So You Think You Want
to be a Dog Handler

By Kevin R. Sheldahl

I was asked by one of the editors of K-9 Magazine to write an article. I have written articles in the past but it has been a few years.  After participating in a couple decades of training and education I had to ask myself what I really had to offer.  Sure I was successful at training new handlers, dogs, and deploying dogs myself, and doing so in a variety of environments including patrol, and tactical operations and interdiction efforts, as well as security operations for dignitaries and sporting events, even found a few of our deceased, but hey what do I know?  Especially since I preach a lot about this craft being a hands on, experience driven, specialty.  What could I write about?  What do I have to say?   From time to time I ask myself: Do I have anything of value that hasn’t been said?  Does anyone care?  So I just went about my business with the attitude “ I’m busy and my students need my time,” so I blew off the idea of writing articles for a while.  Instead I wrote curriculum and expert reports, and knocked out a few power points, but they really aren’t the same as trying to motivate and or entertain or even bemuse current or potential K-9 people.    I seemed to have gotten a bit of flexibility in my schedule now.  I am going through a huge adjustment (no, no it’s not male menopause, or at least I don’t think it is!).  I am no longer a dog Handler.  Whew, I said it!  I am no longer a dog Handler.  It has defined me for decades.  Driving around with a furry critter barking in my ear, knowing he agreed with all my complaints whether they were about the dispatchers, the rookies, or the administration.  Knowing no brass was going inspect the inside of my damned patrol vehicle since they really didn’t know what to do about a stinky K-9 car anyway.  Driving around my county hoping for the next decent search.  Racing my peers to the next call to see who gets the deployment!  Yep, it is an adjustment.  So maybe if I write it will help in the adjustment.   I have often thought about the books and articles I have read about service dog training, those from civilians, law enforcement and military.  Something seems lacking, not because of their content, many are superbly written and the authors show they are well versed in the craft of dog training and/or law enforcement education, and some……… not so much.  It made me wonder was something missing, and could I contribute?   Is there something that affects the guy/gal that is just starting out in this escapade called dog handling, and struggling to become a Handler that I can offer?  Is there some insight into being a Handler I can convey? There is a shock which, the perspective handler experiences whether that is in law enforcement in the cement jungles of today’s mega cities, or the rural Deputy where their only back up is their dog, or the theater of war and special operations.  There seems to be missing an understanding of what this task entails until the prospective handler is elbow deep in the mechanics of it.  The technical information seems to be out there although frankly, experience and expertise among authors often seem to be lacking if not the effort to impart the knowledge necessary in the articles and books I have read.  Of course the art of training and deploying is only partly an academic skill.  It must be experienced, and felt; yet some still don’t “feel” it.  It is a craft. There is a need to have hands on under the guidance of some one who has been there, who has trained dogs, has educated handlers, and experienced the field first hand.  That of course cannot come from a book or article, what seems to prevail in many of these is self-promotion.  The craft must come from a mentor.  But maybe, just maybe I could touch the soul of the perspective handler enough to influence them as they approach their journey to become a Handler.  Maybe that is grandiose, maybe I think too much of myself but hell I am going give it a try.   First, training dogs is a craft.  You need a dog and a leash.  High tech crap has come along but it hasn’t changed the basics of training and deploying dogs. It is a craft; understand you have to have boots on the ground and have an opportunity to flourish in your environment to develop the craft.  Man and dogs have worked together for millenniums.  The modern police dog has existed well over the century mark.  So how do you get there?   In the beginning you end up selected to do the job.  Wow! this is often a feat in itself as K-9 Handler positions are often highly competitive.  You got there and that says something about your standing in your department, but nothing about becoming a Handler.  I am going tell you here and now, it can be good for your career if you are motivated, driven, independent and also a team player, and you are given the chance and the tools.  Or it can wreck a career or severely hinder it.  If you aren’t cut out to become a dog Handler (I don’t mean a dog lover, or a pet guy, or even a dog trainer, I mean a service dog Handler) you are screwed.  Your peers will hate to call you, hate to see you show up on scene, and do what ever they can to not need you.  They will talk behind your back to your peers and your supervisors.  Your reputation will be diminished.  Get the message from the start, you can be awarded a handler position and never succeed to become a Handler.   So if you are going do this thing do it.  If not get out NOW!   Wow, and you thought this would be about dog training and the mysteries of service dog work and I would quote Hemingway and Wells “the hunting of man….” And all that.   Not a chance you’ve got to earn that.  You are going to put time in that isn’t compensated, you are going to strain relationships, and you are going to feel like a rookie again.  This will test your character.  Once you get there you can wear that t-shirt that quotes Wells.   At some point you will go to a Basic Handler Course.  There are many of these and like everything else in law enforcement what you get tends to be dictated by history, culture, and who knows who, and politics.  I hate to tell you this but as a group we are lucky that Basic k-9 Handling and training isn’t brain surgery or rocket science cause we would get nowhere fast.  All too many of the “courses” lack in academics and expertise, the instructors are stuck in “that is the way we did it when dinosaurs roamed the earth so its good enough for you” thinking.  Instructors may have been around so long they handled a velocoraptor. Good instructors evolved and bad ones didn’t (too bad they too didn’t go extinct). Really courses where the instructors are following a cookbook given to them by prior instructors are a proclamation that given instructor only knows one way, sorta…and hasn’t the expertise to teach you to be a trainer or handler because they are still struggling themselves to see what each team needs.  Then again you might go to a vender-based school.  This is also potluck.  The vender probably has some kind of experience, sport dog training, or military training, or law enforcement but most often it is only a few years of any of the above.  Few are die-hard dog warriors with decades of work to refer back to, instructors who can truly say, they have been there and done that over and over.  But, some are decent instructors or decent trainers, a very few are both.  If you are lucky you will get one that is.   If I were asked to describe the perfect instructional staff, I would say it this way.  They must be experienced instructors who qualify to teach many things in their field in which they have decades of experience doing and many successful students to their credit.  They must have hands on trained many handlers and dogs and count their success as a degree of expertise seen among the majority of their students.  They should emphasize the academic without the didactic suffering. Academics should not seem disconnected from the mechanics of training and deployment.  They will know cops are ADD and if you don’t give them the information within the context of the task they won’t hold onto it.  They should challenge the student to think on their feet, to problem solve based on their own previous training and experiences not simply march left and right as told.  The K-9 Handler has to think independently, quickly, and confidently.  This doesn’t come from cookbook training.  Unfortunately most advanced training in law enforcement and military circles is about checking the boxes, covering the department’s ass, not education.  The ideal instructor balances the needs of training documentation as well as having a heartfelt approach to continuing the craft in a professional manner.  They also choose to further the craft through new and innovative technique and information.  The education component isn’t missing, the great instructor forces the perspective handler to think and problem solve until they produce independence within the context of training and deploying dogs to perform law enforcement tasks.   The new handler will feel frustrated, maybe infuriated at times.  The new dog feels that the handler is new.  These dogs come from dog people who have a touch, or an attitude, or simply a skill the dog feels is missing in this new guy/gal.  They test, they refuse, they look for their boundaries or they simply don’t understand what is being asked in an entirely new environment and context for them.  If your instructor says they are a trained police dog beware, unless this dog was a seasoned street dog first it isn’t a police dog no matter how much the vender charged, and if it was on the street you have to question why it was given up.  The dogs must be handled with fairness and respect.  Hard for a newbie to do when they don’t even know the first thing about the dog they are handling.  “One end bites, the other poops and the part in between you pet” it is a quote from a instructor introducing a dog to new handler, funny maybe but it is start a beginning!    It is a rare field, handling and training working dogs, some of which can protest or demand and refuse.  These are not the dogs you saw on the news!  They are not the dogs you dreamed about, at least not without a handler/trainer of some expertise.  Some are down right pricks and you might even get bit. Many have so much energy they make you wonder how they could ever be trained to perform under direction, and the newbie wonders why the instructor thinks so much of the dog whirling like a top at the end of the leash you were just handed.  The dog certainly doesn’t care much about this new guy/gal holding their leash at the start of this adventure.   How about developing a relationship with the new service dog and balancing that with the serious task of being a Handler? What should that relationship be? The handler must respect the dog, understand the dog, and enjoy the training and deploying of the dog.  There are some real pitfalls in potential handlers character that can make this difficult to do.   First, dog lovers suck.  Why?  They tend to be afraid to put their dog in harms way, they tend to make excuses for the dogs failures, and they anthropomorphize the dog’s behaviors.  They also can’t seem to stick to a training regimen.  They keep looking for a way for skills to come easy to the dog.  They tend to think if they love their dog it will do the work for them…love them back.  The very worst thing is these teams are never productive, and can be downright dangerous.   The attitude that the dog is a tool and nothing more fails as well.  This thing you handle isn’t a piece of equipment with specifications that should come out of the box and perform.  It isn’t disposable and it doesn’t grow egos and don’t work as male enhancement pills any better than the crap advertised on late night TV.  Yep, this dog you were given will take a dump when it needs to…even if you are asking him to clear a doorway for your swat team, or at the local mid-school while you are diligently trying to impress on children, teachers, and parents how professional of a K-9 program and department you represent.  He won’t respond to an ass kicking if he doesn’t understand, and he will fail you because he doesn’t understand if you don’t train consistently and expertly.  Sorry folks but this is what is real.    To get the best from a dog you need guidance in obtaining the dog, good education about the tasks you will be assigned, and doggedly (get the pun?), repetitive, training, that produces the desired behaviors in your dog regardless of the conditions in which you find yourself.  This only comes from dedicated and appropriate work and a partnership with your dog that explores the boundaries of what the dog is capable of doing and a handler that knows the limitations of the dog and their training as it evolves throughout their career together.   Not exactly like learning how to administer a standardized field sobriety test is it?!   So how do you obtain this magic combination?  You find the right dog, the right instructor, and the right training environment and work ethic to help you succeed.  Then you get to work, training, and learning, and experiencing what it is like to go out and hunt for that bad guy.  It is a rush, one I have enjoyed for more than 2 decades, 3 if you add training and instructing to deploying.   So what do you need?  Persistence, humility, professionalism, desire, even temperament, ability to listen and learn, to be a great student, to name a few of the traits you will need.  You must respect the animal you work with and the work that you do, not derive your ego from your dog but having bit of ego can drive you to work hard if you have the right balance within yourself. The fact is you need an ego to do this work, not bravado, not ego on display, but ego driving you to success.   It must come naturally from your desire to be successful, to not care about the judgments of many of your peers but to seek success for you and your canine partner and the gratification you derive from your successes.   You must be a dog Handler, a dog warrior, the best, the brightest, the coolest, the most humble, and the most egotistical of law enforcement personnel.    If you have these things you can be successful. It shouldn’t be a wonder when you deploy your partner and it succeeds.  It will be a skill the two of you have partnered together to master, a true partnership of the likes no one who hasn’t done it before can understand.  This is the epitome of the co-evolution of man and dog.  You should develop a feeling of self worth when you arrive at a scene and all eyes are on you to organize and direct the search and capture of a violent suspect.  Nothing feels like it.  Nothing else can.   In Japanese Bushido there is a term relating to combat that might express what I am trying to convey, Sanchin. It is a word, which refers to the culmination of training, experience, skill and expertise, self-confidence, and a touch of arrogance in the face of an opponent by a warrior.  Sanchin defines the expert canine Handler.   If you are a dog handler, you may understand this article. If you are a Handler you will understand this article. If you want to be a dog handler you should think on this article because someday you may understand it.