Combining my 28 years in research and quality operations and my 35+ years’ experience with “down in the dirt” dog training experience, I have often wondered if our current system, which hasn’t changed much in my 35 years of dog work, of so-called certifications truly “validates” our training as it applies to actual reality.

In quality operations and in a facility that answered to the FDA, we were required to “validate” every process and every piece of equipment. Not just that it powered up or worked as it was supposed to, but the process or equipment also had to undergo “stress testing”. Stress testing made sure that under difficult but plausible conditions that the process or equipment would still operate, for example at higher than specified room temperatures. Only then could the process or equipment be put on line.

Are we validating our search and rescue dogs with existing certifications?In most K9 certifications the dog and handler are analyzed according to a series of tests that may or may not evaluate how the dog actually operates in real life. Most tests are more or less stylized and are a test of basic skills. Now, these skills are extremely important and must be demonstrated to qualified evaluators, but is this enough to ensure that the K9 team can operate in the field? My opinion is that it is not enough. How many K9 teams have passed certification testing that then either had to be pulled from service, or worse, do not operate in a reliable way?

For example, take a dog trained and tested using current testing standards for disaster work. The dog and handler train, are tested, and are then deployed. Because the current testing procedures do not provide for truly realistic stress testing and only grade on a “did the dog find or not” basis, we only know that the dog has learned skills from the handler or trainer. But in a real disaster, such as an earthquake, the dog is subjected to many stressors such as loud noises, crowds, the handler’s stress level, and smells such that the dog “shuts down.”  This dog is demonstrating the lack of nerve strength to do the job. Many dogs can be trained to pass tests. The dog may have the skills but the dog was never tested under stressful conditions and FAILED when it was most needed. Or the skills testing was too brief and at a real disaster the dog demonstrates either poor conditioning or lack of stamina. This dog team would have been deemed “fully certified” but found not capable under actual real conditions.

In my opinion we must fully re-examine our testing standards and determine how to best determine the dog and handler team’s (and this does include the handlers) RELIABILITY. This would apply across the board from SAR Dogs to Police Dogs.

Authored by: Bill Dotson
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Photo credit: Bob Haarmans / Foter / CC BY




  1. Edward Meyers says:

    I think you will find many who agree with you on this point. I also believe it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get these same people to agree on the changes. Therein the problem lies.

  2. Pete Stevens says:

    What I find interesting is the way many view “certification”. I know many handlers that completely stress out around annual certification time. I see them training a bunch and breaking out equipment that they normally don’t use like ecollars. I get asked to help out with problems and set up scenarios to bring these K9 teams up to par. My question is- aren’t certifications supposed to be the minimum standard that the K9 team must meet? Any K9 team should be able to certify at any time because that is the minimum level of acceptable performance. We have had surprise certifications during maintenance training and I find that it keeps the handlers on their toes.

    I belong to several different associations and their certifications standards are all different. I’m also a certifying official for a few and also for my State. I’m not a fan of certification that allows for anything other that a pass/fail. If a K9 team does not detect an odor, or call off, and/or has a rebite- some associations will still certify them. What does that say about us and we find to be acceptable?

    I have seen K9 teams perform well during certification but then a month or two later an issue is discovered during a real life deployment. There is just no way to test for absolutely everything or know what issues the dog may have. But i feel the best way to root out problems is to constantly challenge the K9 team in training. I don’t know if a scenario during certification would be something that could be done since deployments are going to be department policy based but I would agree that stress needs to be put on the team.

    In a nutshell- certification is the minimum level of performance, not the highest level of performance. Set the bar high, challenge your K9 teams, accept nothing but the best.

  3. Edward Meyers says:


    I agree 100% that many handlers view certification as an obstacle to be surmounted every 3 (or however many) years. I also agree that certification should instead be viewed as the bare minimum level of proficiency acceptable to be able to work the road. Not sure I understand you though when you speak to certifications that let dogs pass if they are less than perfect. Are you saying that you do not believe a dog should pass if it does not perform perfectly on a cert. test? That is a high bar indeed. I’m glad human officers are not held to that standard or there would be no one fielding calls. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you but there is one thing I know for certain. There are no perfect dogs. There are dogs that are trained very well. There are dogs that are very reliable, but given enough trials, even those dogs will make a mistake. Again, maybe I’m not understanding you correctly, but I strongly feel there should be some margin of acceptable error when dealing with a whole recertification test. If not then many more dogs are going to fail. This, in and of itself, would not necessarily be a bad thing if we were only approaching the issue from a “putting only the best product on the street” viewpoint. You and I both know that what actually happens is that defense attorneys then have a strong foothold to cast doubt on the reliability of the individual canine. “Isn’t it true, Officer X, that K9 Y failed a certification 2 years ago?” Not to mention administrators that will be furious at having their assets “benched” until another cert. test is given, while still giving their K9 handlers their rightful compensations. In many cases there are mandatory waiting periods before a next certification test may be attempted to show that the dog had time to be trained in the areas where it showed deficiency. Which brings me back to my original point (see comment #1:) “The only thing two trainers can agree on is… know the rest Be Safer, Train Harder.

  4. Paul Biederman says:

    The issues you describe are issues that need to be addressed in TRAINING, not in Certification.

  5. Pete Stevens says:

    Sorry for the delayed response, new shift, super busy etc. My opinion is that in certification, the dog must be 100%. I haven’t been a part of any certification that I think is so difficult that a properly K9 team can’t pass. There are a few K9 associations that allow for a rebite, which I believe is a failure to train properly like Paul states after your post above. Something I never understood is some requirement that a K9 team has to wait for a recertification. Do we make Officers wait 24 hours ( or whatever length of time is required by whatever association) to re-med a qualification shoot? Something else you mentioned, and is a valid point, is an attorney using a failure to certify. Failures validate the certification process. Any certification process where everyone passes calls into question the integrity of those standards. I’m by no means saying we must fail people just validate the process either. My very first K9 team that I evaluated for detection work did pretty good except for the last find. The dog had a non-productive alert. I can tell you the dog wasn’t the issue, that non-productive alert was all on the handler. Definitely a training issue. I discussed the issues with his trainer, they trained and the issues were corrected. At the end of the day, they ran it again and did just fine. If you a lot of evaluating/certifying- there will be a few failures for various reasons. Getting back to the talk about attorneys- I can see the question being asked of “how many times is it ok to violate my clients rights?” on the topic of certifications that allow rebites.

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