K-9 Police Officer Career Profile

Police demonstrates canine (K9) Narcotics
••• Jeff Greenberg/Photolibrary/Getty Images

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 amongst law enforcement professionals.


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 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 his or her family during off hours.

A K-9 officer must be comfortable interacting with members of the public. 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.

Career Options

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).

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.

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.

Education and Training

To apply for a position as a police officer, a candidate generally must first earn a degree in criminal justice. 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.

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).

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.

There are many organizations dedicated to canine police dogs including the U.S. Police Canine Association (USPCA), National Narcotic Detector Dog Association (NNDDA), the North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA), and the National Police Canine Association (NPCA).


While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separate out canine officer earnings in its police salary data, it does provide comprehensive information on police officer earnings. According to the BLS, the median salary for police officers was $56,980 in the recent salary survey conducted in May 2012. The earnings ranged from less than $33,060 for the bottom 10 percent of officers to more than $93,450 for those in the highest 10 percent.

Job Outlook

Job opportunities for police officers are expected to grow a bit slower than the average rate for all occupations, about five percent, from 2012 to 2022.  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.