What Makes a Good Dog for a Law Enforcement K-9 Unit?

Some of the crucial law enforcement work carried out across the country is performed by members of a K-9 unit—specifically partnerships between a sworn officer and his or her canine companion. Handlers and their service dogs may work together in one of several areas, from looking for bombs or narcotics to searching for missing persons, suspects and cadavers. A variety of law enforcement agencies, from police departments and sheriff’s offices to the FBI have canine units.

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But just like when humans apply to the academy, canines must also pass a rigorous set of guidelines:

  • Breed: The Summerville Police Department in South Carolina most commonly incorporates German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois breeds into its K-9 unit. “The most popular breed of police dog is the well known German Shepherd, a 200 year old breed in the herding class of working dogs,” says the Summerville PD’s K-9 unit webpage. “These dogs have long been used by militaries all over the world as sentries and were used by the United States and Germany in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.” In addition to employing German Shepherds as “dual-purpose patrol dogs,” the Hunstville Police Department’s K-9 unit (Alabama) employs Labrador Retrievers as scent dogs. Other breeds that may be employed are Dutch Shepherds, Bloodhounds and sometimes even Rottweilers, Doberman Pinchers, and Bouvier de Flandres, says the organization Fallen Officers Remembered.
  • Age: The minimum age that dogs can start training to be a service canine depends on who you ask, but some agencies state as young as 10 or 11 months old, while others state at least 18 months old. Law enforcement dogs can be male or female, and those in optimal health may serve up to eight or more years!
  • Temperament: Dogs being considered for K-9 units are screened for things like aggressiveness, shyness (i.e. associated with gunfire or even being patted on the head), alertness, the drive to retrieve, play or defend, etc. “We want a dog that gets along with people, not one who’s so aggressive that he can’t be controlled,” said Chief of Police and K-9 unit trainer Bill Cooper when interviewed by Health & Fitness Magazine. “We don’t want one who’s skittish about walking over tile floors or walking up and down stairs. We need a dog that can handle gunfire and loud noises.”
  • Health: Dogs are also evaluated for physical health. X-rays are used to identify whether hip dysplasia is present and a veterinarian performs a tooth exam. Dogs also must be agile, in good physical shape and within a certain weight bracket.

Existing officers who want to be promoted to the K-9 unit as a handler also are held to high standards, and often have to be in the force for a certain number of years and possibly start training even before they are considered for that promotion.