So You Think You Want to be a K-9 Handler? Part 2

These traits don't guarantee your success, but they might make you a good K-9 handler

By Kevin Sheldahl  |   Nov 3, 2015
Photo Courtesy Kevin Sheldahl

Solid K-9 instructional staff will emphasize the academic without the didactic suffering. That is, the instructor understands that most cops are ADD and so they will provide context with each task so the student will retain it.

But perhaps most of all, a good K-9 instructor will challenge students to think on their feet, to problem-solve based on their own previous training and experience, and to not simply march left and right as told. The K-9 handler has to think independently, quickly and confidently. This doesn’t come from cookbook training.

Unfortunately most advanced training in law enforcement and military circles is about checking the boxes, covering the department’s (ass) liability, and not about education. The ideal instructor balances the needs of training documentation as well as having a heartfelt approach to continuing the craft in a professional manner. Ultimately we want to inculcate independence in the student to do the job well.

It ain’t easy, but it can be rewarding. All that being said, even the best instructor in the world won’t be able to make a poor candidate for the job successful. It’s just the nature of K-9 handling, and every good instructor knows this.

So what makes a good candidate?

Handler’s Perspective

The new handler will feel frustrated, maybe infuriated at times. The dog feels that the handler is new. These dogs come from dog people who have a touch—or an attitude or simply a skill the dog feels is missing in this new guy or gal. Dogs will test, refuse,  look for their boundaries, or they simply won’t understand what’s being asked in an entirely new environment and context for them.

If your instructor says the dog you’ve been given is a “trained police dog” beware: Unless this dog was a seasoned street dog first, it isn’t a police dog no matter how much the vender charged. (And if it was on the street you have to question why it was given up.)

Dogs must be handled with fairness and respect. Hard for a newbie to do when they don’t even know the first thing about the dog they are handling. As one instructor I know would say by way of introduction: “One end bites, the other poops, and the part in between you pet.” Well, you gotta start somewhere!

It’s a rare field, handling and training working dogs, some of which can protest or demand and refuse. These aren’t the dogs you saw on the news! They are not the dogs you dreamed about, at least not without a handler/trainer of some expertise. Some are down-right jerks. You might even get bit.

Many new dogs have so much energy they make you wonder how they could ever be trained to perform under direction. The newbie wonders why the instructor thinks so much of the dog whirling like a top at the end of the leash. The dog certainly doesn’t care much about this new guy or gal holding at the start of this adventure.

The Dog-Handler Relationship

The trick is developing a relationship with the dog while at the same time learning the serious work of being a handler. What should that relationship be?

First off, the handler must respect the dog, understand the dog, and enjoy the training and deploying of the dog. There are some real pitfalls in potential handlers character that can make this difficult to do.

Dog lovers suck. Why? They tend to be afraid to put their dog in harms way. They tend to make excuses for the dogs failures, and they anthropomorphize the dog’s behaviors. They also can’t seem to stick to a training regimen. They tend to think if they love their dog it will do the work for them, and love them back. The very worst thing is these teams are never productive, and can be downright dangerous.

People who think the dog is a tool and nothing more will fail too. The furry thing at the end of the leash isn’t a piece of equipment with specifications that should come out of the box and perform. It isn’t disposable and it doesn’t grow egos and they don’t work as male enhancement pills any better than the crap advertised on late night T.V.

Yep, this dog you were given will take a dump when it needs to, even if you are asking him to clear a doorway for your SWAT team … or at the local mid-school while you are diligently trying to impress on children, teachers and parents how professional of a K-9 program and department you represent. He won’t respond to an ass kicking if he doesn’t understand, and he will fail you because he doesn’t understand if you don’t train consistently and expertly. Sorry, folks, but this is what’s real.

Bottom line: It’s easy to say what a good handler isn’t, and much harder to say what he or she is.

What a Good Handler Is

To get the best from a dog you need guidance in obtaining the dog, good education about the tasks you’ll be assigned. Then you must work doggedly (ha-ha) at the sort of repetitive training that produces the desired behaviors in your dog regardless of the conditions in which you find yourself. This only comes from dedicated and appropriate work and a partnership with your dog that explores the boundaries of what the dog is capable of doing. It requires a handler who knows the limitations of the dog and their training as it evolves throughout their career together.

Not exactly like learning how to administer a standardized field sobriety test is it?

So what do you need? Persistence, humility, professionalism, desire, an even temperament, the ability to listen and learn, eagerness to learn—to name just a few of the necessary traits. You must respect the animal you work with and the work that you do. It can’t pump up an ego on overdrive. On the other hand, a bit of pride can drive you to work hard if you have the right balance within yourself. The fact is you need an ego to do this work—not bravado, not ego on display—but ego driving you to success.

Dog handling must follow naturally from your desire to be successful. You must overlook the judgements of your peers in favor of a long view of success for you and your canine partner. It’s a rush. I can tell you, even after two decades at it, I totally loved it.

You must be a dog warrior: the best, the brightest, the coolest, the most humble, and the most egotistical of law enforcement personnel.


If you have these traits you can be successful. It shouldn’t be a wonder when you deploy your partner and it succeeds. It will be a skill the two of you have partnered together to master, a true partnership of the likes no one who hasn’t done it before can understand. This is the epitome of the co-evolution of man and dog. You should develop a feeling of self worth when you arrive at a scene and all eyes are on you to organize and direct the search and capture of a violent suspect. Nothing feels like it. Nothing else can.

In Japanese Bushido there is a term relating to combat that might express what I am trying to convey: Sanchin. The culmination of training, experience, skill and expertise, self-confidence, and a touch of arrogance in the face of an opponent by a warrior, sanchin defines the expert canine handler.