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6 steps to becoming a correctional K-9 handler

So you wanna work with the big dogs? Here’s some valuable advice on how to learn more about K-9s and integrate yourself into the program so you can become a handler


K-9 Inspector Freddie Long works with the dog Razor as he searches for cell phones hidden in a box during a demonstration at the Broward Correctional Institution in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

The position of K-9 handler is a valuable and sought after position in corrections. Because of the competitive nature of the position and the limited availability, securing a position as a handler can be difficult. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of those interested to prepare themselves well before the position comes available.

Ultimately, the goal of prospective candidates is to equip themselves with as much knowledge and information about working with police K-9s as possible in order to prove themselves as worthy and credible employees as well.

Do Your Homework

There’s a great deal of information available from a number of resources with regard to working with police dogs, their temperaments, drives and training considerations. Something as simple as understanding the breed specifics and characteristics of dogs used by your department can be an edge during an interview, particularly if there are handlers or former handlers serving on the interview panel.

Here are some resources to start with:

Aside from knowing the basic terminology and general information associated with K-9s, it’s extremely important for the candidate to be well-versed on the policies and procedures of the K-9 program specific to their department or agency. This information may include how the dogs are used within the department, as well as handler expectations in regard to shifts, scheduling, housing requirements and handler physical standards.

Become Involved

A person with a genuine interest in joining the K-9 program will seek out opportunities to become involved with department K-9s. This may include asking current handlers questions to gain additional knowledge and volunteering to serve as a decoy. With this said, the value that decoys bring to training with departments utilizing dual-purpose dogs (dogs trained for protection and scent work) cannot be emphasized enough. Taking the time to learn and understand the basics of dog behavior and decoy techniques can shorten the learning curve of a new training decoy.

Most departments have an ongoing relationship with police canine associations utilized for training and or certifications. Some of the organizations do not require their members to be K-9 handlers, allowing others working within public safety to join and become active within the organization. A membership with a police canine organization often affords opportunities to attend training and meetings, and to serve as a volunteer for certifications and events. The importance of the knowledge and value gained from observing dogs and handlers working and training cannot be underscored enough. This exposure is extremely valuable for current handlers, as well as those looking to become handlers.

Establish a Solid Reputation

There is an expectation for those working within corrections and public safety to demonstrate the highest level of character and integrity. This is even more important for the prospective K-9 handler. Considerations should be made with regard to a candidate’s attendance, disciplinary history, use of force incidents, and overall demonstrated responsibility. When assigned a dog, an individual assumes a great amount of responsibility.

First of all, the dog is a tool that belongs to the department. It’s often a valuable tool, as costs can range from $2,000 to $20,000, not counting the investment made in equipment and training of both the dog and the handler. The steps made to acquire a dog can be extensive, especially in the era of overstretched budgets.

Secondly, the dog is a living creature and it should be treated with the respect and consideration as such. The responsibility that comes with caring for a dog seems basic to most, but preventable incidents involving injuries and deaths of working police canines are all too common. K-9s often spend a great deal of time training or working in adverse weather conditions and it’s vital that handlers exercise sound judgment and decision making. If there’s any question surrounding the responsibility of a handler, they should be discounted as a viable handler candidate.

Finally, those interested in becoming a canine handler should have a demonstrated history of sound judgment with regard to the use of force and other tactical decision. For those department’s that utilize dual purpose dogs, a handler is equipped daily with a use of force option at all times. Like any other weapon, it should be deployed only when needed and with an articulable reason. Misuse of a K-9, particularly in use of force situations, can be a setback for a department’s K-9 program from which it may never recover. Departments utilizing single-purpose dogs (scent work only) still have a need for K-9 teams who exercise appropriate discretion with regard to searches and seizures, especially when non-offender entities are involved, such as visitors, staff or other members of the public.

Demonstrate a Great Attitude

As mentioned above, the dog is a living creature and should be treated as such. A handler’s attitude should be included when evaluating his or her ability to responsibly care of the dog. Those individuals who have a tendency to exhibit episodes of uncontrollable anger may not be best suited for a handler position. Even though a handler may not act out physically, an easily angered or frustrated individual can cause a training breakdown for the animal. So much about being an effective handler is related to patience, problem solving and a constant desire to learn.

A handler’s attitude is often reflective of their K-9 program and their department. Handlers are frequently asked to participate in demonstrations for schools or other civic organizations where they must be personable, inviting and willing to teach. Those wishing to become active as handlers should demonstrate many of those same qualities as they fulfill their duties on a daily basis.

Be Proactive

K-9 teams within correctional institutions are often tasked with actively pursuing investigations with regard to narcotics interdiction as well as other contraband trafficking. Frequently, because of their ability to move throughout facilities, K-9 handlers become active in the handling of many other types of investigations outside of their normal scope. Because of this possibility, handler candidates should establish themselves as self-starters with a solid work ethic who can work with minimal supervision. They should be willing and able to seek out, identify and take action on those things that present a security threat and to put to best use the valuable tool that they have been assigned.

Make Your Own Luck

Unfortunately, much of becoming a K-9 handler is associated with being in the right place at the right time.

As mentioned earlier, handler positions are few and far between and extremely sought after when they become available. For this reason, it is even more important that officers establish themselves as competitive candidates well before a position becomes available.

There is a quote that says, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” This is especially relevant for those who have a dream of becoming a K-9 handler. Work hard, educate yourself, and exhibit each day those qualities desired in effective K-9 handlers.

You will then be prepared to seize the opportunity when the position presents itself. Best of luck.

Rusty began his career in 1997 working as a correctional officer at a men’s medium security prison. While working in the prison, he also served as K-9 sergeant, lieutenant and captain. He was a member of the Correctional Emergency Response Team for 15 years and held law enforcement instructor certifications in defensive tactics, chemical agents and firearms. In 2013 he became a full-time academy instructor where he instructed courses in several topics within the field of corrections and law enforcement. In 2019 he moved to his current position where he serves as a Department of Public Safety Bureau Chief. Rusty received his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Bellevue University and completed graduate work at Fort Hayes State University. Rusty can be contacted by email.