Dressed to the (ca)nines

In September of 2010 Jeff LaLonde of the Buena Vista Police Department in Saginaw, Mich., and Zeus, his K-9 partner, were hot on a track. It began when a neighboring jurisdiction called in a home invasion. As they learned the premises was overflowing with...

Because the K-9 market is largely consumer-driven, Akenhead and other designers build the products that dogs and their handlers will use on the day-to-day. Another trend he’s seeing is that of modular harness systems. That is, one piece of equipment functioning in five or six different ways. Though he admits he still uses leather harnesses, Akenhead suggests leather harness were historically used for agitation work or tracking. There was typically one harness for patrol work, and yet another for detection. Now those functions can be interchangeable. Users can add-on different pieces, such as a chest plate, and the harness becomes a piece of equipment for agitation work. Then you might remove that piece, add a side panel, and it becomes a hi-vis vest for the dog working cars on the side of the road.

Ray Allen’s modular harness system has panels that will suit different purposes: a flotation panel will offer dogs a little extra buoyancy if they struggle to swim, while backpack panels allows trainers to add a little extra weight to build their dog’s endurance.

It’s very important that K-9 units stay healthy and hydrated in all kinds of weather. Unfortunately, they can’t always tell their handler when things are getting too hot. Ray Allen is coming out with a heat alert system that features a GSM dialer. This heat alerts calls handlers’ cell phones and reports the temperature in the car. Users receive a call warning, or a text, as opposed to having to wear a separate pager just for the heat alert.

Another interesting high-tech outfit working its way into the K-9 club is that of dog-worn video and night vision systems. Although this equipment usually finds more of a foothold in the military, Akenhead says he’s starting to see more requests from law enforcement agencies that may have particular applications for the technology. Ray Allen works with Tactical Electronics to provide back- or chest-mounted cameras for K-9s. The cameras see in the dark and broadcast back to the handler’s wrist-worn monitor, which is slightly larger than a wrist watch.

The chest-mounted camera allows handlers to see everything their K-9 sees with night vision, and might even help the handler assess a risky situation and get the dog out before it gets hurt. A back-mounted cam sees over the dog’s head. Its malleable post sticks up, but folds back and forth should Scruffy dive through a car window and smack the camera. In that case the camera will simply fold over and pop back up.

“You can see the functionality on the dog and what’s happening and exactly what’s going on,” says Akenhead. “And if the dog’s out of sight and he’s working something, or working somebody, you’ve got video documentation if you didn’t have eyes on it, which is pretty handy.”

Wearable protection

LaLonde feels that Zeus’ number one most important piece of equipment, much like his own, is his ballistic vest. Dog vests have been out for a while now, but in the past a lot of these vests have simply been too heavy.

“It was hard to get a custom-fitted vest for a dog because dogs are always growing and changing in size,” he says. “In the wintertime [the dog’s] meatier because as a handler you put more protein into them; they’re not being used as much. In the summertime they’re a little leaner because it’s hot; they’re working more. It’s not a day and night difference, but it’s enough to notice when you’re putting a vest on a dog.”

The folks at Armor Express developed their version of the K-9 vest to address this problem. Zeus and LaLonde took a trip to Armor Express headquarters last spring where they were given a factory tour and a custom dog fitting. “It’s actually a family,” says LaLonde. “You walk in there and feel warm.”

He feels it’s particularly important that the vest is lightweight and constructed of very durable fabric. On the back of the vest (which is the back of the dog) is a handle to assist in lifting or holding the dog at bay. With the K-9 vest, dogs have full side ballistic coverage protection, on the bottom of the neck all the way to the back of the groin region. It is made to contour to their shape.

“There’s no metal plates anymore; it’s all gel and inserts,” says LaLonde. “Everything is quick-connect … it takes literally less than ten seconds and the dog’s in his vest and he’s ready to rock and roll.”

In fact, he was so impressed with Zeus’ attire he convinced his chief to purchase some for the entire department. The MOLLE pockets on LaLonde’s tactical vest allow him to carry more gear and have it be more accessible — features that he says help him be a better handler. He can easily carry his evidence bags, test kits, collection tools, as well as the standard pen and paper. He also has a first-aid kit for Zeus and one for himself, extra handcuffs and extra magazines for his patrol rifle.

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