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How to become a K-9 handler

Working in a K-9 unit requires a police officer to learn to think differently, not as a police officer with a dog, but as a dog handler


In preparing to become a K-9 handler, you need to determine what makes you the best candidate for the job.


Article updated on October 3, 2018

By Bob Eden, P1 Contributor

When an opening comes available in any K-9 unit, there are invariably numerous applicants who apply for the job. In most cases the applicants are well meaning and have excellent work records, however, in many cases they are simply not cut out for the work. Either they are not entering into the position for the right reasons, they don’t realize how much is involved or they just don’t have the aptitude that is required for dog work.

Working in a K-9 unit is a very unique position. A good K-9 handler must be extremely flexible, be able to make decisions on the fly and be dedicated to the position more than what is required of most normal positions within the department. The hours of work are long and arduous and frequently will interfere with family expectations. It can be highly stressful and often dangerous. The officer needs to learn to think differently, not as a police officer with a dog, but as a dog handler. There is a difference between the two.

Preparing for duty as a k-9 handler

In preparing to become a K-9 handler and applying for positions within your agency, you need to determine what will make you the best candidate for the job.

If you prepare yourself properly, you will accomplish two goals:

  1. You put ourselves into a better position when it comes down to the crunch for final applicants;
  2. By going through these steps, you will actually benefit directly when you are chosen for the position, as you will have an extensive headstart on the extensive training dog handlers require. In fact, in many cases you will be a better dog handler than many officers, simply because you have a better understanding and background when you actually hit the streets with your four-footed companion.

First of all, what exactly is the K-9 mission?

the K-9 mission

The primary initiative for a K-9 team is to search for and locate suspects or evidence that can be linked to a specific crime scene. The dog is one of the few investigative tools that is available to the patrol team.

The support service provided by the dog section can go beyond the primary initiative in ways that are very effective. They can be used to locate missing persons, detect illicit drugs or explosives, and to back up patrol on calls where a dog’s presence can have a psychological effect, or where his physical abilities may deter or prevent violent confrontation.

Another function you will need to perform as a dog team is public demonstrations. This may seem unimportant, however it is vital to the success of a good dog program in that it builds support from the public sector. It also brings positive media support, which is a must for any department wishing to have a successful dog section.

Public awareness can be positive and supportive, but it can also be destructive. The abandonment of a dog program can be surprisingly swift with the onset of bad press and negative public pressure. A good team must realize that the purpose of the dog team is to serve as a support service for patrol officers. Your obligations are to your fellow members. Just as identification section is a support service that responds to a crime scene at the request of a field officer, so is the mandate of the dog handler.

You are there to assist them in locating evidence for a case or in tracking down a suspect that has left a crime scene that patrol is investigating. You cannot be successful as a dog handler without the support of patrol. Your credibility will go a long way in getting the assistance you need from them. Never make excuses for you or your dog if you come up empty handed. One of the major things I have run into in my experience as a handler is that if you catch the crook you and your dog are heroes. If you come up empty handed, nobody on your shift knows you anymore.

Challenges of working k-9

There will be days when your dog is just not successful. There can be many reasons for failure. In most cases there is just too much contamination and interference of the scent for the dog to work it successfully. There will be days when your dog is just not up to it, just as there are days when you get up and don’t feel like going to work.

The dog team is not out on the street to provide a form of street justice by mauling suspects. You are an effective means of locating and apprehending criminals. Your attitude and professionalism will be apparent in the manner in which you apply your dog. Ensure that you are always justified in applying the dog before putting him out. In other words, ensure that the crime for which you are deploying your dog is arrestable before setting the dog on a track. If there is any doubt at all, do not apply your dog in a manner that will allow him to make physical contact with the pursued subject.

K-9 philosophy

Know your department policies regarding dog applications and adhere to those regulations. Those policies will provide you with job demands specifically tailored to your department’s need that will guide you in your deployment.

K-9 handler attributes

Administrators are looking for officers that can work with a minimum of supervision and are not prone to citizens’ complaints or excessive use of force complaints. The administration wants an officer who is not going to become a liability problem when handling a dog. Ideally, they should also be searching for candidates that are considered high caliber officers from within the department, however this is frequently avoided by administrations as they do not wish to place someone that is promotable into the dog section.

The K-9 unit is one of those sections that for some reason has historically been a section where very few agencies will allow officers to go through promotions and stay within the section. As a result, some of the best candidates for the positions are not considered as they are “reserved” for other positions the administration feel are applicable.

As a trainer, I prefer a candidate who is an aggressive, streetwise cop who can work on their own with little or no supervision. The officer needs to have a minimum of three years active street patrol and be able to handle stress and think on his feet. They need to have some natural ability to associate and communicate with animals. While this may sound unusual, it is in fact, very vital. Most people have some ability to associate and understand animals, however there are some officers who get into the position who might make excellent ident technicians or become expert traffic analysts, but have no natural abilities in working with animals. Their heart is in it, they work hard at it, but that ability to bond with the dog just isn’t there.

Family impact

When choosing a handler, I need to know the feelings of his family. Working a police service dog places many extraordinary stresses on the family, and it is important that the officer’s spouse fully understands the implications of this career move. You will work mostly nightshifts and many weekend nights. The hours are frequently long and family events may be interrupted for you to respond to callout emergencies when you are off duty.

Your time off is not really your time off, as you will be required to maintain your dog on your off duty days. Going on vacation will now entail making arrangements for someone to babysit your new partner, or kennelling him while you are away.

You will also need to exercise your partner daily whether you are at work or at home. So, your off duty time is no longer entirely off duty, as you must deal with your partner on a daily basis. For this reason it is important that everyone in the family understands the changes that will occur, and that they are accepting of those changes. As a dog handler you will need extra support from your spouse on many occasions with work-related stressors, so it is important for the family to be taken into consideration when choosing a dog handler.

Personable and professional

I need an officer who is personable, and is comfortable speaking to a crowd. Being a K-9 handler offers you a unique opportunity to be a public relations ambassador for your department, and for policing in general. The dog section of the police department is the most requested section of the police department for demonstrations. The demonstration of well trained police dogs to the public provides a positive view of the section and brings public support for the department. This can be particularly important in times of crisis when the department may come under scrutiny from time to time in the media for actions that are sometimes perceived in a negative light by the public or the media.

Egos need not apply. The one and only major fault that I openly will not tolerate is a handler who is close minded, or is coming into the position because working with a dog adds to a macho image. As much as this may sound offensive, it does happen. Initially officers are open minded to training. However, one of the most common problems in the K-9 community is the attitude of “My way is the only way.” There is nothing that can be further from the truth.

Students of the profession

No person that I have met knows everything there is to know about dogs or dog training. Nor have I found that there is only one correct way to train dogs. We all need to be students of the profession.

I can learn as much from a new handler, and working with a new handler as he/she can learn working with me. I just need to be open minded enough to listen to them. If I could encourage any new candidates in any one aspect I would advise them to keep an open mind. Try new ideas. If they don’t work, or don’t apply to your situation, don’t discard the ideas out of hand, as further down the road the idea may have some merit, or you might change the technique in a manner that it will suit your needs.

When I look for a candidate I try to locate that one character that seems to trip over bad guys. We all know the type. The officer who is an instant heat score the minute he or she gets on the road. If there is a bad guy out there he’ll run across them. He can locate the one stolen auto in a parking lot the size of a football field. He is always in the right place at the right time. His arrest record is high and his conviction rate is high. He must be an aggressive worker....the Alpha type person with a good attitude toward the job and the public he serves. The officer needs to be proficient at report writing and record keeping skills and be able to communicate his evidence accurately in court.

A K-9 officer does more frequent code 3 responses than other members of the department, therefore he needs to be very proficient in driving techniques. An officer with a history of patrol car accidents may not be a good candidate for the position.


The officer needs to understand that handling a dog has become a very real liability concern not only for his agency, but also for himself. He must be prepared to handle himself accordingly when deploying his canine partner, and the candidate officer needs to be able to show restraint at times when it seems difficult to do so. The officer must understand that he or she will form a very strong relationship with the dog, as will the officer’s entire family, and there is the distinct and very real possibility that they may have to face the day when the dog could lose its life in the line of duty. The officer’s family has to come to an understanding from the outset.

Decoy experience

Much of this information and preparation some officers have already accomplished by volunteering to assist their present K-9 handlers in the various training profiles.

When searching for a good dog handler, one of the first places I look is to those officers who have put the time and effort into working as a decoy for the unit. The decoy, also referred to as an agitator or quarry, is just as important as the dog handler in the training of any service dog. A good decoy is hard to find. When you do find a good decoy, you have found someone who understands canine behavior language, knows how to manipulate drives in the dog, and knows the many idiosyncrasies of working a dog. It is my opinion that the best handlers on the street are those who have had extensive work studying the art of canine behavior and working many dogs as a decoy. The more experience you have as a decoy, the more valuable you will be as a handler. In reality, much of the training of any police dog is done by the decoy. The decoy can make or break a dog during its training. I cannot stress enough the value of learning and applying the skills of canine decoy work. By far, it is the most valuable asset that you will ever have when applying for, or accepting a position as a K-9 handler.

Finally, just because you are not yet an active K-9 handler does not mean that you cannot join the various police dog associations that are available. There are many seminars offered through these associations, and the more knowledge you build up prior to applying for the position the better. Attending various courses that are available around the country not only provides you with a vast pool of knowledge from which you will be able to draw on, but will also provide you with various certifications which you can produce to your agency to show that you are taking the steps necessary to become a prime candidate for a K9 position.

About the author

Bob Eden is a 28 year retired police veteran with over 35 years of dog training experience in law enforcement, military and personal protection applications. He is the author of two books, “Dog Training For Law Enforcement” and “K9 Officers Manual”. He developed the “International Police K-9 Conference” programs seen throughout North America, and is a director of the K-9 Academy for Law Enforcement and the Law Enforcement K-9 Center in Canada. Visit his website at

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