by Bill Lewis II
How does one establish what is a reasonable amount of off-duty time to care for a police service dog and determine justifiable compensation? It may come as no surprise to anyone associated with law enforcement to learn that there are differing opinions as to the proper and reasonable method to compensate K9 handlers for the off-duty care and maintenance of their police service dogs. I am currently [in 2008] consulting on two California cases involving handlers’ compensation which has provided me the recent opportunity to research the matter and form various opinions and recommendations.
First and foremost, there is no case law, generic template or magic formula that exists for off-duty care and maintenance compensation that will universally apply to every agency with a police K9 program. Secondly, compensation should be based on justification.
What is care and maintenance?
Each agency should determine the specific activities that will be required of the K9 handler for off-duty and on-duty care and maintenance and specify those activities in a written policy or operations manual. An agency should then confirm that each K9 handler has read and understands the applicable policies and procedures and can provide the necessary care and maintenance.
According to the Department of Labor, bathing, brushing, exercising, feeding, grooming, cleaning of the dog’s kennel or transport vehicle, administering drugs or medicine for illness and/or transporting the dog to and from an animal hospital or veterinarian and training the dog at home are all compensable activities.
Off-duty care and maintenance activities identified by an agency and those activities identified by the Department of Labor as compensable can be different and should not be considered synonymous for the purpose of differentiating off-duty and on-duty activities. The Department of Labor does not specify those activities that are to be conducted on-duty or off-duty, only that they are compensable.
An agency will determine which of these activities will be performed on-duty or off-duty and the appropriate compensation. For example, an agency may decide that training is a compensable activity that will be performed only on-duty or with authorized overtime.
The care and maintenance of a police service dog by a new K9 handler should not be presumed. The activities to properly care for the police service dog should ideally be identified, presented and demonstrated if necessary to the new handler by a qualified police service dog trainer and K9 supervisor during the basic training school or “bonding” time period prior to basic training. It is the responsibility of the handler and the supervisor to understand exactly what type of care and maintenance is required as well as an estimated time to generally perform those activities.
Know Your Policy and MOU
If you are contemplating being a K9 handler in the future or you are a current handler, you should know everything that is required of a handler and what is compensated. Most handler-candidates know and can relate the “Graham v. Connor” deployment criteria and their department’s various K9-related policies and procedures during a selection process. However, some handler-candidates, and a few current handlers, are not fully aware of the specific policies as they relate to the required care and maintenance of the dog and applicable compensation. “I don’t know exactly what is expected of me,” is not an acceptable statement by a handler.
If you are being compensated for 4 hours of time per week to care for your dog off-duty per your agency policy and you are voluntarily spending 8 hours on average per week without proper authorization or specific supervisory direction, you assume the additional time as your own time. It is not a “right or wrong” situation to provide additional care for your dog beyond what is required, but an agency should not be held liable for the time that a handler exceeds the reasonable care and maintenance time requirements previously determined and agreed upon.
Compensation for K9 handlers should be specified within an agency policy and/or within a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or similar employer-employee contract.
Who determines the amount of time reasonably necessary for off-duty care and maintenance? The best method of determining the amount of reasonable time should be a collaborative effort that is ongoing and should involve all of the parties for the respective agency, including the handlers, supervisors, and trainers. Your agency may consider consulting with an “outside neutral source” if necessary and involving that person in your collaboration efforts.
Every police service dog is different and requires different care and maintenance. Every agency has different requirements for the care and maintenance. Some dogs will require an average of 3 hours per week for care and other dogs may require 5 hours. One dog may require 4 hours one week and only 3 hours the next week. An agency should determine the reasonable hours necessary based on its own experience. The agency should also consider information obtained from other handlers and outside agencies and should regularly audit and evaluate its own experience to stay current.
It is imperative for supervisors and administrators to know how much time is reasonably required for care and maintenance and what type of activities are expected. It can be difficult initially for a supervisor or administrator that has not been a handler of a police service dog to understand the care and maintenance activities unless they actually experience or oversee some care activities with one or more of their handlers. “I have a pet dog at home” is not the same as having a police service dog at home but care issues could be similar in some circumstances.
Sixty (60) minutes of care per week for a police service dog was ruled unreasonable in “Leever v. Carson City, 360 F.3d 1014 (2004)” by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.
The opined “industry standard” of 30 minutes per day for care and maintenance of police service dogs without specificity to on-duty or off-duty has been associated with one court case, “Levering v District of Columbia, 869 F. Supp. 24 (1994)” from the U.S. District Court, District of Columbia. The specific facts and circumstances of that particular case may not be relevant to your agency and your care. However, this general time standard is a good baseline to begin any negotiation for improvement in your compensation if needed and many agencies are actually using “3.5 hours per week” for their compensation agreements.
Once you and your agency have determined and agreed to the compensable hours and respective care and maintenance activities, it is recommended that your agency attorneys and the employee bargaining unit attorneys review and assist in formalizing any agreement and/or policy.
Justification for Compensation
What do you do when you believe you are being unfairly compensated? The best and most effective way to justify any increase in off-duty care and maintenance compensation is to do the research and document your findings. If you believe you are spending more time caring for your dog than you are being reasonably compensated, you need to document and present your time.
I recommend using a simple chart that will allow you to track and document your off-duty time for three consecutive months minimally. On the chart, you will list those activities required by your agency for off-duty care and maintenance and document the time, including, but not necessarily limited to, feeding/watering, kennel cleaning, grooming, bathing, exercising, vehicle cleaning, and administration of medicines. When your chart is completed, average out the number of hours per week (or pay period) that you provide off-duty care and maintenance based on the number of days actual care is provided considering possible time the dog is kenneled or not under your direct care.
When you are logging your time on your chart, do it daily and be as accurate as possible. Do not rely on estimates based on memory recollection from activities performed a few weeks ago and do not assume it takes the same amount of time each day to do the same activity. You may be surprised to learn that your actual times may be more or even less than you would have generally estimated. And, do not enhance or unnecessarily extend your times for the benefit of your cause.
If you are spending your own personal money on your dog that is not being reimbursed fully or partially, or you are being allocated a lesser amount of money for care and upkeep, you need to provide documentation and receipts that justify your expenses as necessary and reasonable.
If you are doing research to justify an increase to your compensation proposal, it is also recommended that you contact other agencies in your neighboring jurisdictions to determine their compensation to provide comparisons if needed.
Straight Time versus Overtime
There are opinions and some believe that all off-duty time spent for care and maintenance is required to be paid as overtime if those activities are conducted outside the regularly scheduled hours of the work week. That is true unless an agreement has been previously reached to compensate the handlers with a fixed rate of pay or other alternative compensation. A lower rate of pay can be established strictly for care and maintenance, and unless a fixed designated amount of time has been established, that time can be claimed as overtime.
Some agencies allot straight time compensation for their handlers per week or pay period as additional pay, accumulated (comp) time, or schedule flexibility. Some agencies pay the designated compensation as overtime. However, the exact hours will vary as much as the methods of compensation.
UPDATED: Some agencies modify handler schedules in lieu of monetary compensation by having a handler report to work one hour after each normal shift begins or requires the handler to go home one hour before the end of each shift. If a handler is required to work that hour designated to be off as compensation for off-duty care, the handler would be entitled to overtime or accumulated (comp) time. The extra hour per shift per week usually equates to the same monetary compensation that might be paid directly.
I believe the biggest failure in compensation matters is a lack of communication between the involved parties. As mentioned previously, if you are spending time in excess of your compensation agreement to care for your dog, you do so at your own risk and liability regardless of your good intentions. However, if you believe your extra time is reasonable and justified, strive to open the lines of communication with your supervisors and/or administrators and pursue appropriate compensation based on your research and documentation.
Litigation over compensation issues should be a last resort because it is not generally a mutually-beneficial process for all of the parties involved. Litigation can create division of loyalties and in some cases has led to the elimination of productive and successful police K9 programs. Litigation can usually be avoided if open lines of communication exist and reasonable parties are involved in the process.
If you are a K9 handler who wants to determine whether or not you are being compensated fairly, or you are a K9 supervisor or administrator who wants to confirm whether or not you are providing reasonable compensation for your handlers, I hope some of the information and recommendations presented in this article will assist you.
Note: A copy of the chart I created to document off-duty K9 care and maintenance will be forwarded to you via e-mail without charge upon request to me at [email protected].
Bill Lewis II © June 2008
This article was originally titled “K9 Care and Compensation” when it was first published in “Police K-9 Magazine” (Sept/Oct 2008) and posted online at PoliceOne.com on October 21, 2008. This article was updated on April 2, 2020.