K-9 Dogs: How to become a k9 dog handler in the Army
We’ve all seen the photos of proud pups in the military, working side-by-side with their handlers in the field to take down enemy combatants and rescue wounded troops. And while this may seem like an easy job in the armed forces, becoming a military working dog (or K-9) handler requires intense training and commitment. Read on to learn about the different K-9 specialties, and how to become a k9 dog handler in the Army!
History of dogs in the militaryDogs have been used in war for centuries. The earliest recorded use of dogs for combat purposes was in 7 BC when the Ephesians used them against Magnesian troops to break enemy ranks before sending in their own soldiers. Dogs were also used in war against ancient Egyptians because of their reverence for the animals. And King Bituito of the ancient Arverni tribe is said to have attacked a group of Roman soldiers using only dogs in the offensive!
Dogs have featured in every war in American history, but they were brought into an official position in the military during World War II. In 1942, the US Military partnered with civilian organization Dogs for Defense, to create an experimental program to train and deploy dogs under the Quartermaster Corps. By August of 1942 there were 5 different training centers across the US, working with over 18,000 dogs. Only 8,000 of those initially recruited dogs would pass the training and go on to deployment.
By March of 1944, there were dogs in both the Europe and Pacific Theaters, fighting alongside our own troops. Quartermaster Corps later ceded responsibility for training to Security Forces. The dogs became known as K-9 Corps, K-9 Working Dogs, or simply military working dogs.
Dogs in the military todayToday, K-9 working dogs and their handlers are some of the most valuable teams in the military. Dogs’ sense of smell is forty-five times greater than that of a human, and their abilities to work in the dark, and get into difficult or tight spaces make them highly specialized and sought-after. To this day dogs can detect explosives better than any military equipment.
The Military Working Dog Program is currently housed at Lackland Air Force Base. This facility is responsible for training all dogs under the Department of Defense, including for the CIA and Secret Service. Dogs are used in all branches of the military, but the majority of K-9 units are found in the Army.
There are many different kinds of dogs that can be trained to serve, though the most common breeds are German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. Both male and female dogs are effective, the only difference is that female dogs tend to be smaller, so they may be more suited to searching tight spaces.
K-9 dogs are used for all kinds of missions, but they have featured in the high-profile takedowns of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, as well as Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
What do K-9 dogs and handlers do in the military?K-9 dogs and their handlers are responsible for many different assignments in the military. Here are some of the most common specialties, and what those dogs do in the field:
- Sentry/Border Patrol Dogs: These dogs are trained to warn troops of an imminent threat by growling or barking. They guard military checkpoints, ammunition depots, compounds, other storage facilities, and even airports. They’re trained to perform at night in low visibility.
- Scout/Patrol Dogs: These dogs detect snipers or ambushes, but unlike Sentry dogs, they do so in complete silence. Not all dogs are suited to this role, because the animal must be able to work quietly and maintain focus off-leash, ahead of the lines. They usually alert their handlers by going into a stiff pose or twitching their ears in a specific way.
- Explosive Detection Dogs: They use their heightened sense of smell to sniff out chemicals used in making weapons. Some are specialized to search off leash, or specifically for mines and artillery.
- Narcotic Detection Dogs: These dogs are similar to Explosive Detection dogs, but instead they search for narcotics and report the location to their handlers.
- Casualty/Search and Rescue Dogs: These dogs are trained to search for dead or wounded that may be in obscure or hard-to-reach places. Casualty dogs save many lives!
Military working dog handler: required skills
- K-9 handlers have to be incredibly patient, compassionate, and have a good work ethic.
- Creating a bond with your animal takes hard work, repetition, and dedication.
- It does not happen overnight, and handlers must be prepared to continue training every day.
- These four-legged service-members also require lots of care and affection, and their handlers often come to think of them as friends.
The military has a “one dog, one handler” policy, meaning that a dog will only ever work with one handler. The connection between a working dog and their handler is one based on the utmost trust and loyalty, which is essential to a good partnership.
How to become a K-9 dog handler: steps
Step 1: Join the military
- You must be at least 18 years old, a US citizen, and pass the required security clearance
- Pass the physical fitness test
- Pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a test which determines your strengths and weaknesses and identifies which jobs in the military you would be best fit for. In order to become a K-9 handler you must get at least a 91% in “Skilled Technician”
- Complete basic training (8-12 weeks depending on your chosen branch)
Step 2: Complete military police school
- Once you’ve completed basic training and are considered military personnel you can apply for military police school
- Complete 19 weeks of standard courses (such as military and civil law, policing strategies, reporting protocols, and civilian policing)
- Once completing the standard courses, you can take more advanced classes in military animal training. These will serve as your foundation for more specialized training in the future.
Step 3: Complete dog training and earn certification
- After completing military police school, you will have to complete a basic training program at Lackland Airforce Base in Texas.
- Training includes care, feeding, grooming, and dog-specific first aid
- You and your dog will also complete conditioning training, controlled aggression training, and other basic obedience training.
- You and your dog will take part in technical training and drills to learn searching, scouting, patrolling, and how to handle conditions under gunfire.
- You will learn how to instruct your dog to chase and take down suspects, go through obstacles like windows, jump over bridges, and squeeze through tight spaces
- You can then earn a certificate to show that you are able to guide a military working dog and read its responses. The certification test includes odor recognition and practice searches
- You will need to recertify every year, and likely complete updated training each year as well
Step 4: Become an active-duty dog handler
- Once you have completed the prior steps you can become an active-duty dog handler and join such ranks as the Army K9 Unit. You will have the opportunity to advance over time, but you will still be responsible for training and taking care of your animals
- You must also pass a medical screening and background check, obtain a passport, and successfully complete an interview with the kennel master or unit commander in order to qualify for this voluntary assignment
What do K-9 dogs and their handlers do after serving?An average career for a military working dog typically lasts 8 – 9 years. After retiring, K-9 dogs are usually eligible for adoption, and over 90% are adopted by their handlers. This was not always the case, as prior to legislation passed by President Clinton in 2000, military working dogs were euthanized once their careers were completed. Successful lobbying of Congress led to this change, and now military working dogs can be placed in loving homes when they retire.
Some dogs do leave service with PTSD or anxiety and will have to be placed with families who can provide them the extra care that they need. Dogs are also known to mourn their handlers for a long time if they are killed in combat. Sometimes these dogs are adopted by their handler’s family, so that they can mourn their loss together.
Dogs who are ready to continue working after their service in the military may go on to be security dogs or work with their dog handler in law enforcement. Veteran K-9 handlers can also work in these fields, as their skills are easily transferrable, or they become veterinary technicians or civilian dog trainers!
Facts & figures about the k9 unit
Here are a few interesting facts about our four-legged service-members:
- There are about 2,500 K-9 dogs in service today, with approximately 700 serving overseas at any given time
- Some dogs begin training as young as 7 weeks old
- Dogs are selected to be trained based off their love of a ball or Kong toy, since this is how they will be trained and rewarded throughout their service
- In order to keep their sense of smell specialized dogs can be trained to search either for drugs or explosives, but not both
- Only about 50% of dogs pass training
- The US Military trains approximately 300 dogs every year
- Some dogs can even be trained to jump from planes or rappel from helicopters!
- Dogs are, by tradition, considered non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and are one rank higher than their handlers! This ensures that the dogs are well-taken care of while serving
A rewarding career
Dogs serve an important role in the military, one that is highly specialized and respected. Becoming a K-9 handler is not an easy task, but it is very rewarding career!
Working with a K-9 dog means that you will always have a smart and loyal friend by your side. Military working dogs perform incredibly significant work in the Armed Forces, and we thank them and their handlers for their service!
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- veterinarians.org: Dogs Of War: 23 Facts You Never Knew About Working Military Dogs
- veteran.com: K9 Corps
- thebalancecareers.com: Military Working Dog Handler (31K) Job Description: Salary, Skills, & More
- petkeen.com: What Do Military Dogs Do? (Overview of their Work) | Pet Keen
- akc.org: What Do Military Working Dogs Do? – American Kennel Club