Officer Fluffy: How Police Dog Training Happens

Police dogs are a critical part of law enforcement agencies across the country. Their unique abilities make these animals ideal partners for K-9 police officers. The value of trained police dogs is clear when you consider that, according to Slate, “anyone who kills a federal law enforcement animal will face fines and up to 10 years in prison.” It is most common for breeds such as German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Doberman pinschers and bloodhounds to work as police dogs due to a combination of temperament, strength and a powerful sense of smell.

Police Dog Training
Law enforcement officers who partner with police dogs are referred to as K-9 officers. They work for local, state and federal agencies like Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). These officers receive specialized training to learn how to interact effectively with police dogs.

Police Dog Training

K-9 officers work with police dogs to discover drugs and explosives, locate and rescue missing people, perform inspections and more. Training begins when a dog is 1 to 2 years old, after the animal is tested “to ensure it has the right temperament for the job and can easily adapt to different environments. The most essential characteristic of a good K-9 dog is its defense drive, as well as its instinct to chase and apprehend prey,” according to Career Profiles.

Drug Sniffing

Training for drug sniffing involves the use of decoys who create scenarios that test a canine’s response, according to How Police Dogs Work by Ed Grabianowski. This training provides behavioral feedback for the dog, teaching it what is expected on the job. Decoy training involves hiding an object, usually a towel, with drugs concealed inside it. The dog then locates the towel and is rewarded with play. Once the dog is trained, it can locate hidden illegal substances in airports, cars, warehouses, residences and more.

How Police Dog Training Happens

Finding Explosives

Police dogs who are trained in finding explosives are tasked with detecting bombs in airports, transportation hubs, schools, shopping centers and other large venues. Their work is high stakes and can save countless lives. These canines are trained to smell the chemical compounds present in explosives, including:

  • powders
  • water gel
  • RDX
  • commercial dynamite
  • other explosive components

Rather than being able to identify an explosive as a whole, police dogs smell the various components commonly used when creating bombs. Training for bomb sniffing dogs is delivered through repetition and reward.

Police Dog Training in Action

Locating Missing Persons

Search-and-rescue dogs find missing persons who have been kidnapped, run away or were victims of a natural disaster or other catastrophe. They work to find people in disaster zones, large neighborhoods, forests and secluded areas. Most search-and-rescue dogs must be certified in urban search and rescue, according to FEMA.

“For the handler, certification includes tests regarding search strategies and tactics, mapping, search and victim markings, briefing and debriefing skills, in addition to canine handling skills. For the disaster search canine, certification includes proper command control, agility skills, a focused bark alert to indicate a live find,” FEMA explains. Training methods for this type of police dog include conditioning the animal to find airborne scents though praise and reward. They are also trained in tracking, trailing, air scent and cadaver location.

Training for Police Dogs

Criminal Justice at Virginia Wesleyan University

In most cases, police officers can begin applying for K-9 duties after about two to four years on the job, according to Career Profiles. “A common requirement for becoming a K-9 police officer is the completion of a criminal justice degree or advanced law enforcement training,” the same source notes. Virginia Wesleyan University offers an online criminal justice degree that prepares students for the demands of a successful career in law enforcement.

The program is interdisciplinary, combining a liberal arts education with specialized coursework in criminal justice. Expert instructors guide students as they explore key criminal justice issues and their broader social context. Find out more about this flexible online program today to get started.