Although dogs have been employed to assist humans in various tasks for hundreds of years, one of the earliest documented uses of canines in police work occurred in 1888 when London authorities attempted to track down Jack the Ripper with the aid of bloodhounds. As the roles of police dogs expanded over the years, so have the number of breeds brought into the law enforcement fold. Today, the talents of several different breeds are utilised in K-9 units all over the world.
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Considered one of the most intelligent and obedient breeds of dog, the German shepherd is easily the most commonly used dog in police work. Officers like working with German shepherds because they're devoted and efficient at performing a range of law enforcement-related tasks, including running down fleeing suspects, drug detection, and search and rescue. And police departments prefer them because -- with a lifespan of up to 14 years -- they feel better about shelling out money to train the canines.
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While similar in appearance and nature to the German shepherd, the Belgian Malinois is slightly smaller but faster and more agile. Many K-9 officers who have worked with both breeds describe the Belgian Malinois as "more intense." Originally bred to be a herding dog, its strong focus and determination to complete assigned tasks have earned this breed the number two spot on the list of most commonly used police dogs. In fact, as more and more police departments name the Belgian Malinois as their dog of choice, many law enforcement officials believe it could soon dethrone the German shepherd as the most-used breed in police work.
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The Labrador retriever is the number one dog among American pet owners -- and for good reasons: it's every bit as gentle, playful and loving as it is intelligent. While those might not seem like ideal qualities for a police dog, it should be noted that the Labrador's strength, stamina and devotion once made the breed ideal for such physically demanding jobs as assisting hunters and fishermen. Proper training can bring these traits to the forefront, making the Labrador retriever efficient at searching and tracking.
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Originally bred in Germany to drive cattle and pull carts, the rottweiler came close to extinction in the late 1800s before its usefulness as a police dog was discovered, renewing the public's interest in the breed. A guard dog by nature, the rottweiler is usually intensely loyal and loving to its owner but can become downright ferocious when encountering someone it sees as a threat. Its 2 feet tall frame often supports up to 59kg. of mostly muscle, making the rottweiler a powerful canine and a useful tool in attempting to convince a suspected criminal to stop running.
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Believed by many animal experts to be the breeding result of the rottweiler and German pinscher -- a close and now-extinct relative of the German shepherd -- the Doberman pinscher earned its reputation as a fearless and intimidating ally in the early-to-mid 1900s. Following its success as an aid to U.S. forces during World War II, the Doberman transitioned to police work, where it has specialised in chasing down and subduing suspected criminals ever since. Because it lacks an undercoat to shield it from cold weather, the Doberman is more commonly used by police departments in warmer climates.
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While its droopy eyes, wrinkled face and long, floppy ears might not make the bloodhound appear threatening, its unparalleled sense of smell has earned it the top spot among tracking breeds. For this reason, law enforcement agencies have long employed the bloodhound's talents in hunting down escaped convicts, trailing fleeing suspects and searching for missing persons. However, because of its loving, non-aggressive nature, the bloodhound's popularity as a police dog has waned in recent years, generally turning up only at police departments with big enough budgets to maintain different breeds of dogs for specialised tasks.
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Reaching a maximum height of about 12 inches, most people would consider the beagle to be no more intimidating than the bloodhound. However, its keen sense of smell makes it a formidable competitor in the tracking department -- and, many believe, superior in sniffing out small, specific objects. Like the bloodhound, the beagle's role as a police dog has been greatly diminished in recent years. But it's found a place in a different type of law enforcement as part of the "Beagle Brigade," sniffing out contraband in the baggage areas of more than 20 international airports and various border crossings in the United States.