K-9 care and handler compensation

Ed. Note: This article, which presents guidelines to help agencies and handlers define specific rules for handler compensation, first appeared in the pages of Police K-9 magazine. It is reprinted by permission of the publisher and presented in partnership with our friends at Police K-9 in an ongoing effort to provide handlers and non-handlers with the best information available on issues that affect any department that has, or is considering getting, K-9 capabilities. We wish to thank the good folks at Police K-9 for this article and those they will provide in the future.

By Bill Lewis, Special contributor to Police1

How does one establish what is a reasonable amount of off-duty time to care for a police service dog and determine justifiable compensation? It probably won’t surprise anyone associated with law enforcement to learn that differing opinions exist concerning the proper and reasonable method of compensating K-9 handlers for off-duty care and maintenance of their police service dogs. I currently am consulting on two California cases involving handlers’ compensation. Those cases have given me the opportunity to research the matter and form various opinions and recommendations, as discussed in this article.

This article presents guidelines to help agencies and handlers define specific rules for handler compensation. A copy of the chart created by Sgt. Lewis to document off-duty K-9 care and maintenance will be forwarded via email without charge by sending a written request to SgtBLewis2@aol.com.

Defining Care and Maintenance
No case law, generic template, or magic formula exists for defining off-duty care and maintenance compensation that will universally apply to every agency with a police K-9 program. Compensation should be based on justification.

Each agency should determine the specific activities that will be required of the K-9 handler for on-duty and off-duty care and maintenance and specify those activities in a written policy or operations manual. The agency should then confirm that each K-9 handler has read and understands the applicable policies and procedures and can provide the necessary care and maintenance.

According to the Department of Labor, bathing, brushing, exercising, feeding, grooming, cleaning of the dog’s kennel or transport vehicle, administering medicine for illness, transporting the dog to and from an animal hospital or veterinarian, and training the dog at home are all compensable activities.

Off-duty care and maintenance activities identified by an agency and those activities identified by the Department of Labor as compensable may be different and should not be considered synonymous for the purpose of differentiating off-duty and on-duty activities. The Department of Labor does not specify which activities are to be conducted on duty or off duty; it only specifies which activities are compensable.

Each agency must determine which activities will be performed on or off duty and what the appropriate compensation will be. For example, an agency may decide that training is a compensable activity that will be performed only while on duty or during authorized overtime.

The care and maintenance of a police service dog by a new K-9 handler should not be presumed. The activities that constitute proper care for the police service dog should be identified, presented, and demonstrated (if necessary) to the new handler by a qualified police service dog trainer and K-9 supervisor during the basic training school or during the bonding period prior to basic training. It is the responsibility of the handler and the supervisor to understand exactly what type of care and maintenance is required, as well as a realistic estimated timeframe for performing those activities.

Know Your Policy and MOU
If you are a K-9 handler or are contemplating a future in K-9 operations, you should know everything that is required of a handler and what is compensated. Most handler candidates know and can discuss the Graham v. Connor deployment criteria and their department’s various K-9-related policies and procedures during a selection process. However, some handler candidates and a few current handlers are not fully aware of the specific poli-cies as they relate to required care and maintenance of the dog and applicable compensation. “I don’t know exactly what is expected of me,” is not an acceptable explanation from a handler.

If you are being compensated for 4 hours per week to care for your dog off duty per your agency policy and you are voluntarily spending an average of 8 hours per week without proper authorization or specific supervisory direction, you assume the additional time as your own. It is not a right-or-wrong situation to provide additional care for your dog beyond what is required, but an agency should not be held liable for the time that a handler exceeds the reasonable care and maintenance-time requirements previously deter-mined and agreed upon.

Compensation for K-9 handlers should be specified within an agency policy, Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), or similar employer–employee contract.

Who determines the amount of time that is reasonable or necessary for off-duty care and maintenance? The best method is a collaborative effort that is ongoing and involves all of the parties associated with a given agency, including the handlers, supervisors, and trainers. If necessary, your agency may consider consulting with an outside neutral source and involving that person in your collaboration efforts.

Each police service dog is different and needs different care and maintenance. Each agency has different specifications for care and maintenance. Some dogs will require an average of 3 hours per week for care whereas other dogs may require 5 hours. One dog may require 4 hours one week but only 3 hours the next week. An agency should determine how many hours are reasonable or necessary based on its own experience. The agency also should consider information obtained from other handlers and outside agencies and should regularly audit and evaluate its own experience to stay current.

It is imperative that supervisors and administrators know how much time is reasonably required for care and maintenance and what types of activities are expected. Initially, it can be difficult for a supervisor or administrator who has not handled a police service dog to understand the care and maintenance activities unless he or she actually experiences or oversees some care activities with one or more of their handlers. “I have a pet dog at home” is not the same as having a police service dog at home, but care issues could be similar in some circumstances.

Only 60 minutes of care per week was ruled unreasonable in Leever v. Carson City, 360 F.3d 1014 (2004) by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. The opined industry standard of 30 minutes per day for care and maintenance of police service dogs without specificity as to whether the care is given on duty or off duty has been associated with one court case, Levering v. District of Columbia, 869 F. Supp. 24 (1994) from the U.S. District Court, District of Columbia. The specific facts and circumstances of that particular case may not be relevant to your agency and your care. However, that general time standard is a good baseline to begin any negotiation for improvement in your compensation. Many agencies are using 3.5 hours per week for their compensation agreements.

Once you and your agency have determined and agreed to the compensable hours and respective care and maintenance activities, it is recommended that your agency attorneys and the employee bargaining unit attorneys review and assist in formalizing an agreement or policy.

Justification for Compensation
What should you do when you believe you are being compensated inadequately? The best and most effective way to justify any increase in off-duty care and maintenance compensation is to do the research and document your findings. If you believe you are spending more time caring for your dog than you are being compensated for, you need to document and present your time.

Establish a simple chart to track and document your off-duty time for a minimum of three consecutive months. On the chart, list the activities required by your agency for off-duty care and maintenance and document the time you spend including, but not limited to, feeding and watering, kennel cleaning, grooming, bathing, exercising, vehicle cleaning, and administration of medicines. When your chart is completed, average the number of hours per week (or pay period) that you provide off-duty care and maintenance based on the number of days actual care is provided, considering any time the dog is kenneled or not under your direct care.

Log the times on your chart daily and be as accurate as possible. Do not rely on estimates based on memory from activities performed a few weeks ago, and do not assume that it takes the same amount of time each day to do the same activity. You may be surprised to learn that your actual times are greater or less than you would have estimated. It goes without saying that you should not enhance or unnecessarily extend your times for the benefit of your cause.

If you are spending your own money on your dog and not being reimbursed, or if you are allocated a lesser amount of money than you spend for care and upkeep, you need to provide documentation and receipts that justify your expenses as necessary and reasonable.

If you are doing research to justify an increase to your compensation proposal, it is recommended that you contact other agencies in neigh-boring jurisdictions to determine their compensation in order to provide comparisons if needed.

Straight v. Overtime
Some law-enforcement personnel believe that all off-duty time spent for care and maintenance is required to be paid as overtime if those activities are conducted outside the regularly scheduled workweek. That is true unless a previous agreement exists to compensate handlers with a fixed rate of pay or other alternative compensation. A lower rate of pay can be established strictly for care and maintenance, and unless a fixed, designated amount of time has been established, that time can be claimed as overtime.

Some agencies allot straight-time compensation for their handlers per week or pay period as additional pay, accumulated (comp) time, or schedule flexibility. Some agencies pay the designated compensation as overtime. However, the exact hours will vary as much as the methods of compensation.

I believe the biggest challenge in compensation matters is a lack of communication between the involved parties. As previously mentioned, if you are spending time in excess of your compensation agreement to care for your dog, you do so at your own risk and liability, regardless of your good intentions. However, if you believe that your extra time is reasonable and justified, strive to open the lines of communication with your supervisors and administrators and pursue appropriate compensation based on your research and documentation.

Litigation over compensation issues should be a last resort, because it is not a mutually beneficial process for the parties involved. Litigation can create division of loyalties and, in some cases, has led to the elimination of productive and successful police K-9 pro-grams. Litigation usually can be avoided if open lines of communication exist and reasonable parties are involved in the process.

If you are a K-9 handler who wants to determine whether or not you are being compensated fairly, or if you are a K-9 supervisor or administrator who wants to confirm whether or not you are providing reasonable compensation for your handlers, hopefully some of the information and recommendations presented in this article will assist you.


Note: A copy of the chart created by Sgt. Lewis to document off-duty K-9 care and maintenance will be forwarded via email without charge by sending a written request to SgtBLewis2@aol.com .


Sergeant Bill Lewis II (retired) has more than 30 years of law-enforcement and instructor experience. He retired in December 2005 from the Oxnard (CA) Police Department and continues to train with and instruct SWAT personnel and K-9 teams. He is a regional representative for the California Association of Tactical Officers (CATO).


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