Requirements of a police dog handler

Updated April 17, 2017

As a special law enforcement officer in charge of trained dogs, K-9 handlers belong to an elite corps. Beyond the classroom, a police dog handler must have years of street experience and must have done well in probationary assignments. Working in a K-9 unit places stress on the officer's family due to long and unpredictable hours. Above all, a bond must exist between handler and dog; it's a partnership in which both often entrust their lives.

Criminal Justice Program

Jobs in K-9 units require a law enforcement degree. Officers can receive basic preparation via enrolment in an online criminal justice program.

Police Officer Employment

Upon completion of a criminal justice education, new officers go to a police academy or attend advanced law enforcement training. Typically, a police dog handler spends at least two to three years as a uniformed (line) officer. From the outset, it's best to apply to an agency with an established K-9 unit and express the intention to become a dog handler in the unit long before the application process.

K-9 Unit Application

Eligibility for K-9 unit jobs requires that officers be on call 24 hours a day and have the ability to travel on a moment's notice. Additionally, they must pass a physical fitness test (U.S. Marine Corps standards). Because of the stiff competition for few openings in K-9 units, applicants ask K-9 officers to accompany them on shifts and play "criminal decoy" roles during training sessions.

Qualities of Police Dog Handlers

Police dog handlers are aggressive problem-solvers, but not troublemakers. They can think on their feet, make decisions on the fly and manage highly stressful situations. They must also have a natural ability to relate to and communicate with animals. The dog often becomes part of the family.

K-9 Unit Training

Training for police officers and dogs involves the detection of explosives, electronic devices, narcotics and cadavers. Programs cover theoretical and practical training. This includes search and seizure techniques, day and night tactical problem-solving, deployment for felony car stops, live-fire training, building entries, officer safety and more. K-9 law enforcement training takes time and requires that the officer and the dog forge a relationship. New K-9 officers often serve an apprenticeship with an experienced dog handler to practice and hone skills during training.

USPCA Certification

Every year, K-9 units apply for certification in a USPCA trial to affirm credibility as a qualified law enforcement team. A rigorous certification process encompasses workshops, special training sessions and opportunities to network. Citizens and officers must have assurance that K-9 units are effective and safe.

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About the Author

Kay Tang is a journalist who has been writing since 1990. She previously covered developments in theater for the "Dramatists Guild Quarterly." Tang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Yale University and completed a Master of Professional Studies in interactive telecommunications at New York University.