Dogs have been used in law enforcement and police work going as far back as the 5th Century. Modern K9 officers are trained for different tasks, and certain police dog breeds are picked for very specific law enforcement jobs.
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- 15 Most Popular Police Dog Breeds
Some breeds have been revered for their hard work at protecting their handlers and civilians. Similarly, there's a number of police dog breeds often trained exclusively for police work that stand out as the best detectives, trackers and guardians of the innocent. K9 officers sniff out bombs, narcotics, track and bring down criminals among many other law enforcement tasks.
But what dog breeds make the best canines for police work? Not surprisingly, some dogs are much better for this job than others. We've scoured the history of police dogs to pick out fifteen best dog breeds for police work and ranked them on this police dog breeds list.
History of K-9 Officers (Police Dog Units)
While dogs were used in law enforcement even in the Middle Ages, the idea of modern K9 officers and use of police dogs was born in the late 1800s in London where Bloodhounds were used to track down infamous serial killer Jack the Reaper.
From that point, police officers started off with Bloodhounds based on their history as one of the best hunting dogs with the strongest sense of smell and tracking abilities, and would only expand into different breeds for different tasks come early 1990s.
Back in 1890s, the British and the Germans were the first nations to actively use dogs for police work. They've researched, bred and trained special police dog breeds specifically for tasks related to tracking down criminals.
Nearly a decade later, when the law enforcement in other countries realized the immense help dogs provide, their police units have started specially training dogs to help fight crime. Police dog training took off in 1899, and has been growing and improving ever since. The range of police dog breeds has been expanded, and more breeds were included for police work training.
Today, in many countries, a K-9 police dog is considered an official police officer with many duties and responsibilities on their hands. It means these dogs must be and are treated just as a human police officer would, protected under the law the same way. Mistreating a K-9 unit dog is the same thing as mistreating an law enforcement officer (with perpetrator facing fines and long-term jail time).
The range of work for police dog breeds has been quickly expanding as officers realize even more skills and talent that canines have. For example, today in New York City, police dogs are most often used for tracking, detection and criminal apprehension, according to NY State Office, but they have a much larger range of duties on top of that.
Popular Dogs for Police Work and How They're Trained
It's no secret that German Shepherds have been the most popular police dog for many decades (just look at most police dog breeds photos), and they deserve this title for a good reason. But many other potential police dog breeds are now also trained to be a part of K-9 units in different countries, but the breed range is especially expanding in the west.
There's no single path for a dog to become a police K9 unit. Some dogs are raised from puppies to become police dogs, others are taken from and re-trained from service dogs. Sometimes police officers in the U.S. even bring dogs from other countries, particularly Germany and Netherlands, and continue training these bilingual dogs for police work (in both the dog's native language and in English) here in the United States.
There's no official barrier for entry, and different approaches are taken to bring in new police dog breeds and train them for different tasks. But this matter is taken serious by law enforcement – after the full police work training, the dog (and its handler) will then even have to take the oath the same way as human police officer would. The handler will affirm on the dog's behalf as well as have the dog bark in affirmation of the oath.
Due to discrimination of certain breeds like Pit Bulls, more police officers are bringing in them and attracting attention for these dogs to be recognized as effective police dog breeds. I have compiled a list of police dog breeds that have been in law enforcement service for a long time, and you'll also find a few new faces who are changing the way we view certain “scary” dog breeds. This list is only the tip of the iceberg, as more dogs are starting to serve and become recognized as police dog breeds.
Working dogs have been protecting and serving us for many years. They have many different jobs, but certainly assisting human police officers is one of the toughest. So let's take a look at fifteen best dog breeds for police work and what they do on a daily basis.
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15 Most Popular Police Dog Breeds
1. German Shepherd
It comes as no surprise that the German Shepherd Dog is the first on this list of most well-known police dog breeds. Most people only know them as “police dogs” because of all the TV shows that popularized this breed, forgetting that they actually have an actual breed name. They are officially the number one breed used as K-9 officers in the world, and it’s easy to see why.
Smart, fast, fearless, and enthusiastic, GSD takes the lead by leaps and bounds. Because they’re one of the most talented and smartest dog breeds, highly trainable and follow through on commands like a clock, German Shepherds shine when it comes to bringing down suspects (armed or not).
GSDs are amazing all-rounders who are also used to sniff out narcotics, cadavers, and also used in search and rescue missions alongside many other law enforcement units. This is one of the most perfect police dog breeds because it was raised like one for decades; they're not only trainable, but they're also strong, fast and very loyal – everything that makes a perfect police dog K-9 unit.
2. Belgian Malinois
Closely related to the German Shepherd Dogs, the Belgian Malinois has also been used extensively as K-9 officers for years and are often confused for GSDs. With their strong protection instincts and loyal personalities, Malinois dogs are a force to be reckoned with and are the second most popular police dog breed out there.
These dogs are smaller than German Shepherds but with a quicker reaction time then the German Shepherd. The Malinois are bred, trained and used for almost the exact same purposes as GSD, most often to apprehend and bring down criminals but other law enforcement tasks (like narcotics or bomb sniffing) as well.
Today, they're even more often seen than GSDs to sniff out narcotics and bombs in airports. Because they aren’t normally aggressive by default (German Shepherds are naturally more aggressive), this police dog breed makes amazing an K-9 police officer and are a breeze to handle because of their listening and attention skills.
Boxers are a very flexible dog breed that has served in WW1 and WW2 as guard and patrol dogs alongside military officers, and that's what they're often remembered for when it comes to their history of being working dogs. On top of that, Boxers were also used as messenger dogs to relay messages between troops in the crossfire of war.
With that being said, one of the most interesting things that Boxers used to do during wars was transport communication wires with a spool that was attached to their collar, and they did it spectacularly well. It unwound as they ran between certain points during the raging battle.
Loyal, stable and sociable, the Boxer is still very popular and commonly used as K-9 officers in their home country of Germany, being one of the more popular police dog breeds in Europe in general, but not as much in most other countries and certainly not in the U.S. They're falling popularity as K-9 units is likely due to their genetic inclination towards certain illnesses and diseases.
4. Labrador Retriever
Many decades ago, the Labrador Retriever was initially bred as a hunting gun dog to sniff out game and retrieve it (where the name comes from). Nowadays, they are also used as bomb and narcotics detection dogs and are often seen as one of the more popular police dog breeds in the U.S. They also patrol airports and harbors with their handlers, making sure nothing fishy enters their countries.
Labs are a very popular dog breed in general, known across the world and is especially beloved in the United States by pet owners. This is because they're known to be very sociable, friendly, loyal and intelligent. Labradors have a love of learning and enjoy to interact with people. Being one of the smartest and easiest dog breeds to train, the Labrador Retriever makes an outstanding K-9 officer.
The working Lab – those that you often see not only as police officers but also as service dogs – looks somewhat different than the household Labrador you'll see in your neighbor's home; usually, they're slightly more muscular and leaner from being working dogs. Some people might think that they’re underfed, but quite the opposite is true. A working Labrador is a lean, fast moving machine whose diet is always optimized to maintain their best health.
5. Doberman Pinscher
Very popular police dog breeds that everyone has seen on TV shows and movies are the Doberman Pinscher. Just like GSDs, this intimidating looking breed has been used in police work for many decades. While popular, they're not as commonly used as other police dog breeds mentioned above. They aren’t trained to be aggressive, but to rather enjoy when going out into the field to work.
Intelligent, courageous, and beautiful, the Doberman Pinscher is rarely trained for sniffing or other law enforcement jobs that do not involve athleticism. Primarily, Dobermans are used to apprehend fleeing criminals by grabbing the arm and pulling them to the ground. Their highly athletic, physically fit and fast moving bodies are perfect for this type of work.
It also helps that Dobermans are naturally very lean and swift – there are very few breeds in K-9 units that could ever outrun these police dogs, particularly when they’re on the trail of a suspect. While rare, Dobermans are occasionally used as sniffers to detect narcotics as well but that's one of the jobs they do not do as well as GSDs or Bloodhounds do.
Regularly ranked among not only as one of the most popular police dog breeds but also picked as one of the top 10 best K-9 officers by law enforcement themselves, the Bloodhound is an amazing tracker and one of the original police work dogs. Large, powerful and masculine, this dog breed can track missing persons weeks after someone has disappeared.
Bloodhounds first started their “careers” alongside humans as hunting gun dogs, and were later employed as police dogs due to their incredible sense of smell and tracking abilities. Although they aren’t that common today, they’re one of the old school police dogs, who made the work of police officers a lot easier when they needed to find criminals.
Bloodhound dog breed was especially great when locating missing children, because they don’t look intimidating, aren't aggressive and really like kids.
7. Bouvier des Flandres
While they may not look like it from certain angles (and it's likely you haven't heard of them as being among police dog breeds), these large dogs have been used as protection and service dogs for many decades. Bouvier des Flandres are gentle, courageous, and protective to the point of being aggressive.
There is rarely much said about this dog breed as a K-9 officer and you don't often see them alongside police officers, and there's probably no television shows made about this breed. However, handlers are very respectful of this breed and they dog get to work in law enforcement in certain countries.
Although they’re easy going, when wronged (or commanded) Bouvier des Flandres will become fierce and release a loud guttural growl that will make any clear thinking human run in the other direction, or obey police officer's commands in an instant.
8. Giant Schnauzer
This fairly large yet quiet dog breed who is very suspicious of strangers, and Giant Schnauzers have been used as K-9 officers for many years as well. However, they're also rarely seen as police dog breeds in the U.S. and that's mostly because they did enter the profession much later than other police dog breeds mentioned above.
Giant Schnauzers have a tendency to be overly aggressive, which when tapped into and siphoned into the right direction make them extraordinary trackers of suspects, missing persons, bombs, and narcotics.
The Giant Schnauzer is also used in search rescue, because of their relentlessness, loyalty to the task and unwillingness to give up.
9. American Pit Bull Terrier
The American Pit Bull Terrier (not to be confused with American Staffordshire Terrier or Staffordshire Bull Terrier) is the newest kid on the block among police dog breeds, as various law enforcement departments have only recently started to use this dog breed for police work (in fact, mostly in the last few of years).
Majority of Pit Bulls used as K-9 units are rescues, which saves on costly fees from breeders as some K-9 officer dogs can cost up to $20,000. Due to their history of dog fighting, they were rarely employed for K-9 units before; however, this has been changing as law enforcement realized their great potential and more police departments are taking Pit Bulls in today.
Confident, fearless, athletic, fast and sturdy, the Pit Bull is primarily used for detection and patrolling nowadays. There are claims that the military is looking into also using this dog breed in the future as well, and now New York Police Department are also scouring animal shelters to adopt Pit Bulls, like this one employed recently.
If you’ve seen this dog breed before, you won’t think that it would make a good K-9 police dog officer. However, because of their alert personalities, Briard dogs actually make excellent guard and watch dogs aimed for very specific law enforcement tasks, and are often used as police dog breeds in certain countries.
This dog breed is also considered to be easily trainable, fearless and brave. Today, the Briard is most often used in police search and rescue missions, tracking, and as PTSD service dogs. This large French dog has changed the way many people see working K-9 officers, and that's because Briard's work is different to that of a German Shepherd.
11. Airedale Terrier
This dog breed is first known as “The King of the Terriers.” Athletic and faithful, the Airedale Terrier was used in World War 1 and World War 2 to protect military officers. Sadly, not very much is written about the K-9 Airedale Terrier officer, but they are used primarily as patrol dogs and deserve the attention for their skills and loyalty.
The largest of all the terriers, they were quite popular with hunters and originally bred to catch small animals like rats and other rodents. As patrol dogs they are able to use their excellent sense of smell to find drugs, bombs and other dangerous paraphernalia. They're not the most popular among police dog breeds but you can occasionally see them as K-9 units in the United States and Europe.
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Beagles are another dog breed that first started working with humans as gun dogs. After that, this now K-9 police officer is mostly used in airports and harbors to sniff out narcotics, and any illegal substances that try to enter their countries, because their sense of smell is one of the best among all breeds.
There are many advantages to using Beagles as police dog breeds over some others mentioned above. For example, because of their size, Beagles are easy to lift into areas where a person otherwise can’t access and that's what law enforcement often does with them. They can also be fast, swift and great for tracking while staying less detected and more stealthy. Beagles are also used as cadaver dogs to sniff out bodies or substances.
13. Cane Corso
Descendant of Roman war dogs, it’s only logical that the Cane Corso should be used in the police task force. Alert, courageous, strong and extremely intimidating, this dog breed is a hardworking K-9 police dog who is excellent at protection and patrol work. Similar to Dobermans, they are known for their physical abilities – although not as fast, they have one of the strongest bites of all canines.
Overall, they're not very popular police dog breeds. There is currently only one Cane Corso in service in the USA according to official law enforcement records. But it seems that in the future, with more Pit Bulls and similarly discriminated and banned dog breeds coming into police work, the number of Cane Corso dogs as K-9 unit officers will rise due to their adaptability and working attitude.
14. German Shorthaired Pointer
Another dog breed that has transitioned from being a hunting gun dog to police work is German Shorthaired Pointer. Enthusiastic, bold, and very intelligent, this easy to train breed has long since been used as tracking dogs by hunters due to their keen sense of smell and overall intelligence.
They are very different to many other police dog breeds. Non-aggressiveness, sturdiness, and a strong willingness to please their owners are their main attributes and that's what makes the German Shorthaired Pointer easy to work with for law enforcement officers, and boy do they get the job done according to many interviews from their police officer handlers.
15. Dutch Shepherd
Finally, another less popular police dog breed in the west is the Dutch Shepherd. Reliable, loyal, alert, intuitive, intelligent, and non-aggressive are just a few of the traits of this dog breed. Because of their protective nature, the Dutch Shepherd make excellent patrol and detection dogs in many countries' K-9 units, but they're not very popular in the USA.
Most often, Dutch Shepherds are used to sniff out bombs and narcotics. Also, because they are less aggressive than the German Shepherd or even the majority of other police dog breeds mentioned, they are a little bit easier to handle and can work better in certain law enforcement tasks.