Police K9 detection dog finds a scent in a suitcaseI thought I would write on a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I call this subject “problem solving and conflict training.” So I am not confusing anyone – I’m not writing about conflict in your dog training but rather conflicting your training. What I mean basically is that the thing we use to train our canines to learn a behavior or a set of behaviors is often the same thing that inhibits learning and problem solving. Now you’re saying “What the hell is he talking about.” Well let’s break this down. When we start training a new canine most trainers will beat into our heads words like consistency, fairness, positive reinforcement. To be sure these are certainly things we should strive for in these early stages. However, as time goes on sometimes it is good to take a different approach. Instead of using the same old training area we move on and instead of pattern training our canine we start to mix it up – right. Well this is what I want to focus on in this article. I believe if you use some of these techniques you will have a better and “stronger” canine. When I say stronger I do not mean in the physical sense but in the area of confidence. He will become more self reliant as you allow him to problem solve and learn from the associations you have taught him over time. He will couple these associations and begin to actually problem solve with little direction from you.

The problem that I see during my instruction is that too much handler interference as well as too much pattern training is occurring in canines that are ready to move on. We lack creativity in our training and what we expose our partners to. They become locked into a very small world, lacking exposure and experiences that will make them a “stronger” canine. What happens though is that many trainers and handlers do not move pass this point, staying too predictable as the canine anticipates a behavior instead of becoming independent. For your partner to become a “problem solver” he must learn to solve problems. He must be allowed to break free of our interference as well as the patterns we initially used to teach and train him. To make this clearer I am going to hit on some of the most common problems I continually see when I am instructing police and military dog teams.

Failing to pin point “scent source”

This is a big one is it not? How many times are we doing training searches with a group of handlers, do we not always see a few teams failing to pin point scent. This could be for many reasons so let us explore a few. Many handlers spend way too much time on accessible decoys. This is important as you want to make sure your partner locates and does his job, either by apprehending or finding and barking. Many of us spend too much time on this. If the canine is allowed to locate the majority of decoys in an open environment or if obedience to odor is not maintained than they will probably fail to pin point scent source on an inaccessible suspect. Let us also remember that most of our suspects are secreted – so I think it would be wise to make sure pin pointing scent source is something we do not allow to weaken. If your partner is not disciplined to odor he will become frustrated when he comes into scent and try frantically to get to the source of the scent (the decoy and or suspect). Some canines get so bad that the alert becomes nothing more than a frantic movement throughout a small room or outside area. Scent location then becomes an interpretation of its source by the handler. You might as well place the dog in the car and start hand searching the area where he was frantic in, you get my point. To fix go back to basics (baby steps) and teach him a reward system at the source again. Whether your desired indication is a bark alert or a sit and stare, work toward this again. Also teach him that he does not get rewarded each time – this too is a mistake. Remember to lock in a behavior the reward system should become variable and intermittent at some point. This will strengthen the alert. Too often we reward too much. Our canines become spoiled and unreliable this way. Remember reward to teach and fix and then move on. Get away from patterns once learning is achieved.

In fact some (actually many) canines will become locked in very quickly on any exercise. Especially “driven” fast learners. If your canine is like this be careful with patterns. For example if you start a patrol dog at doors, going from visual stimulation to runaways to no stimulation, many will pick up this game very quickly. If you stay at doors to long, even if you move to several rooms with other doors – you may develop a door problem. You will hide your decoy inside a waist high cabinet near a door, and guess what – you’re right he will indicate at the cabinet where the hidden decoy is but final on the door. He has developed a “scent picture” because you spent too much time on doors – you get my meaning.

Corrections at the Source or During Search Work

If you have a hard canine with even a moderate outing problem, this can be problematic during search work. The time to fix an outing problem is on the training field first. Of course it has to be proofed later during search work but not until you have some consistency during basic field and control work. If you are conducting training searches for your partner and have to constantly use heavy compulsion for outing, this will eventually take its toll on your partner. Let us look at it from your canine’s point of view. You have just completed a long and challenging search with your canine. He pin points scent source and decoy rewards with a bite. You have zero control as you leave cover and attempt to lift your 85 pound Mal off the ground for the good ol’ choke off – or whatever means used for the release. This diminishes the hunt. Some canines will do this all day but for many canines this will eventually take its toll. The most important thing to remember also is the fact that you are training for reality. Leaving cover to choke off your canine is simply not safe. Of course during training you may want to leave cover for praising your partner during a find but proofing the finished canine with control is paramount for tactical work.

Note: Always have an end game in training- you should never just train because that is the way it has always been. Train with reality in mind – what will work tactically and what will keep you safe.

Scent dog locks onto a scent and stares at the wall to indicate his success.Here is another great one for detector dogs. How about the handler that just has to demand the sit and stare. Once again this is taught in the beginning stages to teach and lock in the behavior. However, what happens in the real world when the environment does not allow the sit. I am sure you have seen areas and rooms that had so much junk in them that there was not one square inch of area to sit. Some canines forced to sit will become very frustrated looking for an area to sit. A canine that is allowed the freedom to adapt to his environment will do just that. He will climb a wall and stare if he has to. Is that not a great alert? We have hid items in wall clocks and attic doors and I have seen detection dogs hit on scent. They will crawl right up the wall and stare. This is the alert you should strive for.

If you are looking for a bad guy you want your canine to pin point scent as soon as he can. This will allow you to take cover and access the problem much sooner. If your canine takes minutes to frustrate at source this is a tactical problem that has to be fixed. Another mistake is handlers will start confirming the source before the canine has. This is a big problem. Many canines will develop the false alert and it can be hard to break if allowed to go on to much. They will start barking at nothing waiting for acknowledgment from the handler.

Off Leash Searching

As some of you may know Vohne Liche Kennels is offering E-Collar Training through a partnership with my company (Tactical K9). This type of searching is cutting edge in nature and allows the canine to work well ahead of the handler but in control at all times. The search is one of team work and trust between the canine and his handler. A canine taught this way becomes a problem solver by working independently of his handler – with only the control needed to systematically and tactically clear a given area. Canines trained this way will learn to quarter a room or an outside area systematically. However, the canine is also taught to follow hand signals as well as direction and control if areas are missed or need more detailing.

This training requires the proper marrying of the E-collar but once this is achieved most handlers show a sigh of relief because of the freedom this kind of searching allows. The canine does not become patterned because of a thirty foot line restriction. The handler is not encumbered by a long line and is able to maintain control of his weapon, maintaining a solid shooting platform should lethal force be needed. He is taught to down during the search but left in the search mode. The team moves forward and the canine is once again allowed to search and clear. Once the canine picks up this team concept the search becomes more tactical in nature but also offers independence for the canine.

Tracking and Off Leash Work

Many of you in rural parts of the country that offer large open areas for suspect searching might be saying well I do not really need this kind of control. This is a mistake to be sure. Control and balance with your partner is always a good thing. This can be accomplished with tracking canines. We have done this with my department and I have trained countless K9 Teams to use the E-collar during such times.

An examination of this can easily be seen during a tracking search. Many suspect tracks lead the handler into blocks of residences or large structures, such as abandoned homes, warehouses or housing for livestock during such operations. Once again the best ways to clear these areas are with off leash control. A suspect secreted inside of a structure or within groups of homes has the tactical advantage. Allowing the canine to freely work ahead of the handler allows distance. This distance creates reaction time between the handler and the suspect. It also places pressure on the suspect should he observe the canine coming in his direction. Placing stressors on the suspect as well as overwhelming him with good tactics will result in his surrender and or demise should he choose to fight.

Canines taught this way develop very quickly. We have taught canines to down during tracking operations while still in scent. This allows the canine to reset and refocus with little interference from the handler. The team can examine the environment and once again cut his canine loose to continue the track. If a structure is identified he can quickly unfasten the long line and go into his off lead search tactics. Canines taught this way learn to adjust very quickly from one environment to the next. Well until next time – stay safe and I hope to see you in the next E-collar Workshop.

Authored by: Doug Roller Tactical K9

Doug Roller is retired Chief Trainer for LAPD K9 Platoon and CEO of Tactical K9 LLC – please visit his web site at www.tacticalk-9.com or contact him at droller@k9handler.com.

Photo credit: © istockphoto / Rich Legg and Ershova_Veronika

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1 Comment

  1. Sgt. Louis Jones says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I have been trying to instill these ideas and methods in my K-9 teams. The article covers many important thoughts in a concise yet descriptive manner. I will be recommending this article to my K9 teams.Thank You for the article, please continue to submit quality material like this.

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