A K-9 unit refers to a specialized group of police officers and their service dogs who are trained in a variety of tasks. The unit includes both the human officer and the canine officer, who are considered partners, just as two human officers would be. The human officer cares for their partner on and off duty.
The Many Jobs of a K-9 Unit
As mentioned above, the service dogs in a K-9 unit are trained in a variety of jobs. Scent Tracking might be one of the most well-known of these tasks. Scent Tracking involves the tracking of missing persons, suspects on the run, or determining if people were present at certain locations, like crime scenes. A similar task is Search and Detection. Dogs trained in Search and Detection are trained to sniff out specific substances, like drugs or explosives, which is useful in finding contraband.
K-9 dogs can also be used for public enforcement. These canine officers go on patrol with their human partners and are used to apprehend suspects. They might also travel around to schools, educating young children on K-9 units.
Cadaver Dogs also use their nose, similar to tracking or detection, but they’re specifically trained to find human remains. They are used to find missing persons or victims of natural disasters, like earthquakes. Search and Rescue Dogs are similar but find living people trapped in rubble and work to release them.
How K-9 Dogs are Trained
K-9 Dogs start training as puppies. For the first year of their lives, they are given basic obedience training with other types of service dogs. Their class is slowly integrated into a public setting to learn how to handle distractions. Then, they are split up into their specialized training.
For the second year of their life, K-9 dogs are given their specialized training for one or multiple of the jobs described in the previous section. If the K-9 program is large enough, this training is completed through the police department. If it’s a smaller police department, then a private, specialized training service is used instead.
During their specialized training, these dogs are trained to take down criminals, track people, or detect scents. Training for scents is particularly impressive, as it can involve the dog recognizing thousands of different scents. When they recognize a scent, they’re then trained to give some type of signal, called a passive or aggressive alert, to alert the human officer.
Where do K-9 Dogs Live?
Where K-9 dogs live depends on the size of the police department and department policy. You might be surprised to learn that most K-9 units have the canine officer live with the human officer and his/her family. They might live in a residential kennel at their home or within their home. The human partner is often allowed to take the canine on day trips or vacations during their time off. Every police department is different, however.
For larger departments, they might have a commercial kennel for all of their canine officers. Commercial kennels, like those sold by Trailside Structures, are much bigger and sturdier than residential kennels. The K-9 dogs will stay at the kennel when off-duty, where they eat and sleep after a hard day’s work. Some departments might house the dogs when they’re scheduled for duty and allow them to go home with the human officer when they have a few successive days off.
When do K-9 Dogs Retire?
K-9 Dogs give, on average, 7 to 8 years of service to the force. Starting at age 2, this would make the canine officers 9 or 10 years old when they retire. They’ll live out their remaining couple of years (2-3 years for a German Shepherd) with the family of their human partner, living their well-deserved retirement to the fullest!
How to Become a K-9 Officer
To become a K-9 officer, you first need to be an experienced police officer with at least two years in the force. Once a K-9 officer position opens, you’ll need to apply and interview just like any other new job or position. Once hired, you’ll be trained on the job.
Training for K-9 officers, as with the dogs, is completed either through a private, specialized training service or your own department, if its K-9 program is large enough. Either way, you’ll learn how to be a good dog handler in dog obedience, safety, crowd control, tracking, and care for your future canine partner. You’ll be trained in canine tactics with exercises, like suspect apprehension. Once you finish training, you can receive a certification from organizations like the USPCA.
How Much Do K-9 Officers Make?
Once you become a K-9 officer, you can expect around $66,000 a year, according to the 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This varies based on your area and how specialized you become.