What Does a Military Working Dog Handler (31K) Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image shows a man in military uniform walking a dog in a military vest. Text reads: "What does a military working dog handler (31K) do? Working as a military dog handler requires: Affection and compassion, understanding dogs, a medical screen and background check, interviewing with the kennel master. Military working dogs search for narcotic drugs or explosives and may also be trained as combat trackers or patrol dogs.

Image by Melissa Ling © The Balance 2019

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 the fundamental relationship between canines and their handlers in military occupational specialty (MOS) 31K.

Military Working Dog Handler Duties & Responsibilities

A dog handler in the Army is responsible for the daily care and grooming of their animal, keeping the animal's kennel clean and the animal fit, by providing daily exercise. Part of the job involves briefing Army leadership on what the dog brings to a given mission, and 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.

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 patrol dogs, and may be required to conduct Secret Service missions, as well as health and welfare inspections. Handlers may work in the following areas or perform these types of duties:

  • Patrol Drug Detector Dog (PDDD) handler
  • Patrol Explosive Detector Dog (PEDD) handler
  • Health and Welfare searches
  • Law and Order operations
  • Installation Force Protection and Law and Order support
  • VIP support
  • Customs support

Military Working Dog Handler Salary

Total compensation for this position includes food, housing, special pay, medical, and vacation time. If you enlist under certain MOS codes in the Army, you may also be eligible for certain cash bonuses of up to $40,000 if the HR specialist job is considered one of the Army's Jobs in Demand.

You may also be able to earn education benefits, such as scholarships to cover the full cost of tuition, a stipend for living expenses, and money for books and fees.

Education, Training & Certification

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.

  • Testing: Candidates must first take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which is a series of tests that helps the Army understand your strengths and identify which Army job(s) fit your talents. They must score a 91 in Skilled Technical (ST).
  • Training: Handlers are trained for 11 weeks at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. (The Air Force heads upthe working dog program for the entire Department of Defense.) The training course covers such topics as care, feeding, and grooming, including doggy first aid, how to maintain obedience and control aggression, searching, scouting and patrolling and learning how to handle conditions when under gunfire.
  • Certification: Also, 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, luggage, warehouses and various open areas.

Just to be clear, certification isn't all on the dog. The regulation suggests that handlers get two strikes — a chance to certify with two dogs — before failure means you're booted from the MOS. But most handlers bond relatively easily with their dogs, and work to keep the connection with the animal strong.

Military Working Dog Handler Skills & Competencies

Working as a military dog handler requires other skills in addition to training and certification, such as:

  • Affection and compassion: Prospective handlers must exhibit a high degree of affection for their animal. The working dog program's philosophy is "one dog, one handler" until the dog retires from service. The bond between handler and animal should be strong, since they may rely on each other in a combat situation or other high-stakes situation.
  • Other requirements: Applicants for this job need to pass a medical screen and abackground check, obtain a passport, and successfully complete an interview with the kennel master or unit commander in order to qualify for this voluntary assignment.
  • Understanding dogs: Ability to understand conditioning behaviors in training dogs.
  • Patience: Applicants need to have the patience to train their animal and treat them with respect regardless of the situation.

Job Outlook

The skills you learn in this position will help prepare you to take on a civilian career with federal, state and local law enforcement. Many of the skills you learn will also help you to perform civilian jobs that involve working with animals, and general management positions.

Partnership for Youth Success (PaYS) Program

Soldiers interested in jobs working with animals once outside of the military may be eligible for civilian employment by enrolling in the Army PaYS program. The PaYS program is a recruitment option that guarantees a job interview with military friendly employers that are looking for experienced and trained Veterans to join their organization. You can find out more online at the Army PaYS Program site. The following are some of the companies that participate in the program:

  • LAPD
  • New York City Police Dept.
  • Louisville Metro Police
  • Clearwater PD
  • Alabama Department of Corrections
  • Las Vegas Metro Police Department
  • Kansas Highway Patrol
  • City of Chicago
  • Baltimore Police Department
  • Corpus Christi Police Department

Work Environment

The job of a military working dog handler is performed in the field and may involve working in rugged terrain and all kinds of weather conditions.

Work Schedule

This position typically has a full-time work schedule. 

How to Get the Job


Complete Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training.


Take the ASVAB Test and achieve the appropriate ASVAB Score of 91 in Skilled Technical (ST).


Make sure that you can meet any additional requirements, such as a background investigation, secret security clearance, and physical strength requirements.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in a military working dog handler career also consider the following civilian career paths, listed with their median annual salaries:

  • Police: $63,380
  • Private Detective or investigator: $50,090