So you want to be a dog handler in the military — awesome! — but you have no idea where to start or what that journey looks like? No worries, we got you. The Military Working Dog Handler course is where all U.S. military canine handlers receive their training, and the 341st Training Squadron is responsible for training both handlers and dogs for all of the different branches of the military. 

About 1,600 military working dogs are currently serving in the U.S. military, spread throughout all branches of service. Along with the dogs, there are handlers who know everything about their partner: body language, the way they walk, and other non-verbal signs that help the team work effectively in a warzone. 

Master at Arms 1 Brianna Flores is an Instructor Supervisor for the 341st Training Squadron Military Working Dog Handler’s Course. Of course, she wants service members who have thick skin and can take criticism, but she said there’s a little more they look for in a handler.

“We’re honestly just looking for someone that’s confident. You have to be able to work a dog, and you have to be competent at doing that,” Flores said. “But at the same time, someone that’s going to honor the dog and put the dog first because that’s our number one priority at the end of the day.”

MA1 Brianna Flores with a military working dog
MA1 Brianna Flores is an Instructor Supervisor for the 341st Training Squadron Military Working Dog Handler’s Course. Photo courtesy of the 37th Training Wing.

A brief history of the Military Working Dog Handler Course

The U.S. military had a canine force in World War I. They carted around ammo carts and machine guns, warned of incoming deadly mustard gas, and many other tasks that put their lives on the line, like the soldiers fighting in the trenches. 

Military dogs did not become officially recognized until March 13, 1942, when Dogs for Defense was established to recruit dogs for the U.S. military’s War Dog Program, known as the K-9 Corps. The direct lineage of the 341st Training Squadron’s military Working Dog Handler Course was predated by several programs launched by the different military branches, but the Air Force owns the lineage.

In 1952, the Air Force activated the first sentry dog school at Showa Air Station, Japan. A second school was opened a year later in Wiesbaden, West Germany. It wasn’t until the DOD Military Working Dog Program was established at Lackland Air Force Base in 1957 that all the working dogs and handler training was brought under the same roof. 

The 341st Training Squadron was established on Apr 1, 1994, and has run the program ever since. The Squadron is responsible for training handlers, kennel masters, and MWDs. They also are the sole provider of the dogs trained to be MWDs. 

The MWD teams started out with a limited skillset, detecting enemy soldiers and attacking them on command. They have since progressed into detecting mines, drugs, explosives, and many other specialized skills. Handlers and their canine partners have worked diligently in hostile terrain to keep their fellow service members safe. Several MWDs have sacrificed themselves for the better good of our country. 

How long is the Military Working Dog Handler Course?

The timeline to become an MWD Handler starts before attending the course for most services. The Army is the only branch that has a dedicated MOS — 31k — that allows you to select the job and get a guaranteed slot in the course, though it’s not available to the soldiers in the Army Reserve or Army officers. 

All other branches typically require you to start as Military Police or Security Forces as well as spend time apprenticing at a kennel on base or specific to the unit. For the Navy, you must have the Master At Arms Navy Enlisted Classification (NEC) before you can apply to the course. The Navy has two routes to become an MWD Handler, starting with their accession program. 

When sailors are attending MAA training at the Naval Technical Training Center (NTTC), permanent party MWD trainers select and interview candidates. If you’re selected, you will attend the course following the MAA training completion. The second route is for those without that NEC and are in the fleet with a different rate. 

They will have to start with kennel support, which is like on-the-job training. Once a sailor proves to the Kennel Master they are ready, the Navy program manager will approve or deny the sailor’s slot at the course. The Air Force and Marine Corps have similar requirements to the Navy. So, depending on your branch of service, your pathway to becoming an MWD Handler can vary.

The MWD Handler course is 55 days long. That breaks down into classroom work and hands-on training that candidates are eased into throughout the course’s three blocks. Candidates will not train with the MWDs until blocks two and three.

Military Working Dog Handler Course requirements

It’s important to know that this course only covers the handlers and the MWDs that work in the conventional military. Special operations units have canines and their handlers undergo different selections and training outside of the 341st Training Squadron. 

Requirements are specific to the service member’s branch of service. We reached out directly to the 341st Training Squadron, and each branch program provided its current requirements as of February 2024. 

Marine Corps

  • Must possess MOS of 5811 Military Police Officer before attending
  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • Must work well with others
  • Meet all medical / fitness requirements
  • Must be pre-screened in MP school, or screened at home station from the kennel master/trainer/handlers for recommendation 


  • Pipeline program for MOS 31K
  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • Must be between 17 and 34 years old 
  • Hold a high school diploma/GED
  • Can be an insert from the field and recommend E-4 but can submit a waiver through branch proponent if they are promotable or currently an E-5
  • Meet all medical/fitness requirements

Air Force

  • Possess Security Forces AFSC before applying for the Handler Course
  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • Meet time in service requirement before submission or meet retention requirement after selection
  • Meet all medical/fitness requirements


  • Must possess a rating of master at arms
  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • Can be selected during A-school through an interview process from current instructors of the course
  • Can perform kennel support duties and be recommended by kennel master if applying from their current duty station
  • Meet all medical/fitness requirements

Once you are in the course, handler candidates will need to pass several written and hands-on tests to keep progressing. A strange requirement that could surprise some is that you must have your spleen to attend; that’s a requirement for all branches. 

Tech Sgt. Corey Rundle is the Weapons and Tactics Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge, also known as the course chief. He pointed out the requirement and explained that the spleen is vital to fighting off infections that can follow a dog bite. Candidates wear bite suits that protect them but there’s always a chance that you can get bit while training and working with MWDs.

Military Working Dog Handler Course preparation

Flores said fitness is the number one priority. The course is located in the San Antonio, Texas, area where the temperature can rise to well over 100 degrees. Though there are safety protocols for trainees and the MWDs, which are given the title of “training aid,” bite suits can get really hot on a normal day. 

Maintaining a solid understanding of hydration is key, but Rundle and Flores explained that a service member with poor physical fitness will struggle with the conditions of the environment and the strenuous work that is involved throughout the course.

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“I wouldn’t necessarily say the course is hard, but it will definitely push people mentally and physically. There are three written tests that they need to pass, but all of our progress checks and performance measurements are hands-on,” Flores said. “So it’s whether they can or cannot complete the task with the MWD is what we’re looking for.”

Flores said the main issue they see, although it’s not common, is trainees struggling to grasp the hands-on training. All candidates who fail hands-on evaluations or written tests get a second chance after remedial training is complete. But if they are injured or become ill, a decision is made to either drop or recycle them. There’s just no way to prepare for that besides the kennel support a service member may complete before the course.

One of the more difficult aspects of the course is the bond a trainee develops with their MWD. You won’t always work with the same dog, but if a trainee and a training aid work well together, they will spend a lot of time together. At the end of the course, you don’t leave with the training aid. Newly minted MWD handlers return to their unit, where they will be assigned a dog. 

“That’s what we prep them for. That’s what we tell them to get ready for,” Rundle said. “Losing that partner is the hardest thing that you’ll have to go through in your canine career.”

What is the Military Working Dog Handler Course really like?

Don’t show up to day one of the course expecting to work with MWDs right away. Flores said there is a joke that floats around about what handlers had for their first ‘dog.’

“Our first dog was an ammo can because that’s the first thing that students get put on. We don’t immediately give them dogs,” Flores said. “We get them comfortable on an ammo can first, and then they get the opportunity to have their first dogs.”

The first five days, considered block one of the course, involve a lot of classroom work, everything from the health and welfare of the MWDs to the history behind canines. This is where candidates will quickly learn whether they picked the right career. 

The following 20 days take candidates into patrol training. Trainees will receive their dogs during this block and learn basic obedience, how to search buildings and introduce working dogs to gunfire, scouting, and controlled aggression. 

The training aids are ready to work; they have already learned the commands the candidates are being trained on — oftentimes, it’s the dogs teaching the candidates. 

“At the end of the day, if they think it was the dog’s fault, it wasn’t. It was the handler’s fault. It’s always us,” Flores said. “It’s always something that we’re doing. Our feelings run down leash — we always like to tell each other that. Anything we’re feeling goes down to the dog.” 

The job of an MWD handler is truly unique in that your team setting involves a partner who doesn’t speak the same language, let alone have a similar routine. Throughout the course, candidates will work in a bite suit and learn the proper decoy techniques and how to read their assigned dogs — a critical component of safety when training with your MWD.

The last block of instruction details detection type work. Everything from drugs in a barracks building to explosives in a vehicle. 

Rundle said the attrition rate for the course is low because you have to quit, fail academically, or get so sick or hurt that you cannot continue — all of which rarely happens. 11 teams are being trained at a time, but some teams are further into training than others. 

If a candidate is injured or becomes ill and cannot move on, they can be a “washback,” where they come back to training at an earlier stage or where they left off. Those who fail the academic testing a second time can be dropped and can return. 

But, in rare cases, candidates can be banned from returning due to administrative disciplinary actions or the complete inability to do the job with no signs of improvement. 

FAQs about the Military Working Dog Handler course

You have questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: What is the Military Working Dog Handler Course attrition rate?

A: According to the 37th Training Wing, the attrition rate for Military Working Dogs averages approximately 10% and about 5-7% for members in the handler’s course.

Q: What dogs are trained at the Military Working Dog Handler Course?

A: German shepherds and Belgian malinois, but labrador retrievers and German shorthaired pointers are occasionally trained by the 341st Training Squadron.  

Q: Can I adopt a military working dog?

A: Yes, the 341st Training Squadron runs the Military Working Dog Adoption Program. Some dogs are available for adoption because they failed the high standards of the course or are retired from military service. Some retired K9s will need medical care for the remainder of their lives. 

Q: Do you have to have your spleen to be an MWD Handler?

A: Yes. Though the removal of your spleen isn’t as common as getting your tonsils removed, it is mandatory to have your spleen intact to qualify for service as a canine handler. It’s because the spleen produces antibodies that defend against certain bacteria a dog can transfer in a bite.

Q: Are all military working dogs good boys (and girls)?

A: “Of course, they’re good boys and girls. They’re top-notch. They make our jobs that much better, that much more fun,” Flores said. “They save lives and find drugs and bombs.” What is often lost in the fog of war is the sacrifice these K9s make alongside their handlers, which makes them the best of the good boys and girls dog club. 

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