Career Profile: Military Working Dog Handler

Military dog
labsas/Getty Images

"Man's best friend," hardly content to sit it out at home eating Kibbles, has been steady and true by soldiers' sides for ages. Even in today's 21st century Army, where some soldiers are now trained to hit their target from the opposite hemisphere with unmanned aircraft, there's still a place for this fundamental relationship between canines and their handlers in military occupational specialty (MOS) 31K.

Duties and Responsibilities

According to Army Regulation 190-12 dog handlers in the Army have these basic responsibilities:

  • Daily care and grooming
  • Kennel cleaning and maintenance
  • Keeping their dogs physically fit through daily training and exercise
  • Furnish briefs and presentations to Army leadership explaining what their dogs can bring to the mission
  • Administrative duties, such as record keeping

Military working dog (MWD) teams are always at work, both at home and abroad, supporting combat missions or daily law enforcement. In fact, regulations prohibit loading extra assignments on a K-9 handler that would interfere with his or her primary duties. Of course, that doesn't keep handlers from going through standard Army training requirements like field exercises -- it just means that they're supposed to be exempt from collateral duties and "make-busy" work that would keep them from training, caring for, and putting their furry friends first.

MOS 31K doesn't exist just so that some soldiers can get paid to have a dog, of course. Military working dogs are employed primarily to search either for narcotic drugs or explosives. In fact, canines can only be trained to search for one or the other throughout their careers, to keep their snouts specialized.

Dogs may also be trained as combat trackers or patrollers, and "may be required to conduct Secret Service missions, [and] health and welfare inspections."

Military Requirements

Formerly a "specialized skill set" for soldiers who already had a primary MOS, military working dog handler became its own full-fledged MOS in 2012. Until recently, it wasn't an entry-level position: Applicants were drawn from the Army's military police (MP) career field, with enough experience to demonstrate their proficiency and maturity. Regulation 190-12 still reads that handlers "[s]hould not be selected or recruited directly out of primary MOS producing schools."

However, it appears that's changing, even if the regulation hasn't yet. According to this release from Army public affairs in October 2012, the Army is preparing to "create a balance within the ranks of [their] MWD handlers . . . [by] October 2014" by training entry-level soldiers in the MOS.

Applicants also need to pass a medical screen, criminal background check, obtain a passport, and successfully complete an interview with the kennel master or unit commander in order to qualify for this voluntary assignment.

The most linguistically interesting requirement in the regulation, so far as I'm concerned, is that prospective handlers must "exhibit a high degree of affection for the MWD." Bet you won't find that word (my own emphasis) in too many Army manuals.

The working dog program's philosophy is "one dog, one handler" until the dog retires from service. Or as author Robert Heinlein put it in his novel Starship Troopers, "The emotional relationship between the dog-man and the man-dog in the K-9 team is a great deal closer and much more important than is the emotional relationship in most marriages."

Perhaps he was exaggerating a bit, but when your trusty military careers writer turns to science fiction for quotes, you've got to roll with the punches. I'm just trying to keep you awake, here.

Education

Handlers are trained for 11 weeks at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. (The Air Force heads up the working dog program for the entire Department of Defense.) According to their website, the course covers such topics as:

  • Care, feeding, and grooming, including doggy first aid
  • How to maintain obedience and control aggression
  • Searching, scoutingĀ and patrolling
  • "Conditions under gunfire"

In addition, once paired up, a soldier/dog team must be certified ready for work before they can move forward, and re-certify each year. Certification includes odor recognition, appropriate use of "dummy" explosives and narcotics to keep the dog sharp, and practice searches of a variety of areas such as "vehicles . . . barracks . . . theatre[s], luggage . . . warehouse[s] . . . and open areas" (Regulation 190-12.)

Just to be clear, certification isn't all on the dog's shoulders. The regulation implies that handlers get two strikes -- a chance to certify with two dogs -- before failure means you're booted from the MOS.

Certifications

The Army Credentialing Opportunities On Line (COOL) site claims, "An analysis has not yet been completed on MOS 31K Working Dog Handler," but there are a few canine-specific certifications listed for military police that would obviously only work out if you're a handler. The Eastern States Working Dog Association offers "mid-level certification" for Police Service Dog and Explosive Detection. Neither certification is described as covered by Army or GI Bill funds on COOL, though I see no mention on the association's website of any certification fees other than a $45 fee to apply for active membership.