How to Become a Police Dog Handler: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a police dog handler. Research the job duties and the education and training requirements, and find out how to start a career in police dog handling.

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Do I Want to Be a Police Dog Handler?

Police dog handlers are members of specialized units in law enforcement that work with canine counterparts to accomplish tasks such as apprehending criminals and detecting explosives, contraband and drugs. Because police dogs almost always live with their handlers, only officers who genuinely love animals and have a high interest in working as canine team members would thrive in this position.

Regular training is common for police dog handlers and their canine partners; police dog handlers are issued specialized training and practice tools like a bite suit. Police work can be physically and mentally stressful; this occupation also has a higher-than-average rate of on-the-job injury. Police dog handlers can expect shift work, including holidays. They can also expect to be offered or assigned overtime.

Job Requirements

Education and experience requirements can vary by law enforcement agency. The table below outlines the requirements to become a police dog handler:

Common Requirements
Degree Level High school diploma, but associate's or bachelor's degree required by some departments*
Degree Fields Law enforcement or criminal justice*
Experience Law enforcement experience as well as experience working with animals**
Key Skills Ability to multi-task, good communication skills, judgment and leadership skills*
Technical Skills Training in specialized equipment for K-9 handlers**
Additional Requirements Physical strength and stamina*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; **Montebello Police Department K-9 Services Division.

Step 1: Finish High School

For many local and state law enforcement positions, only a high school education is required. In high school, students may want to focus on personal fitness through physical education classes and joining a sports team. Students may also want to consider taking foreign language classes in German. Police dogs are often obtained from Germany and their commands may be given in their native language.

Step 2: Earn a College Degree

Some local and state law enforcement agencies require that their officers possess some college education, while all federal agencies require a bachelor's degree. Colleges and universities offer associate's and bachelor's degrees in relevant majors, such as criminal justice, criminology, law enforcement and administration of justice. Some federal agencies may have specific major requirements or require a certain amount of work experience in addition to a bachelor's degree.

Step 3: Undergo Law Enforcement Training

Prior to working in any officer position, local and state recruits must attend a police academy for basic training, which usually takes a few months. Recruits are given classroom education, as well as hands-on training in firearms usage and first aid response. Federal agents must also undergo a training period, which involves a longer process than for their local and state counterparts and varies according to agency.

Step 4: Apply to Your Department's K-9 Division

Police dog handlers are usually expected to have a few years of experience working as a police officer or federal agent before being qualified to work in the canine unit of their department or agency. Applicants for a police dog handler position may have to complete oral and performance tests as part of the application process. Once testing is completed, the final selection process is usually based on evaluation of an officer's overall job experience, interest and performance history.

Step 5: Participate in Canine Training

Once selected, police dog handlers participate in a formal training period with the dog to which they are assigned, as well as with other dog-handler teams. This training may include search, detection and tracking activities. After the formal training is over, handlers usually continue ongoing training with their dogs on a regular basis to maintain skills and learn new procedures.

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