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What you should know before accepting a K9 handler position

Congratulations, you are interested in becoming a K9 handler. It is always good to hear the various reasons a person wants to become a handler. I have listened to many; “I just love dogs,” “I think it would be cool to work with a dog all day,” “I love working dope, and a dog will help me find more,” or “I need to do something to get off patrol.” I know there are many other reasons a person is attracted to becoming a K9 handler. Whatever your motivation, who am I to judge? However, I feel it is important that a person understands what they are “REALLY” getting into before deciding to take on this position.

As a K9 handler, you can expect that your life will change drastically once you accept this position. Go ahead and assume this assignment is like no other in law enforcement, and it will not just be you playing with a dog all day. It is actual work that will require your total commitment, and if you have a family, theirs too. Two main expectations exist to drive home to any new K9 handler: First, your free time is no longer your free time. Second, demands are high. Everything else I will bring to light for you will fall under these two expectations.

YOUR FREE TIME IS NO LONGER YOUR FREE TIME

Once you start working with dogs, your free time is no longer yours. You can now expect that you will be taking care of your dog full-time. Unfortunately, your dog will not care if you get sick, don’t feel like it, or are tired. Your free time will now be consumed with feeding your dog, grooming your dog, conducting kennel maintenance, letting your dog out to use the bathroom (this may even require you to walk them, depending on your living situation), and you will even have to spend time picking up after your dog. This is just a short list of things to be done routinely or even twice a day. However, this short list does not include your monthly medication administration, veterinary visits, or even caring for your dog if they get sick or injured. All this adds up to less free time for you. Expected family time will decrease, and work time will increase. You will make a commitment to your job like no other.

So, before committing to this position, understand that you will spend more time with your dog than with your family. This is not a piece of equipment you can hang up after your shift is over or a patrol car that you park in the driveway and not mess with it until your duty time resumes next. You’ll have to work your normal duty time and take care of your dog before and after each shift. As you read this, you come to realize that this is a customary task…including your off days. On top of this, you are going to have to add training time and record-keeping time. A holistic view of this is my next takeaway.

DEMANDS ARE HIGH

Still thinking it will be a walk in the park? Demands are high for K9 handlers of today. Not only are there more established requirements today than there ever have been for K9 teams, but there is an expectation for today’s law enforcement (including K9) that places us in the public eye more than we ever have been. These demands will also be placed on you as a handler. Training, paperwork, availability, and, yes, being on-call. All of this results in demanding more of YOU.

Factor in an average minimum of 4 hours per week of training…But who really does that? Most handlers I know put in a lot more training hours than that. Add the necessary documentation for all the training. We say an hour of training will equal 15 to 20 minutes of paperwork. Have you ever thought of being called out or having to work overtime on your shift? Remember that K9 handlers respond to even more critical incidents and are involved in more labor-intensive cases than most other officers. This is going to require more paperwork and longer shifts. I always advise departments to select highly motivated handlers for this purpose alone. Getting a dog alone is not going to help an officer get motivated. If anything, it will give the non-motivated officer an excuse to do less due to the necessity of paperwork and training alone. Adding hours of paperwork between training and deployments is a huge killer for most. Make sure that this is right for you. I didn’t mention this in the first expectation section, but most training and documentation hours will likely be conducted on your off days.

The last point I will make before sending you off to accept your next K9 position…or not, is just the level of commitment K9 handlers must have. This commitment will seem to place the dog as the topmost priority. It is definitely a commitment that is like no other in law enforcement. Sorry to put it like this, but it is a matter of fact. You cannot go off for the weekend or plan things because of work schedules, training, and court, and factor this with the pressure that if you leave, what dog team will cover your rotation? What are you going to do with the dog if you decide to take a break? Also, if you take a break, you must catch up on training hours when you return. I would often think, is it worth taking a break with all the catch-up I will have to play when I return? Everything in your life will seem to revolve around the dog.

CONCLUSION

I am not trying to scare anyone from taking this very rewarding career path. This path has ultimately fed my family for over 17 years. Despite any of these points, I would not have given up the experience of working two patrol dogs in my career for anything. Hands down, the best experience I have had in law enforcement was working my dogs. The rewards outweighed the cons, but I also understand that these changes do not work for everyone hoping to work a dog for an agency. I am blessed to have a family that supports this commitment. Although working with a dog is cool, people often don’t know what they are getting into as a handler. I see more people waste time taking the position without really knowing what it is all about. I am not saying this ends badly all the time, but thinking about what is best for each dog, each department, and each person is best. Just because it seems incredible doesn’t mean it is suitable for everyone. Realizing this is not for everyone before starting training or bonding with a new dog is the right path.

I now ask all the handlers out there: Are there any other things you wish you had known before you accepted your K9 position? Please share them in the comments section below.

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