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How to...Start a K-9 Unit

Four-legged cops can help you catch more criminals and cut your department’s costs.

February 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

The Right Handler

Exposing dogs and their handlers to different weather conditions gives both experience in getting the job done no matter the circumstances.

According to Russ Hess, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association, choosing a good canine handler is paramount in starting a successful canine unit. “Everyone thinks the most critical factor in starting a unit is the dog,” says Hess, “but the biggest factor is selecting a handler who is a good police officer and who is willing to go the extra mile to make a good case.”

Haller agrees that finding the right handler is more important than finding the right dog. “I could give you the best dog that there is and you give me a bad handler and you will never accomplish anything with that dog,” he says. “I could give you a poor dog and if you give me a really good handler, they’ll be able to do things you’ll never believe.”

Haller thinks important characteristics of a good canine handler include public speaking ability, physical strength, and dedication.

Canine trainer Mark Ficcadenti also looks for dedication in a canine handler. “At many police agencies, canine handlers are prima donnas,” he says. “But the handler’s job is to get out there and support patrol and be there for them. It shouldn’t be about ego.”

Rofidal, speaking from personal experience as a canine handler and trainer, warns that a police officer should become a handler for love of the job, because it’s not an easy ride:

“A person going into this shouldn’t go into it thinking they’re going to get extra money or overtime. The department certainly doesn’t expect you to put in more than your scheduled time, but you end up doing it if you want to be successful at it.”

According to Ficcadenti, finding the right canine handler for your department is often easier than you might think.

“Typically, the person who initiates the program or investigates the starting of a K-9 unit, is the best candidate for the job,” he says. “That doesn’t guarantee them that they’ll be the handler, but usually the person that took that initiative seems to be the best candidate.”

Ficcadenti stresses that many people could be good canine handlers if they’re dedicated to the job, the dog, and the department. A large part of that dedication is continuous training for the handler and the dog.


Ideally, police dog training involves the canine handler as much as the dog. Working together from the start of the handler-canine relationship builds a bond between the two and makes sure both completely understand all steps involved in the procedures necessary for working on the street.

You can buy a dog completely trained, but if the handler hasn’t gone through training with the dog, then you might run into trouble.

“Anybody can take a dog and train it, but I think it’s really important for the handler to go through it,” says Edina PD’s Rofidal. “Unless I get good at the search techniques and the detail in a room and cars, then I’m just holding the dog back if I don’t know how to do it.”

When looking for a trainer, most canine handlers prefer former police officers who have experience as handlers because they are familiar with the situations and problems K-9 officers and their handlers experience on the job.

“I like the idea of being trained by fellow or former canine handlers,” says Ficcadenti. “We don’t send our police officers to civilians to teach them how to do normal duties on the street. We use people who have been there and done that. And that’s even more important with the handling aspect of a police service dog.”

As with every other aspect of starting a K-9 unit, do your homework. Ask other departments for recommendations and then check out all references. Just because someone you talk to liked a trainer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t investigate his or her dealings with other agencies.

Joan Hess, assistant to and wife of the executive director of the USPCA, suggests, “Ask around, but don’t make a deal with one vendor or trainer just because he’s a friend of yours. Quality is more important.”

Haller suggests calling every reference number given by prospective trainers and writing down all the positive and negative comments you hear.

The amount of training offered is important, as well. You might think you can get by with less training, but that’s not a gamble you want to make, advises Ficcadenti.

“We hold a 12-week basic canine handler school that teaches canines and handlers how to conduct a building search, tracking, evidence search and recovery, criminal apprehension, and handler protection. Our school is lengthy and there is a reason ours is longer than others,” Ficcadenti says.

In his course, Ficcadenti also instructs handlers on how to create use-of-force guidelines.

“Teaching a dog criminal apprehension is very labor intensive and very difficult to do because it’s very difficult to teach a dog to bite a human being out of courage and not fear,” Ficcadenti explains.

Smaller departments often have to send their canines and handlers to another department’s training academy, which can cost a lot of money, including food and lodging for the handler. But cutting training short to save some money will not be cost-effective or as safe in the long run, Ficcadenti warns.

Training is an important component of the K-9 unit and not something to be taken lightly, says Duncan. “When a department makes the decision to have a police K-9 unit, they have committed themselves at that time to continuous training.”

If training is not maintained and closely documented, canines, handlers, and departments can all find themselves in court.

Legal Issues

Purchasing quality equipment for your K-9 unit will save your department money in the long run and will keep everyone safer.

Liability and overtime issues tend to be the biggest legal stumbling blocks for departments starting a canine unit.

Haller says as long as canines and handlers follow strict procedures, the fear of dogs causing liability problems for a department are largely unfounded. “The courts have been exceptionally good to the use of police dogs,” he says. “If you have the proper training, the proper documentation of that training, you keep good records, and you have a good standard operating procedure, and the handler uses good judgment in the deployment of the dog, your chances of any litigation resulting in a payout to a plaintiff are very, very slim.”

In fact, Haller argues that utilizing canines is safer for suspects because it can keep officers from having to use a gun or baton instead.

A canine officer is trained to bite a suspect once and hold on. The resulting injury can usually be treated in a few minutes with some antiseptic and left to heal on its own. The alternatives are a baton, which usually causes lacerations that require stitches—often on the head—or a bullet that could easily be lethal.

“If administrators would take the time to investigate liability issues,” Haller says of lawsuits over dog bites, “they would realize that it’s not the problem they might perceive it is.”

Liabilty is the number one killer of canine programs. Number two is issues regarding the FLSA.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, usually referred to as FLSA and pronounced “felsa,” says a canine officer belongs to the police department and the city or county by law has to pay the canine handler maintenance pay in the form of time or money to care for that dog.

“What administrators are afraid of is that canine handlers will come back with overtime issues and turn in overtime cards to the tune of $40,000. And that kills programs,” Ficcadenti explains.

That’s why starting out with a strict agreement on how to compensate canine handlers for dog care is so important. Beginning with clear procedures for every aspect of the K-9 unit and sticking to that plan will help guarantee a successful program.

The bottom line is if you do your research in the beginning and put the necessary amount of time, money, and dedication into the program, your K-9 unit will be successful and beneficial to your department, as well as others.

Necessary Equipment
for a K-9 Unit

  • Dedicated car
  • Kennel insert for back of car
  • Temperature monitor
  • Quick release door system
  • Kennel for handler's yard
  • Leashes, tracking leads, training collars, bite sleeves, other training equipment


United States Police Canine Association

National Police Canine Association

North American Police Work Dog Association

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Carlos Salamsn @ 1/22/2013 4:58 PM

can I get more info how to join the canine unit
&what's the age to join & what's the weight limit

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