So You Think You Want To Be A Dog Handler?

Tips for those considering embarking on this (difficult) path

By Kevin Sheldahl  |   Oct 21, 2015

Recently I was asked to write an article about being a K-9 handler and the experience gave me pause. I’ve written articles in the past, but it had been a few years. After participating in a couple decades of training and education I had to ask myself: What do I have to offer? Sure, I can train handlers and I’m good at deploying dogs. I’ve worked in a variety of environments, including patrol, tactical operations and interdiction efforts, as well as security operations for dignitaries and sporting events. I’ve even found a few of our deceased. I preach a lot about this craft being a hands -on, experience driven, specialty. What could I write about? What do I have to say?

I blew off the idea of writing articles for a while. Instead I wrote curriculum and expert reports, and knocked out a few PowerPoints. But I missed writing eventually—I miss trying to motivate and or entertain or even bemuse current or potential K-9 people in print.

I have often thought about the books and articles I have read about service dog training—those from civilians, law enforcement and military—and something seems lacking. It’s not their content. Many are superbly written and the authors show they are well versed in the craft of dog training and/or law enforcement education.

But some questions lingered: Is there something that affects the guy/gal that is just starting out in this escapade called dog handling and struggling to become a handler that I can offer? Is there some insight into being a handler I can convey?

There seems to be missing an understanding of what this task entails until the prospective handler is elbow deep in the mechanics of it. The technical information seems to be out there. But the art of training and deploying is only partly an academic skill. It must be experienced and felt. It’s a craft.

There’s a need to have hands on under the guidance of some one who has been there, who has trained dogs, educated handlers, and experienced the field first hand. That doesn’t come from reading a book or an article. The craft must come from a mentor. But maybe—just maybe—I could touch the soul of the perspective handler enough to influence them as they approach their journey.

Maybe I think too much of myself but hell I am going give it a try. Following are some essentials for those of you getting started.

Training dogs is a craft. You need a dog and a leash. High tech crap hasn’t changed the basics of training and deploying dogs. You have to have boots on the ground and have an opportunity to flourish in your environment to develop the craft. Man and dogs have worked together for millennia. The modern police dog has existed well over the century mark. So how do you get there?

Make sure your ready for this. You chose to do the job. This is often a feat in itself as K-9 handler positions are highly competitive. You got there and that says something about your standing in your department. But it says nothing about becoming a handler.

I am going tell you here and now: It can be good for your career if you are motivated, driven, independent, and also a team player—and you are given the chance and the tools. That’s a lot of “ifs” …

It can also wreck a career or severely hinder it. If you aren’t cut out to become a dog handler—I don’t mean a dog lover, a pet person, or even a dog trainer, I mean a service dog handler—you’re screwed. Your peers will hate to call you, hate to see you show up on scene, and do what ever they can not to need you. They will talk behind your back to your peers and your supervisors. Your reputation will tank.

Get the message from the start: You can be awarded a handler position and never succeed to become a handler.

So if you are going do this thing, do it. If not, get out. Now.

(And you thought this would be about dog training and the mysteries of service dog work and I would quote Hemingway and Wells “the hunting of man” and all that. Not a chance. You’ve got to earn that! You’re going to put time in that isn’t compensated. You’re going to strain relationships and you are going to feel like a rookie again. This will test your character. Once you get there, you can wear that t-shirt that quotes Wells.)

Seek out the best training available—on your own dime, if that’s what’s required.

At some point you will go to a Basic Handler Course. There are many of these and like everything else in law enforcement what you get tends to be dictated by history, culture, and who knows who. Politics plays a big part of it.

I hate to tell you this, but as a group we’re lucky that Basic k-9 Handling and training isn’t brain surgery or rocket science cause we would get nowhere fast. All too many of the “courses” lack in academics and expertise. The instructors think, “It’s how I did it way back when, and so it’s how you’ll do it.” Some of these instructors have been around long enough to have handled velocoraptors.

Good instructors evolved and bad ones didn’t (too bad they too didn’t go extinct). If the instructor is teaching out of textbook, then they only know one way. And they don’t even really know that way because they haven’t experienced this work in decades. They moreover aren’t assessing the needs of an individual team or personality, which is critical.

Then again you might go to a vender-based school. This is also potluck. The vender probably has some kind of experience—sport dog, military, or law enforcement—but most often it’s only a few years of any of the above.

A few are die-hard dog warriors with decades of work to refer back to, instructors who can truly say that they’ve been there and done that over and over. Some are decent instructors or decent trainers, but a very few are both.

Conclusion

If you’re lucky enough to find someone who is both a good instructor and a good dog handler, realize how lucky you are. Give that instructor the respect they deserve and learn everything you can.

In the next installment, I’ll review other topics, such as instructional staff, challenges of the assignment, forming relationships with the K-9s, and more. Stay tuned, and stay safe.