How does a canine cop become a "sworn officer?"

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July 18 2008 1:53 PM

So Help You, Dog

How does a canine cop become a "sworn officer?"

Police dogs. Click image to expand
Police dogs stand with their partners during a graduation ceremony 

A police dog from DeKalb County, Ga., was shot in the face by a fleeing suspect on Thursday morning. Local investigators say the animal, whose name is Twan, is a "sworn officer." How does a police animal take the oath of office?

Sometimes with a bark but usually with human help.  Human police officers are typically sworn in at a brief ceremony attended by the new officers' families and friends. Canine swearing-in ceremonies, on the other hand, tend to be public events celebrating the role of police dogs. In some cases, the police chief administers the human oath of office to the dog, and the handler affirms on the dog's behalf.  In rare instances, the dog is trained to bark in affirmation of the oath.  When the ceremony is complete, the dog is presented with a badge to wear on its collar.

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There is no legal significance to swearing in a canine officer. Anyone who kills a federal law enforcement animal will face fines and up to 10 years in prison, but there is no sentence enhancement if the animal has taken an oath. Similar statutes exist to protect police animals from malicious injury in every state but South Dakota—but these, like the federal law, apply to every canine cop, not just the ones that bark, "I do."

Many police dogs don't even speak English. European breeders have been selecting and propagating service dogs for generations, and their dogs are preferred by many U.S. police departments for their ability to obey orders under the stressful conditions of police work.  Because these dogs receive their initial training in foreign countries, U.S. handlers often continue to command them in German or Dutch.  There is a widespread myth that foreign language training is intended to prevent suspects from contradicting the commands of the handler.  In fact, the dog is trained to ignore commands from anyone except its handler.  (If you want to test the myth, the next time a police dog is pursuing you, try to make the dog heel by yelling "Fuß!" or " Volg!")

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Explainer thanks Terry Fleck, deputy sheriff/canine handler (retired) of the South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Police Department.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.