Thoughts and reflections : Recruitment strategies from the K9 world By Sanjaya Gunaratne

Recruitment within the traditional organizational setting is a topic which needs no introduction.  It has been crucial as organizations strive to get and harness the best talent in the market.  It has been studied, stripped down and taken to bits.  Many a debate has been waged on it. 

Here we take a look at two completely different fields of operation and decipher what the similarities are and also about some basic principles which I believe should be adhered to. It has been my contention that there are always certain principles that are common to a practice irrespective of the field or industry or dare I say the species that it operates in and with.

In the realm of the K9 world, recruitment is so crucial that without exaggeration everything depends on this initial selection.  Although it is not very well known, many similarities and lessons can be gleaned by taking a look at the selection of dogs for police and military work.

I cannot stress enough the fact that I am NOT comparing dogs to human executives but merely the recruitment practices that is in use and are required to gain the best results.  A different perspective always offers fresh insights.  Before carrying on further, I do believe that a small introduction to the K9 unit is in order.

K9 – what are they all about ?

Almost every police or military force in the world has a K9 unit.  These dogs are used to sniff out explosives, arson, cash and drugs, track missing people and dead bodies.  They are also used in law enforcement and to protect its human handler if needed.

A number of select breeds are used for K9 work but not all.  The main reasons for this are the temperament, attitude and trainability of the breed.  Different breeds are used for different purposes depending on their temperament and ability.  After selection, the chosen dog is subjected to rigorous and regimented training designed to make it as efficient at its chosen job as possible and also to give it the ability to operate in any terrain and scenario.  The fact that some dogs can smell cash, explosives, even cancer cells in the human body and some others can take down an armed assailant from a moving vehicle is testament to the extensive training these animals go through.

Designations – and promotions too !

Most law enforcement organizations have their dogs sworn in as police/military personnel and give the K9 officer a ‘badge.’  Attacking, injuring or killing a K9 officer has a harsher penalty than that of normal cruelty to animals, the same way that attacking a human police officer carries with it tougher penalties.  K9 units promote their dogs in cases of exemplary service and some even make it to the rank of sergeant.  If a K9 officer is killed in action it is given a police/military funeral – some of which are opened to the public.

Different Functions need different types of individuals  

Police and military K9 units have different functions ranging from acting as attack dogs to sniffer dogs.  Each job entails a different set of skills and competencies and more importantly a different attitude.  The attitude is the number one reason why different breeds of dogs are used by the police for different purposes.

For an example, Labrador Retrievers are most commonly used as sniffer dogs as they have a higher response towards more skilled training and also because they are a low risk in crowded areas such as airports.  This is due to them having a gentle and outgoing personality and temperament. They are also an obedient and intelligent breed.

However a Labrador will never be a competent attack dog as it does not have the aggression or the fight drive to chase down and subdue an armed assailant.  This role is suited for more charged up breeds like Rottweilers, Dobermans or Boxers who are naturally protective and respond well to high pressure situations.

Most of the time in an organizational setting, we look at the more obvious aspects when recruiting for different functions.  For an example if a Marketing position is to be filled, what will be looked at is if the candidate has a proper qualification, experience and whether he makes a good impression through his communication skills at the interview.

Of course there is no doubt that the proper qualifications are needed, but what about the attitude?  You need a marketing person to be outgoing, extroverted and driven, someone who is a live wire and who is interested in the market and loves the hustle and bustle of it.  He/she needs to be creative, always looking to connect with the target market and come up with new initiatives to sell the product.   Whereas for a finance person the more important attributes would be an analytical and orderly mind and a less of a risk taking attitude.  Such an occupation entails caution, attention to detail and consistency.  The two jobs are two completely different kettles of fish and one individual may have qualifications in both fields such as CIM and CIMA but it is very rare for the same person to have the polar opposite attitudes the two functions require.  Obviously he/she will be better at one job than the other and this will largely depend on attitude.  Therefore, this makes due consideration of attitude a rather key element at the recruiting stage.

Basics need to be in place

All dogs brought into the K9 training program must have certain basic requirements fulfilled.  They are all tested for their health by putting them through a battery of tests.  An agility test is given to check if they can maneuver and balance.  The temperament of a dog is looked into to see if it is too timid or too aggressive, both of which if it comes out positive will rule out the dog.  Finally the hips of the dog are x-rayed to ascertain if it has a proper set of hips as hip dysplasia is a major concern.  A dog cannot fail any of these tests. If they fail even one, they are deemed unfit to be taken in for training.  The reason for being so strict on the above criteria is because they are the basic needs.  You cannot build on a dog that does not have these basic requirements.  It will be a useless venture.

Likewise a set of basic requirements is a must.  If these are not fulfilled, there is a higher likelihood of a candidate not being effective in the job that he/she does and sometimes could even be detrimental to the organisation.  Create a list of the basics that you feel are a must and are needed a 100%.  We tend to fall into the trap where a candidate creates a great impression on us with his speaking ability, confidence and appearance even though he/she does not fulfill the basic criteria.  Do not be tempted to hire persons based on without the ‘core competencies’, no matter how much they impress you !

Specialist requirements need specialist resources 

There are extremely specialized functions within organizations which are of importance to the organisation.  Most of the time these positions are difficult to fill due to the low supply of candidates with the required facets or because the candidates who do have the requirements are extremely expensive.  Take a high end statistician.  A research company will want a solid statistician who is experienced and well worsted in many of the techniques in the discipline so that he can handle varied assignments.

In the same context of things, there are certain breeds of dogs which have been bred for a specific purpose.  A good example is the blood hound.  It has the most sensitive nose in the dog world and has been famous over time as the undisputed tracker dog.  Able to follow a scent after many days of the trail going cold and through any weather including snow and rain.  A true specialist in the sniffing field, its sense of smell and tracking capability is unparalleled.  It is the breed that is called in to handle the toughest tracking assignments.

However, there are times when one may be tempted to settle for a candidate who is not the best for the specialized function and not as equipped and suitable but can ‘manage’.  Filling the vacancy (and getting it over with) might just take precedence, and in the process we may miss the probability of a really trying and specialized situation cropping up. Imagine bidding for a massive project and it requiring a cutting edge statistician who has up to date knowledge on the most complex areas in the field, and the one you recruited does not ! He/She may be able to take on 90% of the projects but not THIS one, when he is needed the most.   This is akin to a German shepherd being bought into a tough tracking case.  German Shepherds are good trackers but they are not specialist trackers.  They cannot perform to the level of a blood hound.  Bringing in a dog like this in a life or death situation may end in a fatality if the dog cannot track him/her on time.  Do not compromise when it comes to niche crucial positions.  Spend the time and the money needed to hire the right person who suits it the best.  It will serve you well when you approach that crucial juncture where nothing but the best will do.

Leave room for a wild Card

Although police and military outfits do most of the time go for pure bred dogs, there have been instances where cross bred dogs off the street have been extremely successful police dogs.  One such story was put down as an article on the Reader’s Digest about a dog named King who was a cross bred dog off the street on a dog pound death row.  This was because he was aggressive.  Luckily a police officer took a liking to him and took the dog in for K9 training and it turned out to be the most successful police dog in the state with thousands of kilos worth of drug busts and many a felon in jail after he chased them down.  The most decorated military dog in history,  Sergeant Stubby too was a cross bred !

Likewise sometimes in a recruiting process in an organization it is always good to have a few wild cards in the fray.  There have been many occasions where individuals have been successful in a field when at the outset it appeared as if he/she was thoroughly unsuited for the job at hand.  Sometimes its worth giving probability the chance as you can come up trumps.  It also gives you the advantage of harnessing different skills and aptitudes to the existing function and seeing where it can be taken.  One such wild card may even turn the field on its head by bringing to the table a whole new mode of thinking and completely different set of competencies.  He/she might even give that particular area an ‘Attitude adjustment’!  So get a wild card in there and see what happens…

Thinking independently and taking the initiative

Finally, at the highest level of training a police or military dog is expected to override the basic command given if the situation calls for it.  For example if a dog is given the command to sit and stay and then the handler is attacked, the dog is expected to override the initial command and go to the rescue of the handler.  For this, when selecting dogs the military especially looks at dogs who are high spirited and who have a personality of their own and who also thinks on their own.  These dogs are tough and will stand up for themselves.

Likewise when recruiting I believe hardly any organisation would want people who are merely drones or machines who just do what they are told to do.  Organizations would want individuals who think for themselves and who take initiative.  Those who would challenge the status quo for the betterment of the organisation.  This is what will set them apart.

In conclusion

Just like getting the right breed of dog with the right attitude, we all agree that recruiting the right people for the right job is one of the toughest jobs an organisation faces.  In embracing this challenge, it is key to clearly understand what we have control over, the job scope, and try to find people who could have complimentary traits that will help them get the job done, and perhaps, enjoy doing it too.  Picking a straight As nerd to do sales (unless maybe you are selling nuclear reactors) or a socializer for auditing, might just be asking for trouble.

In recent years, there are new assessment tools with good ratings on validity and effectiveness that have come up which can come in useful to check aspects which are not outwardly manifested.  Also, a mixture of good old day calls to former employers, and understanding a little about the last few bosses the prospect has worked with, might help you understand the rigour he/she has gone through, preparing you on what to expect in the immediate future.  Like with K9s, or any one of us, you never know what to expect, until you just get down and do it.


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