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Selecting The Better K9 Handler

I have always believed that a police officer should have several attributes: honest, courteous, respectful, dependable, professional, and in decent physical shape.  When it comes time for police administrators to select an officer to be a canine handler, they should be keeping those attributes in mind along with other criteria.

When you consider the cost of the canine, initial training of the canine and handler, food, veterinary visits, equipment, on-going training and liability insurance if not self-insured, is not inexpensive.  That is exactly why the selection of the handler is one of the most important parts of the canine program.  Most agencies throughout the country are small and have a limited pool of officers to select from, unlike large agency such as New York City or Los Angeles.  When it comes to handler selection there are advantages and disadvantages to being a small or large agency.

There is the old saying that being a police officer isn’t for everyone.  I have one to add… being a canine handler isn’t for everyone (police officer).  It takes a special type of person to be a police officer, and an even more special officer to be a canine handler.  The candidates for canine handler should have a genuine interest in canines, not looking to be someone that is the cool cop with a dog.  Sure, being a canine handler has the cool factor, but that isn’t what it should be about. 

The process of selecting a canine handler should be very similar to the hiring process to become a police officer.  That process should include an application, personnel file review, interview with selection board, interview of family and neighbors, and physical agility course.

First step of course is the application; it should be asking the standard application questions along with why they want to be a handler, what experience or training they have with working canines.  There are a number of questions that can be asked to help weed out the undesirables from the process.

Second step should be a review of the personnel file.  Is the candidate a proactive or reactive type person?  Does the officer use excessive amount of sick time that would be considered undependable.  How is their driving habits and accident record?  A canine can be easily injured in the vehicle by a handler that drives reckless.  Review the officer’s arrest and use-of-force reports, do they have a high propensity to use force.  If so, that could lead to the use of the canine for all arrests.  After a review of the personnel file, those that haven’t been weeded out move on to the interview.  The interview questions should be based off the application and review of personnel file.

If still a candidate, then interview the family and neighbors.  The selection board should pay a visit to the candidate’s homes and neighbors.  The questions that must be answered are:

  • Is the family open to having a working canine in the house and are they supportive?
  • Does the family understand that the officer and canine maybe called out at any time of day, interrupting family events, holiday celebrations, etc.?
  • Will the neighbors be a problem, such as complaining about barking or not liking a police canine in the area?  Many people misunderstand police canines and see them as viscous attack dogs, which as we know is incorrect.
  • Are there other dogs or other pets in the house?  Although this question isn’t as important as the previous, it is something that should be considered.
  • How will the animals interact?
  • Is the current pet(s) socialized with other animals and not aggressive?  
  • Is the house kept clean, especially if there are other animals in the home; is the feces picked up in the yard and doesn’t smell like a sewage plant?

These are all things that must be considered.  Last, should be a physical agility course.  This should be utilized to weed out those that are not physically fit for the position.  Typically a working canine can run faster and longer than most people, but why have a handler that is going to be out of the chase after 100 yards.  Most of the time the handler will be holding the canine back from its full running potential, but there is a big difference between slowing the canine down a bit and taking it out of the chase.  If the final selection comes down to someone who is physically fit or someone that is overweight, I would be selecting the physically fit candidate.

The ultimate goal is to select the best candidate to be a canine handler.  No matter the size of the agency, we have all seen the good ol’ boy system; don’t let your agency fall into that trap, it isn’t in the best interest to the agency, officers or the community.

Stay Safe!