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Small Agencies, Is a K9 Unit Right For You?

by Steve Dunham
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All law enforcement agencies can benefit from K9 support; however not all agencies should employ a K9 unit. Having a K9 unit requires a long-term commitment from both the handler and the employing agency.

What Type of Law Enforcement Service Dog Will Work Best for You?

Dual Purpose dogs are generally dogs which are cross trained for a patrol (Criminal Apprehension) duties and some type of detection work such as narcotics detection or explosives. In addition to detection work, dual purpose dogs are usually trained for Evidence Search, Tracking, Obedience, Criminal Apprehension and Aggression Control, Building Search, and Outside Area Searches. Single Purpose is a term usually used to describe dogs that are trained to perform one main task, such as detection work or maybe a patrol dog with no detection training.

For smaller agencies I feel that there are more advantages to employing a dual purpose dog over a single purpose dog.

Law Enforcement Service Dogs are a great deterrent; on many occasions during my career I have been able to avoid escalating to a Use of Force situation because of having a patrol-trained dog present. Most suspects will surrender without incident to avoid being bitten by a law enforcement service dog. During K9 deployments I have apprehended hundreds of persons who were actively resisting arrest by flight or concealment. Over 90% of those people surrendered without being bitten once they knew a service dog was present and believed that their capture was inevitable.

In addition to the deterrence of your presence, dogs can cover a lot of ground much more efficiently than we can. By using their excellent scenting abilities, they can lead us to people that in many instances we would not find without their assistance. In some cases this will mean the apprehension of a dangerous criminal or saving the life of a missing endangered person.

Narcotics detection dogs are an extremely valuable resource for law enforcement. In most circumstances, if a reliable law enforcement narcotic detection dog indicates for the presence of illicit drug odor emitting from a vehicle, law enforcement can search that vehicle and its contents without a warrant. During vehicle sniffs I have recovered a large quantity of narcotics, seized weapons, currency, vehicles, and evidence from other crimes. Through asset forfeiture, my detection dogs have paid for themselves many times over. Not to mention they are frequently able to find things and people that we would miss without them.


For smaller agencies, scheduling may create more conflict than the initial cost of starting a K9 unit. Basic K9 handler courses may range from four to fourteen weeks in length. In addition to the initial handler course, your K9 team will have to attend maintenance training. The K9 team should be scheduled one shift per week for maintenance training, with other K9 teams, and under the supervision of an experienced K9 trainer. Law Enforcement Service Dogs are generally high- drive animals, and they require consistency. New teams will experience training problems and need to have an experienced trainer present, who can identify and correctly remedy issues as they arise. Some agencies deny K9 maintenance training time in the event the handler’s absence from patrol creates overtime. It is the opinion of the author that this is a dangerous practice, and agencies should plan and prepare to pay overtime wages rather than cut training, in the event of a scheduling conflict. If an agency fails to adequately maintain their K9 team training, the team’s proficiency will regress. This is a disservice to the citizens we are obligated to serve; also the team may lose credibility, and can make the agency (including supervisors) more vulnerable to civil litigation.

To be compliant with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers must compensate handlers, who kennel their dogs at home. Generally handlers are compensated for 30 minutes to 1 hour per day; this includes the handler’s days off. This compensation is for the time spent off duty, caring for the service animal. There are different methods in which handlers may be compensated. The manner of compensation should be worked out between employer and employee prior to the handler being assigned to the unit. Some agencies pay the handler for care and maintenance (7 days per week), some handlers work a shorter shift (such as 7 hours working but paid for 8 hours), and some agencies compensate the handler with compensatory time. Regardless which method of compensation you choose, please remember that this is the law and agencies/handlers need to be in compliance.


Assuming that you already have a vehicle, initial start-up costs for a K9 unit can easily range from $15,000 to $30,000 (maybe even more). This cost includes purchase price for dog/handler training and necessary equipment. There are options that can be utilized to fund your K9 unit, if your agency budget can’t cover all of the expenses.

Don’t be afraid to seek donations from outside sources. Some options for K9 unit support may be donations from non-profit organizations, corporations, and philanthropists. A former student gave an interview to a well-circulated newspaper when his previous dog was retiring. In addition to writing about the successful career of his partner, the readers were also informed that his agency was accepting donations for the purchase of a replacement dog. Within a few weeks after this article was circulated, the agency received close to $30,000 in donations for their K9 Unit. Many handlers are able to find veterinarians who are willing to donate their service free of charge to support the K9 unit. In addition, some manufacturers or suppliers of dog food offer donations or reduced costs for service dogs. Be selective when choosing a dog food for your service dog, you should choose a high-quality food that your dog responds well to.

Finding the handler who will be dedicated for the “long haul”

Selecting the right handler should not be a task that is taken lightly; the person you choose will make or break your program. Below are some qualities that an agency should consider when choosing a handler:

1)   A strong desire to work with police service dogs
2)   Self-motivated (good work ethic) and able to function well with minimal supervision
3)   Handlers must become experts in and stay current with Search and Seizure Laws
4)   Have good attendance
5)   Scheduling flexibility
6)   Honesty
7)   Able to clearly articulate facts while writing reports
8)   No history for questionable Use of Force incidents
9)   Willing to make a 5-year commitment to this position
10)   Excellent physical condition
11)   Handlers need to be able to leave their ego somewhere else.


If you are still considering employing a Law Enforcement Service Dog after reading the above paragraphs, then chances are your agency is committed and a Service Dog will be a great asset to your department.

Not having access to a good working canine team would be equivalent to working night shifts without a flashlight. Police Service Dogs are definitely not infallible; however, if chosen and maintained correctly they will be a strong asset to the agency. If initial startup funding is a challenge for your agency, try to think “outside the box” for resources.

Once the program in implemented, a quality scenario-based maintenance training program is essential for the reliability and credibility of the team.

Bio: Steve Dunham has been a law enforcement officer for 21 years and K9 handler for 15 years. He has been professionally training law enforcement canine teams since founding Police Dog Services LLC in 2006. Steve is the vice president of the Ohio Law Enforcement K9 Association and an Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission Canine Unit Evaluator. Please feel free to contact Steve Dunham at

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