A Career as a Conservation Canine Handler: Part 2, Do You Have What it Takes?

By Paula Fitzsimmons with Jennifer Hartman

Conservation canines and their handlers are playing a vital role in wildlife protection. Dogs have an unrivaled ability to detect scat from dozens of species – scientists use these samples to learn more about a wild population’s behaviors, movements, and feeding patterns.  This data is valuable not only in fighting wildlife crimes, but it can aid in forming effective and humane wildlife management policies.

The dogs, who primarily come from rescues, have to possess certain characteristics to make the cut – namely, a playful spirit, boundless energy, and the ability to work in the field for hours at a time.

Their human handlers have to be pretty special, too.

The work is rigorous, both physically and mentally. The handlers work and live aside their canine companions in extreme, rugged conditions, away from family and the comforts of home. The work schedule is inconsistent – a job can last three days or three months. And if the organization is a small nonprofit, as Conservation Canines is, fundraising in an ongoing challenge.

The job isn’t for everyone.

This second part of the series will focus on the career aspects of canine conservation work – what it takes to qualify for a job as a handler, the versatility required, and whether there’s a market for this kind of work.

You can read the first part here.

With minor editing from me, Jennifer Hartman, a dog handler with Conservation Canines, a detection canine program of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, shines a light on this relatively new career field.


Conservation Canine Handler Jennifer Hartman with CK9 Max

Handler Jennifer Hartman with Conservation Canines, Max, on the World Wildlife Fund Tiger & Leopard project, Cambodia | Photo Credit: Heath Smith


What you’ll need to qualify to do this job


Educational background & experience . . .

JH: “Every handler in our program comes from a unique background. People often believe they need to have a strong biology background – and although this is important, it is not a requirement. For example, I have a background in English Literature. At first I felt at a disadvantage precisely because I did not have the traditional ecology and science background that many of my peers had – but I soon learned that my predisposition and joy for reading and writing brought a valuable skill to the program.

As a small nonprofit we value diverse backgrounds. Julianne Ubigau, a fellow coworker, is a teacher and her skills with children and education are a huge asset to the program. We are currently in the development state of an educational program that will bring science, with the aid of a detection dog, to rural school districts. Other folks have more mathematical skills and enjoy the technical side of the job. We make all of our transects in GIS (Geographic Information System) and knowledge in this field is a plus on the resume.”


Dog training experience not required . . . .

“We do not actively search for people with a background in dog training. Our dogs and the application of the method is unique and applicants with a background in traditional dog behavior or obedience training find it hard to switch to what is required of our handlers.” — Jennifer Hartman


Physical requirements . . .

JH: “We do need to be in fairly good shape because we spend about ten to 12 hours in the field, often for months at a time. Some of our projects are in flat terrain, but those projects are few and far between. Most of our projects are in remote wilderness areas. Some surveys even require a hike just to get to where we need to begin our surveys. It’s actually this reason that a dog is so useful because it’s not as easy for a human surveyor to cover as much areas as our dogs do.

The job requires us to keep the dogs in shape for upcoming projects and this includes taking them on bike rides, jogs, hikes, and many different kinds of training exercises. This keeps us in shape as well. : )”


Dog handlers plus . . .

JH: “It’s easy for us to simplify our job and say that we are dog handlers ,but in reality we are much more than that. The “job” is more of a lifestyle and handlers have many tasks. Not only must we maintain the health of the dogs through training and exercise, we also research for potential projects, write grants, collect data, work with GIS, contribute to our social media platforms, generate ideas for fundraising, present at public speaking events, and much more.


“In  general we look for independent motivated persons who are also strong team players. Our handlers are required to travel extensively, work long hours, live in close quarters with other handlers, and be self motivated. The work is dirty, muddy, cold (or very hot), buggy, swampy, but also extremely rewarding because we get to play with ball-crazy rescue mutts in the woods.” — Jennifer Hartman


We have social media specialist, Suzie Marlow, who keeps our various social media accounts up to date. None of ever thought that getting into wildlife conservation and dog handling would require social media skills but as a small nonprofit we’ve learned that generating interest in the program helps us receive valuable donations and attention from folks who might not otherwise ever hear about us.


Conservation Canines handler Suzie Marlow with dog Pips

Handler Suzie Marlow with Conservation Canine, Pips, on the King River Sierra fisher project in the Sierra National Forest, California | Photo credit: Jennifer Hartman


Julianne Ubigau is our education coordinator. She’s involved with conducting our outreach and public presentations. This is a huge role especially given the fact that she is still a full time handler and required to go in the field and survey on top of creating content for schools that is both engaging and fun.”


This is not your typical job

Working as a CK9 handler is anything but 9-5. If you’re looking for regular hours and a comfy office, this line of work is probably not for you.

JH: “None of us got into this field expecting to make lots of money. In fact many of us started as unpaid volunteers and sometimes we still volunteer for the program when projects are few and far in between.  With that said, I’ve been doing this for nearly seven years and it is “my living.” It is a very transient, fly-by-the-seat of-your-pants job. I’m on the road for much of the year and see my family in brief time periods between projects. My “home” is a car, a trailer, a hammock, a room in barracks, or a tent depending on the type of field housing available on each project. I  have not been in one place for more than three months at a time in over seven years.

The work is not steady nor guaranteed. Sometimes we hear about potential projects and we train and prepare for it only for the funding to fall through, or for political unrest to make travel not possible. We have projects that are three days or three months. Sometimes we have a large crew and sometimes we work solo. There is no routine and the only thing that is constant is the perpetual changes that occur.”


Is there a job market for CK9 handlers?

JH: “I’m not sure there is a market for this line of work yet. We are hoping that through our dedication, hard work, and passion, that we can build such a market. The method has been growing in popularity over the past several years, although the process is slow.

In the past we have been contracted by the Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, various universities and researchers, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and other diverse groups. We also have many projects with the Center for Conservation Biology, our parent program at the University of Washington.”


Conservation Canines handler Jennifer Hartman with Max on lynx & wolf survey

Handler Jennifer Hartman with Conservation Canines, Max, on a Lynx & Wolf survey, Eastern Washington | Photo credit: Carolyn Shores


Conservation canine work is a niche that’s serving an important role in protecting wildlife. It’s also in its relative infancy, so locating funding can be difficult. The market for conservation canine handlers may not be sizzling hot right now, but that can change in the future – especially once the public starts to understand the program’s value. It’s hard work – both physically and mentally – and doesn’t offer consistency in schedule. Anyone who does this type of work needs to be dedicated to wildlife, the cause, and co-workers.

Top image credit of dog in field 19052571 (minus type and additional design): from Clipart.com.Images.

Conservation Canines is a small organization doing essential and conservation work. Please visit their website if you’d like to make a donation.

1 Comment

  1. Susan hinder |

    Amazing article! I am desperate to do this as a career, but I’m stuck in the UK, please, please, please would someone out there let me know how I may do this!!

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