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How to Become a Detection Dog Handler: 7 Tips You Need to Know

Jessica Kim

By Jessica Kim

handler and detection dog in an airport

Detection dogs do extremely important work by sniffing and identifying all sorts of things, like illegal drugs, explosives, currency, and other contraband items. A detection dog needs a strong handler that’s capable of leading successfully.

The road to becoming a detection dog handler is long and challenging. It’s a relatively small and competitive field, requiring a lot of time and investment to become one. So, if you’re interested in becoming a detection dog handler, it’s important to anticipate what’s ahead of the road. Here are some key things to know about working towards becoming a detection dog handler.

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The 7 Tips for Becoming a Detection Dog Handler

1. Gain Relevant Experience

One of the first things you can do is get experience in working with dogs. You can volunteer at your local animal shelter or work at a vet clinic or dog walking company to get more exposure to dogs. These experiences can open doors to other opportunities, like working with animal behaviorists or trainers.

Learning about dog behavior and obedience training is an invaluable experience. So, do your best to find opportunities that will help you learn to communicate with dogs.

Dog training, brown Doberman sits in the park and looks at the owner
Image Credit: Derkachev Artem, Shutterstock

2. Get Involved with Dog Training

Becoming a certified dog trainer or behaviorist is an honorable career path that requires a lot of time and dedication. Fortunately, you don’t necessarily need to become a dog trainer before becoming a dog detection handler. However, it’ll definitely boost your resume if you have some dog training experience.

You can check with your local dog training schools or individual trainers to see if they’re taking any apprentices or assistants. If you have your own dog, you can work towards passing notable training programs, like the American Kennel Club Good Canine Citizen Test.

3. Get a Relevant Degree

Agencies don’t usually require a degree for detection dog handlers. However, it doesn’t hurt to get a relevant degree to increase your chances. Some degrees and programs to consider are animal behavioral sciences, criminal justice, and police academy training. These degrees will help you get hired by the right agencies and organizations that eventually lead to detection dog handler positions.

4. Work with Your Local Law Enforcement

Getting law enforcement training and experience will help you get closer to becoming a detection dog handler. Becoming a police officer requires training and passing the training program. You can expect to become proficient in laws and regulations, firearm safety, CPR, and self-defense.

If you secure a spot at your local law enforcement, start looking for openings in the K9 unit. Joining this unit will help you become used to working with police dogs and can give you exposure to detection work.

german shepherd police dog
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

5. Work with the Transportation Security Agency (TSA)

Most detection dog handlers first began their careers as law enforcement officers. For example, about 65% of TSA dog handlers were previously law enforcement officers, while 35% were previously transportation security inspectors.

If you’re not interested in working in law enforcement, you can still find a route to becoming a detection dog handler by working for the TSA. However, you have less of a chance of securing the position than working in law enforcement. TSA employees must have experience with inspection as a customs office or inspector in order to be considered for the TSA Canine Program.

6. Take a Detection Dog Trainer Course

Some organizations offer a detection dog trainer course. These courses don’t guarantee any jobs upon completion, but they provide opportunities to work with detection dogs. They’ll also boost your resume and indicate to hiring companies that you’re serious about this profession.

Make sure to only work with reputable programs to ensure that you get the proper training and exposure you need to become successful in this field. You can check with your local law enforcement for any recommendations.

a beagle dog detection handler working at the airport
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock

7. Pass Your Agency’s Detection Dog Training Program

Once you apply and pass your round of interviews with an agency, you’ll have to enroll in and pass its own detection dog training program. Some agencies have in-house training programs, while others will refer you to third-party academies.

These trainings typically teach you how to conduct searches, detect changes in your detection dog’s behavior, and identify prohibited items and find their source. Once you complete and graduate from the program, you can start working in the field as a detection dog handler.Divider 5

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does It Take to Become a Detection Dog Handler?

The route to this career is long and can take several years. There isn’t a college degree or course that leads directly to the position, and you usually have to take on other jobs that build up your level of experience.

What Skills Do I Need to Be a Successful Detection Dog Handler?

If you’re unsure about becoming a detection dog handler, you may want to see if your interests and skill sets match the requirements needed for the position.

To begin with, you must have a strong understanding of dog behavior as this position requires reading a dog’s behaviors and signals. You must also have excellent communication skills with both dogs and people.

Working well under pressure and in stressful situations is another high priority. Strong leadership skills are also important as you’re the leader in the detection duo that initiates searches.

What Dog Breeds Are the Best Detection Dogs?

The most favored dog breeds that work as detection dogs are in the sporting group. You’ll find a lot of German Shepherds, German Shorthaired Pointers, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Vizslas in this field. Other dog breeds that tend to excel in scent detection are Bloodhounds, Beagles, English Springer Spaniels, and Belgian Malinois.

people with orange vests walking in woods with search and rescue german shepherd dog
Image Credit: Ron Lach, Pexels

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The road to becoming a detection dog handler is long and challenging. However, the work is extremely rewarding as you get to train with incredible dogs and be a part of a team that does important work.

Since it takes a lot of experience to become a detection dog handler, it doesn’t hurt to get an early start. As you get more experience working with dogs, you may find many other areas of interest. So, the career path to becoming a detection dog handler is a worthwhile pursuit, and it may lead to many opportunities to do some unique and valuable work.

Featured Image Credit: Svitlana Hulko, Shutterstock

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