How to Become a K9 Officer
If you enjoy dogs and want a career where you can help others and the community, you might consider a criminal justice career as a K9 officer. K9 officers and their K9 companions are an important part of a community as well as local law enforcement. Wondering how to become a K9 Officer? Continue reading and get all the information you need about this career, including what you need in education and training.
What is a K9 Officer?
Canine (K9) officers are highly trained law enforcement officers who work with equally highly trained dogs to perform police duties. They perform many of the same duties as a regular police officer plus many more because their K9 dogs allow them to track criminals or identify substances regular police would be unable to do.
K9 dogs may be one of several different breeds, including beagle, Labrador retriever, bloodhound, and Belgian Malinois, but the most common breed is the German shepherd. All these breeds are known for their great trailing, detection, and tracking skills, but the German shepherd is also known for its high intelligence, bravery, and loyalty. K9 officers and their dogs are a valuable part of any law enforcement agency.
Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide specific career information on K9 officers, they do offer information on police officers and detectives in general. Job growth of three percent is predicted for police officers between 2021 and 2031.
Although the potential job growth doesn’t appear to be high for police officers, the high rate of crime has put police officers very much in demand. Because of the unique abilities K9 dogs provide to law enforcement, K9 officers are even more in demand. When K9 dogs were first used by law enforcement, there were only a few across the country.
However, more and more law enforcement agencies are choosing to use K9 dogs today. K-9 teams can be used to search buildings, for officer security or suspect apprehension. These are Patrol K-9 dogs. They may also be a Detection K-9, where they can detect drugs or explosives. They are usually trained in one or the other, but not both.
Requirements for K-9 officers may vary. In Portland, Oregon, K-9 officers must have a minimum of 4.5 years on the police force, pass an extensive background check and an animal handling course, a rigorous timed physical agility course and an oral exam.
K-9 Officer Salary
Police officers and patrol officers earn an average yearly wage of about $70,750 with the wages being as low as $40,190 or as high as $102,530 as of May 2021. Several factors can affect the wages a police officer can earn. These might include years of service, education, law enforcement agency, and location. Police officers with higher degrees often experience higher wages as well.
Reporting agencies typically vary in their wages. Salary.com indicates the average wage for canine handlers in the U.S. was $43,929 as of January 2023, while Payscale states K9 Enforcement Officers earned about $67,000 as of September 2022.
Below are the five states where police officers earned the highest wages in 2021 according to the BLS.
- California – $102,920
- Washington -$92,390
- New Jersey – $91,690
- Alaska – $87,510
- Illinois – $82,800
Becoming a K9 officer and working with a K9 requires not just education and training at the start but continuous training throughout the dog’s life. Because of the work involved and the care required with a K9 dog, K9 officers typically earn a higher wage than an average police officer or deputy. They also get reimbursed for all expenses required for the dog. Whether it’s food, training, veterinary bills, or certifications, the law enforcement agency covers all the expenses.
How to Become a K9 Officer
Before an individual can become a K9 officer, he or she must first become a police officer. A police officer is one of the few occupations that can be obtained with just a high school diploma and some police academy training.
However, most police officers have an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or law enforcement. Associate degree programs can be found at both community colleges, and the bachelor’s degree programs typically offer the bachelor’s degree programs.
Once the individual earns the degree, he or she must complete a training program offered by a police academy. Candidates for a police training academy must also satisfy other requirements prior to entry into the program.
- Must not have a drug or felony conviction
- Must be at least 21 years old
- Must be a U.S. citizen
- Must meet both personal and physical qualifications
- Must be of good moral character
Applicants must also pass a drug test, complete several interviews, and possibly pass a lie detector test. If an individual is not yet 21 years old, he or she can work in entry-level positions in a law enforcement agency through the agency’s cadet program. Once the cadet turns 21, he or she can apply for a position as a police officer.
As a police academy student, the individual will complete classroom instruction on topics like civil rights, police ethics constitutional law, and local and state laws. They also receive training on:
- First aid
- Traffic control
- Emergency response
- Firearm use
When the candidate successfully completes the police academy training, he or she must complete an internship in a law enforcement agency to obtain hands-on training in a supervised environment. They must also pass a written exam.
If a police officer wants to become a K9 officer, the officer must have at least one or two years of experience working as a regular police officer and must apply to the K9 training program. The officer will go to the dog’s location to train with the dog. This training can take anywhere from two to six months.
K-9 Dog Training
The dog will have some training already but will need additional training in areas of drug detection, tracking, search and rescue, and bomb detection, among others. The specific training the dog receives often depends on what capacity the dog and handler will be working. The two to six-month training is also used as an opportunity for the dog and the officer to get acquainted and develop a bond.
To be successful on the job, the officer and K9 dog must have a very good relationship. The initial training the dog receives is not the only training the animal will have. They are almost always in some sort of training. The officer and dog will both have to become certified as part of the K9 division.
In addition to the actual degree and certification, the K9 officer must possess these skills as well.
- Good judgment – K9 officers and regular officers must assess situations and know the best way to solve problems.
- Communication skills – Police officers are required to speak with not only co-workers but the public as well, so they must have good communication skills.
- Leadership skills – The public often looks up to law enforcement, so police officers should be at ease while still showing good leadership.
- Physical strength and stamina – Police officers must have the strength and stamina needed to apprehend criminals as well as lift heavy items if necessary.
- Empathy – Police officers often encounter difficult and heart-wrenching situations, which require a great deal of empathy.
- Good perception – Police offers must be able to look at a situation or suspect and determine what may have happened, why it may have happened, and by who.
Day in the Life of a K9 Officer
A day in the life of a K9 officer is like that of a regular police officer but with additional requirements due to being the K9 handler. To develop and maintain the relationship between the dog and the handler, the dog will live at the handler’s home. However, the dog must not become the “family pet”.
The dog must always know his working requirements. Throughout the K9 officer’s shift, he or she may respond to both non-emergency and emergency calls to the law enforcement agency. Other duties the police officer may perform include:
- Gather, collect, process, and store evidence
- Interview witnesses and suspects
- Analyze and inspect crime scenes
- Testify in court cases
- Patrol areas where crime is prevalent
- Conduct searches
- Arrest and cite individuals
- File reports
- Observe the activities of suspects
- Prepare cases for court hearings
In addition to working a full shift as a police officer, the K9 officer may also be called in to work with the dog to perform K9-required duties. Their work is never done because crimes are not limited to 9 to 5 or Monday-Friday.
Any time a K9 officer is called to work or to a possible crime scene, they must respond. As a K9 handler or officer, the individual will be responsible for feeding the dog, caring for the dog, and making sure the dog’s certification is up to date.
Licensure, Certifications, and Continuing Education
K9 dogs are not required to be licensed but are required to earn certification before they can work with a K9 officer. To obtain the required certifications, the dog must pass the requirements set by that specific certifying body.
Although certification requirements may vary by certifying agency, most require the K9 to pass specific areas of training. These areas may include:
- Aggression control
- Criminal apprehension
- Recall/minimum force
- Area search
- Building search
- Optional evidence recovery
Agencies or organizations that offer K9 certification include:
- National Police Canine Association
- United States Police Canine Association, Inc.
- Animal Behavior Institute
- The American Police Canine Association
- National Narcotic Detector Dog Association
The K9 must obtain certification before the dog can work with a K9 officer initially. The certification is generally valid for one year. Prior to the expiration period for the certification, the K9 handler and K9 dog must complete additional training to maintain the certification.
The dog may be certified in various areas and must fulfill the requirements for re-certification. This additional training requirement is referred to as continuing education and it’s required.
Becoming a K-9 Officer
The road to becoming a K9 officer means you must first become a police officer. Getting started with a degree in Criminal Justice or a related field is a good start, and you should check out the requirements of your local area for entering the police academy. Indicate that you have a special interest in working as a K-9 officer, and find out the specific requirements for your local police department.