic. For K9 training, for trailing training, generally speaking, what you do is you have a decoy go lay a trail for you and somebody walks with them so they know where they went. And that person comes back and then escorts the handler as the handler runs the trail. Fairly old, fairly traditional way of training people how to trail with their dog. But of course, as we know, human beings sometimes struggle to read a dog, but they're pretty good at reading other human beings. And so, certainly in my experience, I've seen handlers get real good at knowing where that trail goes by watching that second person. So, it sounds like you're using technology to negate that and make them run the trail pretty much blind and clean and really work on how accurate their dog can be at that work.

Jason Collins: Yes.

Jennifer Harder: I like it. Now, Travis, I think you've done something similar in that vein, right? Are you using sort of that, kind of technology in your training space?

Travis Hull: Yeah, it's been fun because we've gone from verbally trying to tell our friends and neighbors that are laying trails for us, you know, "Generally, go do this, this so we can we can watch our dogs do it." We've evolved from dropping flags along the way again to try and get a better idea of where they've gone and watch the K9 behavior. But now we're starting to use some applications on our phones so we can actually get that application on the runners' phone, have them go in the direction or throughout the town, and then we can actually either choose to work the dog blind, using some haptics and other feedback from the application itself, understand if we're on the trail so we can really focus on some of those head pops and body movements by the dogs, or we can actually be able to see, OK, looking at the application real time where I'm at versus where the runner went and say, "OK, my dog's drifting over here because of the weather patterns, the rain, wind or this weekend's snow." But it actually really gives you a good indication of how your dog is working compared to the elements in the area that you're working in.

Jennifer Harder: I love it. I love hearing the application of that kind of technology, even in the simplest case, like you said, of training. It's just a helpful, useful way to be able to make that that trailing experience more effective for the handlers and more closely replicate what they're going to have out on a real search.

Travis Hull: And we're starting to see even in the air scent space, we're doing some of that as well, where we're tracking them real time so that the air scent handler can kind of see where the runners have gone in, say, a 40-acre area so they can start to see where the dog gets into that scent cone and how they're starting to behave compared to where that runner went.

Don Casias: In our area, the sheriff’s departments have been using drones to find missing people. And, you know, they've been pushing the thing because they can find the body heat. But I think where you could use both that technology and the use of the air scent dogs, because of the scent cone, what Travis was saying, is many times when you work in a large area that's an open area, and the dog hits the scent. Air scent, you get really good at reading your dog and you'll see him hit that scent and they're gone. And they can be gone for five minutes because they picked up the edge of that air scent cone and it could take them in a quarter mile in some cases. So, you might have to wait there for that dog to come back to you, which is normally what we do. And when the dog comes back, you know, you ask him, "Did you find him?" and he takes him to you. But If you could use a GPS tracker on the dog, especially in wilderness, I think it could be beneficial because it's an easier way to get right to the person because you could do it not only where you're watching it on your GPS in your hand, but also if you have a drone, the drone can actually be following the dog into the air scent. So, I think that would be very beneficial in the wilderness sense. 

Now, in disaster, it's a little bit different. When you're working a dog, we work them off lead and you're directing them. So, you're using a lot of either voice commands or directional with your hands to move them. And so, if you're moving a dog over an area in a disaster setting, like in Oklahoma City, it was kind of confined. There was one sense when I was working underneath where I sent Kodak in and he made the hit, but he didn't want to come out because he knew he had something, bark, bark, bark, didn't want to come out. I think in that sense right there, it would have been nice to have had something where we would have been able to say, "OK, track him there." Now we can bring the dog out and then we can get people in at that point, even in sending something in where we could get a visual.

Jennifer Harder: And what's interesting about that one, too, Don, is forensically, it would be nice to be able to drop that pin on the map where the dog got the hit –

Don Casias: Right.

Jennifer Harder: – when the dog gets the hit, because even though you're engaging now with the dog and you're attempting to access that patient or that trapped person, if that's a disaster scenario, you have a lot of resources behind you that have to get activated.

Don Casias: Right.

Jennifer Harder: And in a disaster scene, there's no normal landmarks. They have to figure out how to get to you.

Don Casias: And that was a big thing that was brought up in some of the hurricanes, especially in Florida, where there was no landmarks. And so, in a situation like that, where dogs were working such a large area, even though you're working sectors of where possible homes were, you really couldn't tell. That would have come in valuable. Now, with the drones, you could see where the drones are coming in as well with that. But I think using those two together is a win-win right there.

Jennifer Harder: In San Diego County where Travis and I came from, we were looking at search certifications and qualifications just to be able to deploy an area scent, or area dog or air scent dog, of 160-acre search areas. And on missions, you would be given fairly vast, randomly shaped swaths of terrain that you had to go and cover. And even if the dog never did get an alert, one of the challenges we had on the back end from the operations section chief and from our managers was how well do you think you covered your search area? And with dogs that range as far as some of our area dogs did, we had a pair of Vizslas, as an example, that could get a mile away from you and still be working. We would have challenges being able to articulate exactly how well or effectively we covered a search area. Travis, could you do a forensics breadcrumb analysis on that to see where the dog had been even if it wasn't working a straight line?

Travis Hull: It's interesting, if you imagine that your handler is walking a straight east to west profile, that dog is not going to be on that straight line as well. That's what they're there for. They're ranging far away. So, having that either real time on a handheld smartphone or a GPS device where you can see where that dog’s ranging, you can start to see within that acreage area where either there might have been some areas of interest, they got in the scent cone. But to see what the overall area that you covered, so when you do get back to the box and you can report to IC [incident command] if they don't have a real time based on whatever program using, "Hey, this is the area I covered. This is where the interest spots might have been. Here's where some of the holes are either based on terrain limitations, maybe some hazardous areas, those types of things."

Jason Collins: You know, and from a law enforcement point of view, point A to point B, what we typically like to do and why I think that this technology GPS would work well for us, a marked track, is we like to backtrack. We like to go on foot and look for discarded items like guns, drugs, clothing, stuff like that. So, if we had a point A to point B right on our phone or a marked area on our phone or an app or whatever we got, we would actually be able to then go from B back to A and do that back track, I think, and be a little more successful with covering the area that the K9 had covered on the track or trail.

Jennifer Harder: Yeah, it sounds like, really, the mapping capability just across the board, not only the ability to see where you are on a map, but to see where the important players are around you and what you've hit and what the dogs hit very specifically. Because right now, if we're trying to guess, you know, we're often kind of guessing a little bit. You ran a track. It was hot. You were watching that dog. You got the guy at the end. But now you're like, "Huh? How did I get here? Hold on. Where exactly, which tree did I walk under? Which fence did I crawl? You know, going back and being able to see that very specifically will be beneficial.

Jason Collins: I agree, yeah.

Jennifer Harder: Jason, this is when you correct me, 20 years ago in my memory, there was a statement made that two of the most dangerous things you can do as a law enforcement officer is be a K9 handler or go on a traffic stop. There's just a lot of risk that comes along with working that dog. How often do you think it would be valuable to be able to identify exactly where you and your cover unit are operating within that perimeter?

Jason Collins: If you gave something to your dispatch that allowed them to see the dog moving and the handler moving throughout the perimeter and airing that information to officers on the perimeter, that would be something I think would be really beneficial. And then maybe something on the same phones, because we all now have work phones, that the officer can glance at every once in a while, as well, looking to see where the K9 handler. And we typically air it and our cover officer lets people know where we're at. But it wouldn't hurt to let them have some kind of device to actually see us.

Adrian Peech: On the perimeter, too, can also see which way the track is moving and if that perimeter needs to be adjusted, they could do that without having to be told and, you know, just take that upon themselves.

Jennifer Harder: And that, Adrian, is an excellent point, right. Right now, if you guys want to adjust your perimeter, first of all, you have to mentally map where you are, mentally map where your perimeter units are, and mentally move them to the next place on the map. Whereas if they had the visual of all those pieces at the same time, tactically, they could potentially start making those decisions ahead of you a little bit and help contain what you're trying to capture.

Adrian Peech: Exactly.

Jennifer Harder: You know, one of the other things that we're circling around on the FirstNet side of the house, is a technology that you'll hear called LBS or location-based services. What it is, is the ability to confidently locate first responders themselves. The breadcrumbs features is a consideration, right. Making sure I know where you've been. If I need to be able to find how I get to where you got, especially if you get in situations where now you're in a back alley or you're in a wooded area, you're not exactly sure where you are. Now, the technology tells your cover officer, tells dispatch, tells your surrounding perimeter officers, potentially command staff, exactly where everybody is. And it sounds like that would have some pretty tremendous applications to some of these law enforcement tracks that you're doing.

Jason Collins: Absolutely, I think so.

Jennifer Harder: Fantastic. Don, what do you normally do on a disaster for the safety realm? So, not only knowing where everybody is and where everybody's now covered, but how are you looking at hazards, known challenges as you've come across them? Are you mostly just airing those at this point over the radio traditionally? Is it something that we begin to map so that you can kind of have a visual in front of you of what you should be paying attention to when you're working your dog?

Don Casias: We normally have spotters that are watching for our safety. We're looking for our dog's safety. I think that was the hardest part initially training my dog, Kodak because Kodak worked so fast in wilderness. When we had to put him in disaster, he had to slow down. He had to be methodical. He had to be cautious on stepping because ground was uneven, ground was slanted. There was different textures of ground. So, the dogs had to work in an area that this is where control was very important. But you didn't want to lose the dog's drive. And so, you're watching the dog and you're having a spotter watch you.

When my dog was underneath the pile in Oklahoma City, he was in there and he was doing his job and we had a bomb scare. So, they're trying to pull people out of the building, what was left of the building. And Kodak didn't want to come out. And so, I had to crawl underneath to go get him. So, I had to go in about 20 yards underneath in a dark area, really, a void that nobody else knew, because I needed to get him out. So, these are the types of things where, you know, if we could mark that and work it and bring the dog out, where we could send something else in — a camera or something to look at that.

And see, that's the thing with disasters that the dogs scent, they're getting scent from voids that are coming up through different parts of the concrete or whatever it may be. So, they might be hitting a scent and the victim or the person might be 20 feet down to the right and they're up on the left side. It's because of the fact the void is allowing that air scent to come through there. This is where we did have cameras that we could get a person there. But in a blind area, a robot would have been great.

Jennifer Harder: Hey, Adrian, I'm going to pivot back over to you for a second. I'm assuming, given the nature of your operations with the patrol dogs, those dogs are in vehicle for the full shift. There are sensors and technologies built into those vehicles to regulate temperature for the animal. Yes?

Adrian Peech: Yes, there are. You know, before, back in the day, they had like a little remote that you got on your belt that can vibrate if the heat gets over a certain amount. Now it's you know, it's an app on your phone that you can actually look in there and, and see on your phone what the temperature is. And obviously it's a little bit more reliable when it comes to being out of the car and still maintaining that connection with the hot dog system. But outside of that, you know, they do have vests now that you get for your dog that you can put the cooling panels in if they're going to be out doing work in the summer, during the daytime.

Jennifer Harder What other operations do we think could be made more efficient, more effective?

Don Casias: When we get water searches, we do sectors in the water as well. And it's interesting because we always verify with two dogs. So, if you think, if you got a hit, dog gets a hit in the, in a lake, in a river, the dog's going to get a hit. And then we pull the dog out and then we let another dog go in the same area and see if they get the same general hit. It would be really nice if we were able to mark that GPS-wise. It could bring your search cone area in tighter for the divers to look because some of that water can get really mucky. So, I think that would be very valuable.

Travis Hull: To jump in here. We recently had a recovery where a woman had driven into a river that was going about three to five knots. So, it was just unrealistic to bring the dogs in. We had boats out with side scan sonar working the river to try and get an image off of the car itself. But the local sheriff's department threw up a drone, was starting to do pattern work above the waterline, actually was able to see the car, direct the dive team in, and then start the recovery from there. And that, again, a dog would have been able to work it. But with the five-knot current going down, who knows where the dog would have indicated. So, yeah, that made that search much more effective, much more successful with the combination of the technologies. You know as much as we love our dogs, there's a whole combination of teamwork within the search and rescue community of things that we're doing. So, it's neat with these different technologies can come together.

Jennifer Harder: What I'm thinking is really beginning to look at the K9 environment as how do we maximize everybody's gift and potential in the space? The dog brings the nose and the dog brings the nose in a way that no other technology can match and no other technology can even mimic. There is nothing out there that can replicate the ability to scent the way that a well-trained K9 can do it today. It simply is not something that our technology space can take the job away from a dog when it comes to smell. But technology does a fantastic job with other senses that maybe aren't as strongly capitalized in a dog, right. So, the visual space, we can change not only what we can see, we can change the angle we can see it at. We can change the spectrum we're seeing it in, right. You can put infrared in place. You can do things that we as dogs and humans can't do. You have the ability to detect sounds far below a sound that we could hear and below a sound that a dog even tells us about. So, there's all these other capabilities that are brought to bear on the search effort that you really consider now to be more holistic, the dog being a component, not being the exclusive.

Travis Hull: Yeah, so when I step out of the vehicle, I orient my map, I check my compass, you know, these tried and true methodologies. But now as the technology comes, it really augments the ability of these dogs and handlers to do their job. And as Don's pointed out, now we're starting to get drones so now we can effectively work a search area with a dog, maybe do a forward looking with the drone, or let's more effectively cover these different sectors with these technologies working in unison. As search and rescue becomes more digital and it comes into the digital age, there's some really interesting opportunities. But like you said, the ability of the dog and with a handler that's actually reading them well and can do the job well is almost unmatched in the timeliness of them bringing an effective completion of the search.

Don Casias: Very true.

Jennifer Harder: Yep, and it's interesting, Travis, to your point, you know, there was never a time where you get out of the car, you don't have your compass and your map and you're ready to go. But there was definitely times when you didn't have a GPS and you were ready to go, when you didn't have your cell phone and your apps pulled up and you were still ready to go. But now we think about that. Am I going to go on this mission without my GPS? Am I going to go without these components of my radio? Have I double checked that technology? Do I have my cell phone as a backup? Do I have these other pieces of consideration technologically that, you know, used to not be as big a deal, but now is standard issue and it makes you feel a little bit more vulnerable if you don't have that with your deployment. So, it's interesting to see how those things become relied upon pretty quickly over time.

Travis Hull: I would love to ask Don – when you are working, Oklahoma being the example, but anything else that you've got in your history book, what technologies are there now that you didn't have back then that you think would have helped the effort or really made a difference?

Don Casias: The difficult part for us was, we didn't all have radios. We weren't able to communicate as quickly. And that's why we had spotters. We had spotters that were watching us for safety. We had spotters that were watching us for hazards. We had spotters that were watching us to see if we're missing something that the dog’s hitting. So, I think the communication was definitely something that was lagging. We did have little cameras. But these were cameras that were maybe where you had to have a technician work in close proximity to get into a void to look at. So, the cameras really were limited with distance, where I think now with new technology cordless, I think we could do a lot more. If you think of GoPros. I mean, think of that where we are having a camera that they can see what we're seeing, real time, I think that would have been real valuable, because sometimes when you're in that middle and you're looking at stuff, you get tunnel vision because you're looking for your dog. But maybe if we had somebody that was looking off of the camera that I have, they're going to see something that I don't see. And they're able to take a picture in time, so to speak, and go back and look at those still photos and say, you know, what do we see that they missed, maybe? I think that would have been valuable.

Jennifer Harder: Well, thanks again to Travis, to Adrian, to Jason, and to Don for joining us today to talk about how broadband can really help with our K9 operations. I really appreciate your time and your thoughts today, and we look forward to the next Public Safety First podcast with the FirstNet Authority. Talk to you all soon.

Narrator: Thanks for listening today. We're excited to have you join our podcast community. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, and YouTube. You can learn more about the First Responder Network Authority at and learn about FirstNet products and services at