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What does an army dog handler do?
An army dog handler works with Military Working Dogs (MWDs) that receive specialised training to carry out key military operations and tasks. This unique partnership between humans and dogs and the specialist training and missions they undertake can save lives.
At the start of their careers, army dog handlers will work with protection dogs and patrol army bases and sites to ensure they are safe and secure. As they progress in their army careers, they may be selected to handle specialist dogs that sniff out arms, explosives, drugs and other dangers. Therefore, what an army dog handler does will depend on where they are in their training and their specialisms.
An army dog handler’s main aim is to train their dogs to the highest standard to support army operations and troops. Handlers must develop a special bond and relationship with the dogs they train and handle, as they will need to instruct them to complete significant and sometimes dangerous tasks that humans cannot accomplish.
An army dog handler can carry out many tasks, including caring for and interacting and forming bonds with Military Working Dogs (MWDs), training MWDs, working with specialist dogs to detect explosives and drugs, transporting MWDs to UK and overseas army bases, supporting the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, carrying out other military tasks, etc.
Army dog handlers can work with various people, depending on their location. They can work with Royal Army Veterinary Corps colleagues in barracks and on low-level training exercises. They can also work with troops on operations or large-scale exercises. They will liaise with military personnel of different ranks and also non-military personnel.
Army dog handlers work wherever they are deployed. Therefore, they can work on army bases and sites. They can also work in barracks, in the field on training exercises or overseas on special missions.
An army dog handler’s responsibilities will depend on where they are based, where they are in their training and their specialisms.
Some examples of duties can include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Caring for Military Working Dogs outside working hours, e.g. walking, kennel cleaning and feeding.
- Training Military Working Dogs for army service and developing a bond with them.
- Patrolling army bases and sites with protection dogs to ensure they are safe and secure.
- Working with specialist Military Working Dogs to detect explosives and drugs.
- Transporting Military Working Dogs to UK and overseas army bases.
- Deploying with Military Working Dogs on army missions.
- Providing canine service support to army personnel where required.
- Working with Military Working Dogs to carry out search and rescue operations.
- Supporting the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.
- Liaising with veterinary technicians and officers.
- Carrying out other military tasks where necessary.
An army dog handler works full time in the regular British Army, and their working hours are variable.
Being an army dog handler is not a 9-5 job, and those entering the profession must be prepared to work unsociable hours. Working with animals can be unpredictable, and individuals may need to work nights, weekends and bank holidays. Handlers and their dogs can be deployed at short notice.
There may be some opportunities for flexible service in the armed forces, e.g. part-time and restricted separation from home base. However, it is not guaranteed, and operational capability comes first.
Travel is required, and army dog handlers can be deployed anywhere in the UK and overseas. They will spend most of their time away from home, family and friends.
What to expect
There are many positives to being an army dog handler, especially if an individual is adventurous with an affinity for animals and wants to travel worldwide.
There is no denying that a military career is challenging and can also be dangerous. However, it is an extremely rewarding role. Individuals develop unique bonds with their dogs and work with them while serving their country in the military. They can also save lives, giving a sense of pride to individuals in this career.
It is a good role for individuals who struggle with academia, as they do not need formal qualifications. They have a good chance of success if they meet the entry requirements and pass the tests.
There are plenty of development opportunities in the military, and individuals can gain various qualifications, skills and experience. Many of these are transferable, which can help individuals enter other careers when they leave, although there is good job security in the army and plenty of benefits and discounts.
Boredom will never be a problem for army dog handlers, and no two days will be the same. Their tasks will vary considerably, and they can work in different locations nationally and overseas. There will be opportunities to work with different dog breeds, such as Labradors, spaniels and German shepherds. Once the dogs retire, individuals can apply to keep them.
Even though being an army dog handler is rewarding, and there are many positives, individuals should consider the cons and challenges, for example:
- Physical demands – individuals must have good physical fitness in the military and maintain it at a certain level. They will spend most of their time outdoors in all weather, and in some countries the conditions can be extreme, e.g. heat, cold, snow and rain. Army personnel wear a uniform and protective clothing, which can be heavy and hot.
- Mental demands – military personnel can face horrific sights and unpleasant scenes during their duties, which can be mentally and emotionally demanding. There is a risk of mental health issues for some personnel, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not uncommon.
- Dangers – as with any career in the military, there is a risk of death, disability and serious injury, especially when working in war zones or natural disasters. There is also a risk to the dogs, which can be upsetting if harmed during their duties. Individuals must fully understand the potential consequences of joining the army.
- Intensive training and competition – becoming an army dog handler is difficult. The training is intensive, and roles are scarce, so competition for them can be fierce. Individuals must stand out from the crowd and be prepared to work hard to be successful.
- Time away from home, family and friends – being in the army means a lot of time away from home, especially when deployed overseas. It can make family life difficult, and there will be little time to spend with loved ones.
- Working with dogs – it is not always easy to work with dogs, especially when training. Some dogs will be easier to train than others, and some can be challenging. Another thing that individuals must bear in mind is that dogs can be unpredictable, particularly if afraid. Individuals will sometimes need a lot of patience during training. Handlers will likely become attached to their dogs and must treat them as working dogs, not pets.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective army dog handlers must know what to expect before deciding whether it is suitable. It is physically and mentally demanding, can be dangerous, and there will be long periods away from home. However, there are many positives too, and it is so rewarding to train dogs in the military to serve your country.
When considering whether to be an army dog handler, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be an army dog handler
Some of the personal qualities that an army dog handler requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for animals, especially dogs.
- A good level of physical fitness, endurance and stamina.
- Patient, caring and compassionate.
- Confident and assertive.
- Excellent communication skills.
- Concentration skills and fast reactions.
- Active listening skills.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Thinking and reasoning skills.
- Leadership skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
- The ability to develop strong relationships.
- The ability to relate to dogs of all ages.
- The ability to work well with others in a team.
- The ability to work in challenging and hostile environments.
- The ability to work mostly outdoors.
- The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to follow and give instructions clearly.
- The ability to maintain good voice control.
- The ability to be consistent and adhere to training plans.
- The ability to work outside of normal working hours to look after animals.
- The ability to be flexible and adapt to change.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to use IT for basic tasks.
Qualifications and training
There are no formal qualifications needed to become an army dog handler.
However, individuals must:
- Apply to the British Army.
- Meet the entry requirements, i.e. age and fitness.
- Complete initial military training.
- Complete further training in the Defence Animal Training Regiment.
Applying to the British Army
An individual cannot become an army dog handler without first joining the British Army. They must complete an online application on the British Army’s website here.
Once an individual has completed their application, they will meet with a local recruiter at an army careers centre and then take tests at an assessment centre.
The British Army has further information and a video on the joining process here.
Meeting the entry requirements
Individuals must meet the following entry requirements to be eligible to join the army:
To join the British Army, individuals must be at least 17 years and six months and no older than 35 years and six months.
Individuals must pass a basic physical fitness assessment/test.
They must be able to:
- Pull 50kg or more in a mid-thigh pull.
- Throw a medicine ball at least 2.7m.
- Complete a multi-stage fitness test (beep test) at level 6.6.
Further information on the fitness assessment can be found here.
If an individual passes, they start their initial military training.
Initial military training
There are two steps for initial military training.
- Step 1 – is 14 weeks and teaches individuals how to be soldiers and is based in Pirbright in Surrey or Winchester, Hampshire. The training covers many things, including fieldcraft and rifle handling.
- Step 2 – is 10-week trade training at the Defence Animal Training Regiment in Melton Mowbray. The training includes:
– An induction week.
– A Protection Handler and Practical Training Assistant course.
– A Field Skills phase.
– A Veterinary First Aid package.
– A key skills test week.
After completing training, individuals can gain level 2/3 apprenticeship qualifications in animal care or specialist Military Working Dogs (MWD) handling qualifications (based on ability and the army’s needs).
Individuals will start working with protection dogs on a military base, guarding and patrolling the area. After gaining experience, individuals may move to work with specialist dogs.
Even though the role requires no formal qualifications, it would help individuals to have experience working with animals, especially dogs, before applying.
Relevant work experience, either paid or voluntary, can help individuals stand out and build their knowledge and skills.
To gain experience working with dogs, they could get a job as:
- A kennel worker.
- A dog handler, trainer, walker, groomer or sitter.
- A dog daycare assistant.
- A dog rescue centre worker or foster carer.
- A security dog handler.
Individuals can also get an insight into army life by joining the Army Cadets if they are between 12 and 18 years old. There is also an option to become an Army Reserve or apply for other army roles and be put forward for the army dog handler role.
Any work experience/training with dogs and working outside can help individuals stand out. Even community courses can help, e.g. dog walking and sitting.
Training courses to become an army dog handler
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training providers can provide relevant training courses.
Some examples of courses that may be useful for army dog handlers include:
- Health and safety, e.g. hazard identification and risk assessment.
- Workplace stress.
- Violence at work.
- First aid.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Equality, diversity and inclusion.
- Time management.
- Customer service skills.
- Conflict management.
- Resilience training.
There are also courses relating to dogs, for example:
- Dog behaviour and training.
- Dog handling.
- Canine nutrition.
- Canine care and welfare.
- First aid for dogs.
- Dog sitting and walking.
- Patrol dog handler.
- Security dog handler.
Charities and federations, such as ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, the Army Families Federation, the British Armed Forces Federation, and army recruiters, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide events and support to help individuals become army dog handlers and give those already in the role the means to continue their professional development.
More relevant work experience, training and competence will open up more opportunities. Refresher training is also advisable, as it keeps knowledge and skills current.
Security and background checks
Individuals will need to undergo security and enhanced background checks. Therefore, it is essential to declare any previously spent and unspent convictions. If an individual has any cautions, convictions or reprimands, other than some motoring offences, or fails to supply details in the application form, their application may not be accepted.
Some minor offences may not automatically exclude an individual from joining, but this will be decided during vetting.
If an individual joins the British Army, they sign up for four years. They can leave after four years but must give 12 months’ notice.
Where do army dog handlers work?
Army dog handlers work for the British Army.
They can work in various places, such as:
- UK military bases.
- Overseas military bases.
- Army sites.
- On operational tours and exercises overseas.
- Natural disaster areas.
- Other locations where necessary.
There is also a Military Working Dog Troop permanently based in Cyprus.
The exact location where an army dog handler works will depend on where they are in their training and where they are deployed afterwards. Deployments tend to be at least six months.
How much do army dog handlers earn?
During training, individuals will earn £16,844 as a minimum. After they complete their basic trade training or when they have completed 26 weeks of service, their pay will increase to £21,425.
If an individual moves up the ranks and gains more experience, they can receive higher pay.
Army regular soldiers receive many benefits on top of their salary, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- 38 days paid leave.
- Subsidised food and accommodation.
- Free gym and sports facilities.
- Free dental and medical care.
- Free pension.
- Qualifications, apprenticeships and world-class training.
The pay and benefits are different for Army Reserve roles. Further information can be found here.
Types of army dog handling to specialise in
As stated, army dog handlers will begin working with protection dogs, patrolling army bases and sites to ensure they are safe and secure.
As they progress in their career, they may be selected to handle specialist dogs that carry out the following (this list is not exhaustive):
- Patrol – used to highlight the presence of enemy forces or unidentified personnel within an area of responsibility. They can be used for static or patrolling sentry, within an ambush, crowd control or as an escort for detainees. Most of these dogs are Belgian Malinois and German shepherds.
- Arms explosive search – search various areas and buildings to detect the presence of weapons, explosives and ammunition. These dogs are mostly Labradors and spaniels.
- High assurance search – carry out high-intensity slow and systematic searches of a given area to detect improvised explosive devices during high-risk search operations. Most of these dogs are Belgian Malinois.
- Vehicle search – search all types of vehicles and vehicle platforms for the presence of weapons, explosives and ammunition mainly at main entry points to installations and barracks. The majority of these dogs are spaniels.
Further information on specialist dogs and roles can be found here.
As you can see, individuals can also specialise in training different breeds of dogs depending on the specialist activities.
Various army dog handling roles will require differing knowledge, training, skills, experience and qualities. All army dog handlers must enjoy working outdoors in challenging and hostile environments. They must also have a passion for dogs and be patient and consistent. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what the army wants and the specialisms an individual wants to work in.
Army dog handlers not competently carrying out their roles can result in dogs not being trained correctly and missing vital dangers, which can put people at risk. In worse cases, handlers, dogs and others could be injured and lives threatened. Therefore, army dog handlers must be competent and ensure they are suitable for the role. They must also be able to gauge when dogs are not suited for the job.
Standards, codes, training techniques, laws, technologies and the world are regularly changing. Therefore, army dog handlers must keep ahead of the latest developments and changes to carry out their roles effectively, safely and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives army dog handlers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities and progress in their careers.
Joining a charity or federation can help prospective and current army dog handlers enhance their skills and overall career. They may offer different levels of membership, CPD, support and access to industry contacts and networking events. The British Army also offers many learning and development opportunities.
There is an opportunity for career progression for army dog handlers. With more qualifications and experience, they can move up the ranks or into a specialist unit like the commandos. They could also become a veterinary officer if they take further qualifications or move into a training or instructor role.
Knowledge, skills and experience from being an army dog handler can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, if they left the army, they could use their transferable skills to apply for a job in the police as a dog handler/puppy development assistant, work with guide dogs or work with dogs in a rescue centre. They could become self-employed and have their own business working with dogs.
There are also other career options after leaving the army. The Career Transition Partnership, Quest and Troops to Teachers can provide individuals with information on career options outside the armed forces.