How to Become a K-9 Officer

K9 image from Dive Officer, CC license
K9 search and rescue

Are you interested in becoming a member of a K-9 unit? Find out what a K-9 officer does as you learn how to become a K-9 Officer, including requirements, training, and salary information.

What Does a K-9 Officer Do?

To become a K-9 Officer, you must first be a police officer. Just like becoming a detective, after several years of dedicated service, you may be eligible for promotion into a specialized unit like the K-9 unit.

Being a K-9 handler is a high commitment, as working with and caring for any living animal would be. The K-9 dog becomes your working partner, and your family. Most often K9 officers and their dogs live together, increasing the bond and trust between the pair, an essential rapport when your life may be on the line.

VIDEO: K-9 Handler

In this video, a K-9 Handler discusses the requirements for becoming a part of a K-9 team, as well as some of the tasks they may peform in the course of their daily duties.

K-9s and Smell

K-9 units help search for hidden suspects, locate the evidence of a crime, and protect people and officers from harm. They also assist in the arrest and apprehension of felons, and detect explosives as well as drugs, including narcotics. How do they do all this? Through smell.

Smell to a dog, is a 3D experience in the world. A dog's sense of smell allows them to pick up on the moods of people and animals around them by the pheromones they emit, tell what someone has eaten recently, determine the general state of health in a person or animal, where you have been, what you were doing by the additional particles on your being, and more.

A dog’s sense of smell is about 1,000 to 10,000,000 times more sensitive than a human’s (depending on the breed). A human has about 5 million scent glands, while a dog has anywhere from 125 million to 300 million (depending on the breed). A dog's brain is only one-tenth the size of a human brain, yet the part that controls smell is 40 times larger than in humans. It's no wonder that a dog is an excellent partner for a police officer.

Have you ever wondered why dogs have wet noses? The moisture on a dog's nose captures scent particles, allowing the particles to linger longer so the dog can interpret the smell, and the story behind it. If a dog's nose is dry, they lick it to aid them in scent.

K-9 Unit Specialties

K-9 Units have several specialties, and some dogs are trained for multipurpose uses, and others have one specialty. The dog's talent and natural ability will determine their job:

  • search and rescue - essential after natural disasters or a terrorist attack, police dogs are vital to finding survivors under trapped under rubble. The faster you find survivors, the higher the chances are for survival.
  • cadaver dogs - find human remains to help locate missing persons and solve cases, bringing closure and peace for families.
  • enforcing public order - dogs aid in crowd control
  • detection dogs - sniff out explosives or illegal drugs and contraband
  • arson dogs - used to pick-up on traces of accelerants

Types of K-9 Officer Dogs

As a K-9 officer, you may have the opportunity to work with many different types of dogs. Each dog breed has its own specialties and each dog has its own strengths and weaknesses. Dog training usually begins when the dog is about one year old.  The following types of dogs are used for K-9 units:

  • German Shepherd
  • Rottweiler
  • Doberman Pincher
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Belgian Malinois

K-9 Officer Requirements

The requirements for becoming a K-9 Officer are the same requirements for becoming a law enforcement officer, plus special handler training. Each agency will have their preference as to where to take your training and where they will send you for handler training.

Because there are fewer K-9 officer jobs than regular officer jobs, the selection process for the K-9 unit is rigorous. Not everyone who applies is accepted. You will likely undergo an oral board evaluation, a physical evaluation and a practical exam. You will be tested on your ability to handle a K-9 and must be able to demonstrate your physical ability to control a K-9. Further, the job also requires endurance to keep up with the K-9 on long searches, and be able to lift your police dog over a 6 foot wall.

Work Experience

Prior dog handling experience in not necessary, although it is helpful. After completing your probationary period in your police dept, you may apply for the K9 Handler training. Once you are trained and certified, you hold that certification and can take it with you wherever you go. Be sure to stay up to date and complete continuing education to stay on top of your certification.

K-9 Officer Training

There are a variety of types of training for K9 officers. The training you receive may be in-house, or you may receive certification through a particular organization. Training is usually conducted by master trainers and assistant trainers. A few of the certifications available include:

K-9 training may include:

  • K9 and handler conditioning
  • K9 grooming and first aid
  • Narcotics detection
  • Prescription drug detection
  • Chemical agent exposure and detection
  • Human remains detection
  • Tactical tracking
  • Tactical movement
  • Tactical applications
  • Patrol and SWAT Tactical tracking
  • Visual Tracking
  • Formations
  • Patrol techniques
  • Defensive Tactics and live-firearms exposure
  • Land navigation
  • Counter-ambush
  • K9 Proximity Alerts
  • Manhunt Field Training Exercises
  • Dynamic and covert building searches with SWAT
  • Trailing scent theory
  • Reading K9 trailing behavior
  • Search and rescue training
  • Rural and urban trailing methods
  • Coverman responsibility
  • Officer safety and trailing
  • Scent crime scene protection
  • Scent evidence processing and preservation
  • Scent evidence courtroom admissibility
  • Use of Force report writing
  • Multi-Force applications
  • Trailing record keeping
  • Trailing testimony
  • Helicopter exposure and deployments
  • Boat and shore water deployments

K-9 Officer Salary Information

These figures could be more or less in your area, however according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics in the year 2010, police officers and detectives made an average of $56,980 per year, which equates to $27.40 per hour.

K-9 Officer Jobs

As stated before, in order to attain a job as a K-9 officer, you must first be a police officer. To find police officer jobs, you may check on state and local government websites to find current job openings and determine the specific requirements for each position.

Other Resources

US Tactical K9 Law Enforcement Academy