Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

Becoming a K-9 officer is a desirable career opportunity among law enforcement professionals. These police officers work closely with their canine partners to enforce the law and apprehend criminals and implement a series of other tasks at the local, state or federal level.

In order to become a K-9 officer you need experience as a police officer, appropriate education, and special training on how to work and treat the dog that will be assigned as your partner. In our guide below, you can find detailed information about the duties and requirements associated with the job as well as some useful facts about the salary, training and what breed of dogs you can expect to work with.

What Is a K-9 Unit and what does working there involve?

Police K-9A K-9 unit is a specialized group of law enforcement officers who use service dogs to perform the responsibilities of a general police officer. In addition to their usual duties, each K-9 officer is also a dog handler, meaning that they have to train and care for their canine partner. The responsibilities of a K-9 officer does not end with his shift. The dog is the police officer’s partner not only at work but also at home. The K-9 handler and their family should be prepared to take care of the canine, which includes to welcome him at their house, ensure he receives proper training, take care of his health and make sure the dog is provided for when the family goes on a vacation. In other words, the K-9 officer takes full responsibility to provide his canine partner with the opportunity to live long and healthy life.

The duties that a K-9 officer and his dog partner perform can be basically divided into two groups:

  • General police officer duties

The general duties mean that the dog accompanies his handler on traffic stops or when responding to calls or emergencies. The canine assists in apprehending suspects and in all other public engagements related to law enforcement.

  • Specialized tasks

The K-9 unit is also responsible for carrying out more specific jobs, where the leading role is performed by the police dog. Those tasks include: detecting illegal substances, chemicals or explosives; identify individuals who were in contact with such illicit substances; track and rescue kidnapped or missing persons; locate buried or submerged bodies or human parts.

In all cases the police officer and the dog need to work in perfect coordination. Therefore, continuous training is also an important part of the life in the K-9 unit.

13 steps to become a K-9 police officer

If you want to become a K-9 police officer you have to be prepared for a lengthy process of selection and hard work. It is also worth mentioning that having an associate’s or bachelor’s degree may be a point towards your career. Here is a list of the 13 steps you need to complete if you want to become a K-9 police officer according to the K-9 Unit Around the World video. You need to:

  1. Have the necessary education or experience to become a police officer.
  2. Apply for an open police officer or law enforcement position.
  3. Undergo a background investigation and be fingerprinted.
  4. Take and pass a polygraph test.
  5. Take and pass a series of physical fitness tests.
  6. Take and pass a medical exam.
  7. Be interviewed.
  8. Be hired as a police officer.
  9. Gain experience as a police officer. Usually at least one or two years.
  10. Apply for an open K-9 officer position.
  11. Be interviewed for the position.
  12. Begin working as a K-9 officer.
  13. Receive training on the job.

None of these steps are easy to pass and you have to be really well prepared and motivated if you want to pursue your dream job as a K-9 officer. One of the requirements is to be hired as a police officer. In order to achieve that, you need to pass the police written exam. There are many tips how to prepare so that you can be successful. Make sure to invest sufficient time in this, as it is one of the important requirements.

What does the K-9 Officer’s Training include?

As a general rule, officers working in the K-9 department already have several years of experience working as police officers. Since the person needs to be able to interact with the dog, previous experience with handling animals is a plus. Nevertheless, all K-9 officers need to undergo special training in order to know how to best handle their canine partners. The main elements that a police officer needs to learn in order to be a good dog handler are dog obedience, safety, crowd control, tracking as well as how to care for their canine partner. The intensive training process also includes practical exercises for both the handler and the dog such as simulated suspect apprehension scenarios, tactical deployment exercises, bite and protection exercises, etc. The officer also needs to complete a course on canine behavior and first aid techniques.

It is also important for the K-9 officers to be approachable and personable because they usually receive more attention by people. The policeman should be prepared to handle different situations and interactions.

Certification for successful training as a K-9 officer is received from the United States Police Canine Association.

In order to become a member of the K-9 Unit, each dog also undergoes special training. It begins when the dog is one or a maximum of two years old. In order to qualify for the program, the canine first passes a comprehensive physical check by a veterinarian and a series of temperament tests. An important aspect is that the dog should be able to adapt to different environment and to changing situations without a problem. A good instinct to chase prey and to defend is also a plus.

How much does a K-9 officer make?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide a separate data on how much a police dog handler or a K-9 officer earns. The information in general about police officers is that the median salary was $61,600 in May 2016. Typically, those employed in the K-9 units learn a bit more than the other policemen with the similar rank and experience because of the additional responsibilities they have.

According to the information submitted on Pay Scale the median salary of a K-9 officer is $35,913, while the total pay ranges between $28,383 and $82,851. Another source of information about salary range is Simply Hired which provides figures based on third party submissions to their site. According to the collected data the average salary of a K-9 officer amounts to $62,143 and ranges from $33,044 to $116,868.

You should note that the minimum wage may differ by jurisdiction. It is better to check with the employing agency for the actual salary and possibility for growth. Education and experience also affect the monthly amount a police dog handler receives.

There are three different ways to refer to this profession that you need to look for when browsing the law enforcement job openings:

  • K-9 Handler
  • K-9 Officer
  • Police Canine Handler

What is the most common breed of dogs used in K-9 Unit?

There are several breeds of dogs used in law enforcement to help with different tasks but the most common one used in the K-9 Unit is the German Shepherd. This dog is chosen because of its intelligence, strength and loyalty and great sense of hearing and smell. Other popular breeds are Bloodhound, Belgian Malinois, Doberman Pinscher and Labrador Retriever. The police dog quite often wears a bulletproof vest. In many jurisdictions there are strict penalties imposed on those who harm a canine member of a K-9 unit.

In accordance to the different tasks that a police dog performs, there are different breeds that are considered most suitable. The German Shepherd falls in all of the four categories. Of course, there are many dogs that are trained to perform more than one task. Here are the four main categories of activities a police dog performs:

  • Public order enforcement – this is the traditional image of the police dog, namely to chase and detain suspects or to restrain the suspects from action. These are known as “patrol dogs” or “find and bite dogs”. Popular breeds here are Belgian Malinois, Boxer, Giant Schnautzer, Doberman Pinscher, Labrador Retriever, etc.
  • Illicit substance detection – these dogs are used mainly at airports or other transportation hubs. They are guided by their handlers to sniff travelers or luggage from afar and tell if there are any illegal substances. These are most often drugs and explosives but sometimes even food that is not allowed to be imported or exported. Popular breeds used for the job are Beagle, Basset Hound, English Cocker Spaniel, Collie, Golden Retriever.
  • Tracking – the job of the dog is to sniff the trails of a lost person or object. Australian Shepherd, Bloodhound, German Shorthaired Pointer, Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever are among the breeds of dogs preferred for this task.
  • Cadaver sniffing – these dogs are able to find corpses or human remains due to their sensitive noses. They are able to detect the smell of a decomposing body and direct the police to it, even if the body is under running water. Beside the German Shepherd, there are five more breeds that are used for this task – Beagle, Bloodhound, collie, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, and Labrador Retriever.

The police dog is often sworn as an officer and has its own badge and ID number and quite often wears a bulletproof vest. In many jurisdictions there are strict penalties imposed on those who harm a canine member of a K-9 unit.

Career opportunities for K-9 police officers

As a K-9 officer you have several career paths that you can take and develop further. One of the basic things to consider is that you can work in the law enforcement units in local, state and federal level, as well as in the military. Salary and responsibilities will differ in accordance with the requirements of the agency you work for.

There are also other agencies that employ police dog handlers, such as the Custom and Border Patrol (CBP), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

In addition to that K-9 officers and their dogs may patrol airports, harbors and borders or participate in searches in prisons, schools or other places.

If you are interested in finding a few more details about the job of a K-9 officer you can check out the K-9 Unit Around the World video on How to Become a K9 Officer, Career and Salary Information below: