Detection Dog Handler Job Overview
Detection dog handlers are tasked with supervising dogs that perform detection duties related to drugs, explosives, or other substances. These specially trained dogs sniff out contraband in many locations.
Highly Trained Canines
Detection dog handlers work with their canine partners to detect a specific substance that the dog is trained to identify. Many detection dog teams search for drugs, explosives, or traces of bomb-making components (such as fertilizer). Detection teams may also be involved with searching for blood residue, agricultural items, firearms, and currency.
During their daily routine, detection dog handlers and their canines may search cargo shipments, luggage, and passenger carry-on bags at airports, ports, and train stations. They are most frequently employed at airports, border crossings, and ports.
A handler must be familiar with each behavioral signal their dog may offer, and they are responsible for initiating a search if a dog signals that it has found contraband. Handlers must write up detailed reports on each case where their dog detects a prohibited substance and turn this documentation over to the appropriate officials.
Handlers are also responsible for providing all basic care for their dogs including tasks such as providing food and water, grooming, bathing, and taking the dog out for bathroom breaks throughout the day. They also participate in regular training exercises to keep the dog sharp and to monitor its effectiveness in detecting planted samples.
There are many different areas in which detection dog handlers may specialize: drugs, explosives, and a wide variety of other substances require specialized teams for control purposes. A team usually searches for one specific substance (i.e., dogs sniffing for explosives will not also search for illegal agricultural products).
Detection teams are used at the federal, state, and local levels. Federal level inspection careers include the TSA’s National Detection Canine Team Program. The military also offers employment in this field through the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program, overseen by the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force reports that there are currently over 1300 working dog teams worldwide, with 300 new teams trained per year. There are also opportunities for drug detection or explosive detection as a part of state and local police forces.
Education and Training
There are many pathways to a detection dog handling career. Most handlers have a background in law enforcement, customs inspection, agriculture, animal science, or a related field, though requirements can vary from one agency to the next. A background as a K-9 police officer, animal health inspector, or wildlife inspector could be an extra plus for a candidate shifting to this career path.
Above all else, a solid working knowledge of canine behavior is the most important factor that leads to success in this field. The handler’s relationship with the canine is significant; good communication between handler and dog results in increased levels of detection accuracy.
In the U.S. Department of Agriculture, candidates must begin as entry-level customs officers or inspectors (GS-7 pay grade) and gain experience in the field of inspection before they are allowed to apply for canine positions. Once they advance to the GS-12 pay grade ($60,274 to $78,355), they are eligible to be trained for dog handling positions.
TSA Explosive Teams
Explosives dog handling pairs in the TSA program go through an eleven-week training program at Lakland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. After completion of the course, the dog and handler pairs spend another 30 days at their assigned location so that they can become familiar with the area where they will be working.
During this period, they complete many training scenarios, work on desensitizing the dog to normal noises at the facility, and seek to challenge the dog by decreasing the sample size they are tasked with detecting in practice runs. There is an annual re-certification program for TSA explosive detection dog teams.
The National Narcotic Detector Dog Association (NNDDA) is a professional group that offers annual detection dog certification courses to law enforcement professionals, government officers (at federal, state, or local levels), and private investigators.
According to the government website USAJOBS.gov, explosive detection dog handlers earn from $47,000 to $98,500 at major U.S. airports. Handlers with the USDA begin at a pay grade of GS-12 (salary range of $60,274 to $78,355). Indeed.com cited average salaries starting in the $20 range for explosive detection dog handlers in 2019.
More than 700 explosive detection dog teams are working at major airports today, and thousands of additional dogs are being used in drug detection and as a part of military operations. The demand for detection dog handlers should continue to be strong over the next decade.