K-9 police officers work closely with their dogs to enforce laws and apprehend criminals. With relatively few positions available in the field, an assignment to the canine unit is highly coveted among law enforcement professionals.
K-9 officers can work in local, state, and federal law enforcement, as well as in the military. While many work as police officers, other agencies employing K-9 handlers include the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Popular breeds for public law enforcement include German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Rottweilers, and Doberman Pinschers. Bloodhounds are often used for search and rescue operations and as cadaver-detecting dogs. Beagles are often used for detection of illegal substances and explosives in airport baggage.
K-9 Police Officer Duties & Responsibilities
Duties can vary greatly depending on the specialty of the police department you're in. The job requires the ability to perform the job of a the police officer—but with a trained dog. General duties may include:
- Responding to calls for police, including emergencies
- Patrolling assigned areas with a trained dog
- Issuing citations and making arrests
- Inspecting crime scenes and finding and securing evidence
- Writing and filing reports
- Testifying in court as needed
- Training and handling a K-9 dog
A K-9 handler can use their dog to enforce public order while on patrol. A primary role for police dogs is pursuing and apprehending suspects that attempt to escape from officers. Dogs tend to be trained for one specialty skill such as identifying narcotics or smuggled goods, performing search and rescue operations, detecting accelerants at arson scenes, or locating human remains.
The dog is a proven deterrent to criminals who might otherwise try to confront the officer. The handler must be responsible for maintaining complete control of the dog at all times, as this is a source of potential liability.
K-9 Police Officer Salary
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not separate out canine officer earnings in its police salary data, it does provide comprehensive information on police officer earnings:
- Median Annual Salary: $63,380
- Top 10% Annual Salary: $106,090
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $36,550
Education, Training, & Certification
- Education: To apply for a position as a police officer, a candidate generally must have at least a high school degree or equivalent, but employers often prefer a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
- Police training: Once accepted for training, they must successfully complete a 12- to 14-week police academy course. A new officer must usually acquire two to three years of basic patrol experience before being eligible to apply for any available openings in the K-9 unit.
- K-9 training: Once an officer is assigned a dog there is an intensive training process where the pair completes agility and obedience work, search training, tracking and scouting exercises, bite work, protection exercises, simulated suspect apprehension scenarios, and tactical deployment exercises. The officer will also complete coursework on canine behavior and first aid techniques.
Police dogs begin their training at approximately one to two years of age. Temperament tests are an initial qualifying factor, as dogs must be able to adapt to various environments and rapidly changing situations. Dogs should also show some defense drive and a good instinct to chase prey. They should also be able to pass a comprehensive physical exam by a veterinarian to ensure that they do not exhibit any faults common to the breed (for example, hip dysplasia in German Shepherds)
K-9 Police Officer Skills & Competencies
To be successful in this role, you’ll generally need the following skills and qualities:
- Interpersonal skills: Public demonstrations are an important part of the K-9 unit’s activities, as such displays increase interest and support from the community and local media. Officers may visit schools, community groups, and other organizations to showcase their canine partner’s contribution to public safety.
- Mental and physical stamina: Officers and their K-9 companions must be alert throughout their shifts and often must be on their feet for long periods of time.
- Perceptiveness: K-9 officers must be able to pick up on telling signals and behaviors from their canine counterparts, as well as those of suspects.
- Communication skills: An important part of the job is not only communicating with citizens and other officers, but also with the dog that you're partnering with.
- Respect for animals: You must show respect and compassion toward your K-9 counterpart—after all, they are your coworker and partner.
The BLS projects that employment for police officers in general will grow 7 percent through 2026, which is the same as the projected overall employment growth for all occupations in the country. Competition for jobs working with canine units is expected to continue to be very strong, as only a limited number of opportunities are available in this specialty area.
K-9 officers may be involved with the patrolling of airports, harbors, and borders. They may also use their dogs to complete searches when necessary in prisons, schools, or vehicles.
As with any job in law enforcement, the work can be physically demanding, dangerous, and stress inducing.
K-9 partners frequently work nights and weekends, and they have to be ready to respond to emergency situations with little or no notice. Paid overtime is common.
The handler is responsible for the dog at all times, as the dog lives with the officer and their family during off hours.
Comparing Similar Jobs
People who are interested in becoming [job name] may also consider other careers with these median salaries:
- Correctional officer or bailiff: $44,400
- Private detectives or investigator: $50,090
- Fire inspector: $60,200
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Get the Job
Belonging to an organization that's dedicated to canine police dogs and participating in their training and certification programs may give you an advantage over other candidates. Such organizations include:
The U.S. Police Canine Association (USPCA)
The National Narcotic Detector Dog Association (NNDDA)
The North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA)
The National Police Canine Association (NPCA)