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K9 Unit Jobs: Where They Are and How to Qualify

Updated on June 22, 2013

Canines: Some of the Best Officers Around

Work Environment

Police dogs remain by their handler’s sides through most of the workday. This often requires altering patrol cars to suit the dog and making provisions for the dog to eat and relieve himself when on duty.

K9 Unit Basics

A standard K9 unit, which is a homophone of “canine,” consists of two entities -- a trained dog and his handler. While many K9 units are associated with law enforcement, others train and serve independently as search-and-rescue (SAR) teams, putting their skills to use locating survivors of disasters and tracking missing people.

For thousands of years, dogs have served their human counterparts by offering protection against unwanted intruders, herding livestock and assisting in hunting. Only in the past century, however, have humans undertaken the task of training and organizing K9 units for specific services.

Canine Qualifications

German shepherd dogs are a favorite breed for police K9 units, due to the GSD’s highly trainable aptitude, natural aggressiveness and availability. Other top-choice police dog breeds include Belgian Malinois and Rottweiler. Scent-detection dogs, used to sniff out explosives, narcotics or locate lost hikers and cadavers, come from a variety of breeds, including bloodhounds and beagles. A successful canine prospect should be bright, healthy and eager to please.

Cadavar dogs can pick up the scent of human decomposition -- even under water.
Cadavar dogs can pick up the scent of human decomposition -- even under water. | Source

K9 Units in Law Enforcement

A police K9 unit team specializes in one aspect of law enforcement, with the most common being drug-detection, bomb-detection, suspect apprehension, officer protection and tracking. The dog and his handler are both considered law enforcement officers and harming a police dog carries stiff penalties. The K9 dog often lives with his handler and accompanies him during work hours, which can include riding in a police car or going with his handler on foot patrol and to crime scenes.

K9 Interest Poll

What's your level of interest in working as a K9 unit?

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Search-and-Rescue Units Save Lives

SAR dogs are trained to pick up human scent.
SAR dogs are trained to pick up human scent.

Private K9 Team Opportunities

Clubs and private training facilities are available for those who want to work in a K9 unit capacity but not in law enforcement. Private K9 teams offer their services on a contract basis to provide security for banks and other businesses. If local law enforcement does not have a K9 unit on staff for a specific need, such as tracking, SAR or cadaver scenting, they sometimes call in private K9 units to assist.

Bloodhounds make good search-and-rescue K9 dogs.
Bloodhounds make good search-and-rescue K9 dogs. | Source

Dogs Must Display a Strong Desire to Learn and to Please Their Handlers

Training is extensive and ongoing.
Training is extensive and ongoing.

K9 Unit Training in Miami Beach

Training and Certification in Law Enforcement

A career as a K9 officer or handler requires weeks, and sometimes months, of specialized training, in addition to on-going refresher training. For law enforcement, once a suitable canine prospect reaches the age of one or two, he begins daily training with a professional trainer. After the dog masters the skills, training continues with the officer that will form the other half of the K9 unit. Training to work together as a team can take 3 months, or more, depending on the complexity of the training.

Human K9 unit trainees might be required to live at an approved training facility during the bulk of the training process. This requirement makes it difficult for some officers since they must be away from home during the week and should be taken into consideration before applying for K9 unit status.


Local police departments and municipalities often do not have the money in their budgets to pay for K9 unit training and must appeal to the public for funds. Because of this, it's important for anyone considering a career as a K9 unit officer to be ready to commit his or her life for the next 8-10 years to serving the department alongside the dog. This is another reason why most departments reserved K9 unit approval for their seasoned officers that they do not think will leave the force.

Purchasing a trained K9 dog and sending an officer to training camp starts at around $10,000 and goes up from there. In smaller departments with limited budgets, it's desirable to hire an already-trained K9 team, but those are in short supply.


What it Takes to Succeed as a K9 Unit

  • Dedication
  • Commitment to ongoing training
  • Desire to help others
  • Love of dogs
  • Confident personality


Career Outlook

K9 unit job opportunities in law enforcement are typically limited to officers with a few years of service under their belts. As of 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cited an annual median salary of $55,010 for a standard officer or detective. Private K9 security guard units made an average of less than $30,000, in 2012. Independent SAR teams receive compensation per assistance, and in some cases, they might offer their services free.

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