Administrative Support for K-9 Programs

The development and maintenance of a successful K-9 program is dependent on the administration. That seems like a no-brainer. But among many departments the K-9 unit seems to be driven haphazardly from the bottom up. Often, especially in smaller departments, K-9 programs begin by an interested officer approaching the administration and convincing them that a K-9 added to the department’s patrol division would be a service to the community. Then a grassroots sort of approach to getting a dog ensues. Once the dog has been purchased, the handler sent to school, and the two achieve certification, support stops. In reality, this point is nothing more than a starting point or a license to begin; but all too often the program is left to flounder. Here is where administrative and supervisory support or lack thereof can make or break a K-9 program.

Administratively, what needs to happen to fulfill the necessary requirements in supporting a K-9 program? If you already have a standing K-9 program is it being supported and nurtured, or is it just hanging in there with handlers struggling to meet their own needs? Although no two K-9 programs are exactly alike, there are some commonalities that can be addressed. All programs need a policy, education, maintenance training, continuing education, resources and documentation.

Policy & Procedure

Believe it or not there are many programs that operate without a policy in place. Policy can be developed from other agencies in the area, or from a variety of sources that provide model policies as a starting point for a given application. Keep collective bargaining agreements in mind, and the fact that there are Fair Labor Standards Act issues that must be addressed when a handler houses and transports his/her canine to and from work. There are many approaches to fulfilling those requirements and they are often addressed within a collective bargaining agreement.

If you have a K-9 policy, when was the last time it underwent a top-to-bottom review? It might be time to update it to reflect today’s issues. Policy development and reviews should occur on a regular basis. This should be an expected part of a K-9 program. There are a variety of resources for policies that pertain to K-9, such as neighboring programs, national organizations, your K-9 vendor or instructors as well as department legal staff.

The policy needs to cover housing, healthcare, training and deploying the K-9, and the handling of equipment for training such as controlled substances and explosives storage to conform to state, federal and local regulations.

Departmental Education

Department-wide education is a must. What are the capabilities of your K-9 unit and do all members of your department know how to access those capabilities and under what criteria they can be accessed? In the case of a patrol K-9 program, have the personnel in the field been educated on conducting various types of searches and being part of a K-9 arrest and apprehension? Are your field officers aware of the requirements for a successful K-9 search? Do investigators know when a K-9 unit can assist them in narcotics investigation, evidence collection and even missing persons and human remains calls?

Your K-9 handlers should be an integral part of this educational process, providing instruction on the capabilities of your department’s program. Demonstrations of those capabilities go a long ways toward building confidence in the program and allaying the fear a few officers might have of the dogs. These educational opportunities should be provided to cadets, personnel assigned as FTOs and those who are long-standing members of the department. The format can be a formal course in the academy, briefings between shifts and in update training throughout the year.

K-9 programs are man-hour intensive specialties. To obtain the most from the commitment to such a specialty, departmental personnel must know what they are capable of, when to ask for and how to obtain their assistance. The patrol K-9 represents the safest means of contacting a potentially violent suspect who is attempting to evade and elude capture for field personnel to include them in their work.

Maintenance Training, Documentation & Certification

K-9 teams must be maintained in accordance with national standards. This would include 4–8 hours per week of maintenance training for teams that have successfully completed basic training and have achieved certifications in the skills in which they will be deployed. More may be necessary for remediation or the addition of deployment responsibilities. Documentation of maintenance training and deployment is mandatory. Supervision and administration must monitor the documentation of deployments and injuries as a result for adherence to policy and appropriateness under use of force guidelines derived from the case Graham v. Connor.

Appropriately, a certified departmental instructor or trainer can monitor conducted training. This can be either a member of your department, another area department or a contracted professional. At least once per year as a minimum, the teams should be subjected to a certification examination that meets or exceeds the standards that are recognized for those endeavors.

If your patrol K-9 is expected to support tactical operations, are both the SWAT team and K-9 unit prepared? The basic patrol dog team needs to receive additional training to function in this role. The handler should have basic training in tactical operations and advanced K-9 training in operating as a K-9 team in tactical operations. The K-9 team must also have prepared for the expected deployments in maintenance training followed by integrated training with the tactical team. The amount of time integrating K-9 with the tactical teams in accordance with the National Tactical Officers Association is 16 hours per year for part-time teams and 32 hours per year for full-time teams. This certainly should be considered a minimum for integrating these two specialties.

Skillfully integrating the K-9’s skills into SWAT will require that those skills be honed during regular K-9 maintenance training, which could increase the number of hours dedicated to K-9 training away from the tactical team. The hours of training needed to integrate these two specialties should be considered on top of basic training and maintenance training hours. Resist the temptation to rob Peter to pay Paul and call SWAT training “maintenance training” to save a couple bucks in scheduled training time. The K-9 handler should also be outfitted with appropriate uniform and equipment for deployment with the tactical team. Appropriate body armor, helmet, gas mask and communications gear are a minimum. There may not be a need for specialty arms but protective equipment is a must.

Continuing Education & Resources

The K-9 handler should be expected to keep current on ever-evolving case law, deployment techniques and training technology. To do this, the handler should be expected to attend events that provide such information. There are many opportunities in the police K-9 field to attend conferences at the state and national level. Various organizations produce training and non-dog events meant to network among experts in the K-9 field and expose new training, new deployments and supporting technology and techniques for K-9 programs. K-9 handlers should become proficient in man trailing, less lethal tools and use of force since these categories are integral to K-9 deployments. Only through continuing education can this become possible.

K-9 programs need resources in the form of training, controlled substances and explosives as well as the storage needs incurred by providing the associated skills. This and continuing education is directly related to the supervision and administration of a K-9 program. Budgeting, scheduling and resource allotment fall squarely on the shoulders of the administration. Administrations often highly approve of the public relations benefits that a K-9 program brings not only among the public but also among the members of their department. Without support, K-9 programs recede and stagnate, losing their utility and even the respect of the department as a whole.

Keeping the K-9 program up to date and well managed can keep a valuable and irreplaceable program serving the department and the community. Administrative support provides a professional and proficient program that the department as a whole can be proud of and the public can feel proud and well served as well.

KEVIN R. SHELDAHL is a retired deputy sheriff with 32 years of K-9 training and deployment experience. He is a K-9 instructor and judge who works under his business, K-9 Services ( He trains handlers and instructors and provides workshops on detection, tactical operations, tracking and problem solving, as well as consultation and expert services to law enforcement agencies.

Law Officer is the only major law enforcement publication and website owned and operated by law enforcement. This unique facet makes Law Officer much more than just a publishing company but is a true advocate for the profession.



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