Become a Drug Dog Handler: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a drug dog handler. Research the education and career requirements, certification information and experience required for starting a career in drug dog handling.

Do I Want to Be a Drug Dog Handler?

Drug dog handlers are members of law enforcement in charge of caring for and supervising canines that have been trained to detect drugs. Drug dog handlers must be capable of motivating their dog, leading it in an effective search pattern and reading the dog's responses during a drug detection investigation. Law enforcement officers can work long hours; shift work is typical, as are night and holiday shifts. This occupation also has a higher-than-average rate of work-related illness and injury; the job requires physical and emotional stamina to handle rapidly changing encounters with alleged criminals or citizens in crisis situations.

Job Requirements

An individual must be a law enforcement officer before receiving handler training. After sufficient training, handler and dog teams must pass tests to become certified with state and federal agencies. The following table outlines common requirements to become a drug dog handler:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Formal education beyond high school may not be required, though an associate's or bachelor's degree may be preferred by some agencies*
Degree Field Criminal justice or related field*
Experience Work experience could be preferred, but not required*
Key Skills Ability to multitask, communication skills, leadership skills, perceptiveness*
Licensure and Certification Certification is required**
Additional Requirements 21 years of age, physical strength and stamina, current driver's license, clean criminal background*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **United States Police Canine Association

Step 1: Consider Earning a College Degree

While a degree is not required to become a police officer or drug dog handler, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that law enforcement agencies may prefer applicants who have a degree in criminal justice. An associate's or bachelor's degree program in criminal justice may include courses such as police and society, criminal procedure, drugs and society and principles of criminal justice. These courses could provide you with more advanced knowledge regarding law enforcement's place in society and could help you in your future career endeavors.

Success Tip

  • Join a college program for aspiring police officers. Some law enforcement agencies have programs for college students planning to pursue as a police officer. Sometimes known as cadets, college students in these programs work part-time carrying out various assignments while attending school. Tasks could include escorting visitors at police stations, providing traffic control at special events or delivering evidence. Such experience could help a student in finding placement in a police academy after graduation.

Step 2: Join a Law Enforcement Agency

In almost every state, becoming a certified drug dog handler requires that applicants first work in law enforcement. According to the BLS, joining the police force usually requires at least a high school diploma and the completion of police academy training.

Most police academy programs take about 6 months to complete. Coursework may include laws and regulations, police tactics, firearm safety, self-defense and CPR. These programs also include a physical training element, so applicants must pass a medical exam first. Each academy has other requirements that must be met prior to enrollment, such as a minimum and maximum age limit.

Step 3: Train with a K-9 Unit

Law enforcement agencies often have a K-9 unit where officers can apply to be trained as a dog handler. Before being assigned a dog, many departments have potential handlers go through a lengthy application process, which could include passing an interview, meeting physical requirements and taking a medical exam. Potential handlers also meet with the K-9 unit's dogs to make sure that the personalities of the handler and animal complement each other.

Success Tip

  • Participate in extended education opportunities. Community colleges and extended education programs also offer basic law enforcement training certificate programs that include coursework on working with police dogs. These programs cover the basics for oral commands and hand signals, search techniques, finding evidence and apprehending criminals. There are also certificate programs specifically for handling drug detecting dogs. These courses cover the basics, but they also provide handlers with more training opportunities in real-life scenarios, such as searching airports, vehicles and abandoned buildings for narcotics. Such opportunities could be helpful for a law enforcement agent undergoing K-9 training.

Step 4: Become Certified

All drug dog handlers must be certified to prove they can effectively handle the animal during a search for illegal drugs. Most departments structure their K-9 unit training courses to prepare handlers for certification. Some departments may send handler and dog teams to a professional organization that both trains and certifies them, such as the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA). To be eligible for certification, handlers must meet the requirements, which can include a certain amount of experience as a police officer, as well as direct experience with police dog handling.

Certification involves testing the handler and dog team by placing them in a particular building with hidden drugs. Judges watch both the handler and the dog to see how they work together. The handler must motivate the dog to search while simultaneously reading the dog's responses correctly to quickly locate the drugs. Each test is timed, and the teams must find a certain amount of drugs within that given time frame. Some certifying boards hide a mixture of different drugs, whereas others certify a team's ability to find specific types of drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine.

Step 5: Continue Education

Drug dog handlers can continue their educations throughout their careers, and continuing education may be required by their law enforcement agencies. Continuing education opportunities may be available through colleges or professional organizations related to law enforcement. Approved conferences, courses and training seminars related to law enforcement should satisfy any continuing education requirements.

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