Working Dogs: Protection


A protection dog is trained to alert the handler to human or animal threats and to deter the threats. Law enforcement teams typically prefer the terminology “canine or K9 team” and “handler.” “Military working dog (MWD)” is the standard terminology for dogs who work with the uniformed military services, whereas “multipurpose canines (MPC)” are dogs that work with the US Special Operations Forces (SOF) component of the military.


Police dogs, patrol dogs, law enforcement dogs, military working dogs, private security dogs, and livestock guard dogs are examples of protection dogs.

Relevant Information for Practitioners

A protection dog that also performs a detection function (e.g., finding explosives or illicit drugs) is considered to be a dual-purpose dog. Protection dogs participate in criminal apprehension, which may involve tracking, evidence recovery, and bite work. These dogs are not “attack” dogs but are trained to bite and hold (and release) an individual as a method of restraint. Many law enforcement agencies never actually have to deploy a dog on a bite because the announcement from the officer that “they should surrender or else they will release their dog” is often successful in obtaining the surrender.

In order to perform the tasks required of a protection dog, appropriate physical structure, including dentition, orthopedic soundness, a body condition score of 4–5 out of 9, and physical conditioning are necessary.8,9 Disruptions in normal anatomy or physiology that go unnoticed in a pet dog, such as dental disease or tooth fractures, being overweight, or lack of a fitness and conditioning, can lead to impairment of the protection dog’s performance and put the handler’s life at risk. Recognizing these deficiencies is the first step in a clinical assessment. Clinical acumen may benefit from direct observation of the patient’s training. Alternatively, video or photo documentation of work-related compromise (provided by the client) may be facilitative for the practitioner’s determination of the patient’s medical diagnosis. Knowing when to refer the dog to a specialist familiar with problems and requirements of protection dogs ( is critical and will be influenced by the ability to communicate the work, safety, and health implications to the handler or the sponsoring organization (e.g., police department). The practitioner should take an active role in injury prevention, for example, by educating the handler on the importance of the athletic requirements of the dog and the importance of allowing the animal to warm up prior to job performance.10

Behaviorally, protection dogs often exhibit increased arousal, reactivity, or potential aggression in response to treatments that may cause discomfort. To ensure a successful exam visit, practitioners should involve the handler as an active partner in low-stress handling techniques, for example, by keeping the dog muzzled, and consider preemptive sedative and analgesic drugs. Because overhandling protection dogs tends to make them more reactive and aggressive, the importance of low-stress handling cannot be overemphasized.11–13 The handler should not be separated from the dog during evaluation or treatment unless absolutely necessary. It is important to consult with the handler before using treat or food techniques or sedatives, knowing that they could temporarily influence the dog’s working performance or training. If it is necessary to separate the handler and the dog, sedative drugs should be considered before the separation. A smooth and safe recovery will be facilitated with the handler present. Again, the use of muzzles should be advocated when there is any question regarding the patient’s disposition and temperament.

These guidelines are supported by generous educational grants from the AAHA Foundation,
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc., CareCredit, Merck Animal Health, and Zoetis.