Training K-9 teams for building searches
By Jerry Bradshaw
In the previous installment of this series, I discussed how to use the power of reward to improve the quality of the dog’s response during obedience. In this article, we will break down one of the more complex exercises in police K-9 work, the building search, and discuss how reward can improve the quality of your building search work. As with any complex exercise, the key to proper training is to deconstruct the exercise, break it down into its component parts, and train the parts. In doing so, we remove some of the variables that can impede the dog from thoroughly learning each of the components.
The building search can be broken down into three components: the start, the search, and the alert. If you are trying to train the alert, for example, and you make the search component of the training session too complex, you will make it more difficult for the dog to learn the alert. Removing unnecessary variables from a training session allows us to concentrate on the key concepts of the piece of the training we are attempting to teach the dog. Therefore, when teaching the alert, simplify the start and the searching components of the session.
Prerequisite Exercise: The Alert on Command
The proper sequence, which should be trained during every bite session from the start of the dog’s training, is that the decoy always starts out passive, and the handler alerts the dog on the passive subject. Once the dog shows aggression, the decoy reacts to the aggression either by pressing the dog in defense mode or by fleeing in prey mode, depending on the exercise. The aggression is placed on a variable-reward system, where sometimes the passive decoy will flee after one bark, then the next time we make the dog bark at the decoy for 15 or 20 seconds before motion or advance on the dog, and then back to 5 or 10 seconds of barking, varying the amount of aggression required to bring the decoy “alive.” In the dog’s mind, he is bringing the passive person alive by his aggression. The decoy must reward that behavior at all times. Once the exercise is done well, you can point your dog at anyone, give an alert command, and expect aggression and focus.
That sequence teaches the dog aggression on command rather than on the context (movement or threat) the dog perceives from the decoy. In fact, as the handler, you may perceive an apprehension situation well before your dog, so if you can put the dog in an aggressive mood on command, he will be ready to react immediately and not be caught off guard. Work your bite sessions with the decoy in a hidden sleeve, sitting in a chair, or lying on the ground. You can work on a slick floor to slow down the entry and set up furniture to protect the decoy’s exposed areas, and always send the dog on a long line to maintain positive control. The dog learns to alert on passive subjects in all positions and becomes aggressive on your command.
A further extension of that exercise is to roll up to a strange place where you have already stashed a decoy behind the corner of a building or a dumpster, take up a tactical position, and give your alert command. Your dog may be confused at first, but be patient; when he gives one bark, the decoy should jump out and flee, and in response, send your dog for a reward grip. Do that in several different contexts with that one bark bringing out the decoy. Then ask your dog for a few more barks and, finally, place the reward on a variable schedule so that the dog learns he sometimes has to bark for a while to get the desired result. The dog learns he can make a passive person come alive or make people appear from behind objects and around cor-ners when he becomes aggressive on command. You can see how that will help develop the start to your building search.
In our program, we train the start of many searching exercises — including trailing, building searches, area searches, and detection — using the principle of hot, warm, and cold. In this system, the initial cue that impels the dog to begin the search is systematically faded out until it is no longer present in the context of the exercise. Further, we isolate the component we are training — the start — from the other components by simplifying the search and the alert portions of the exercise.
We begin by teaching the dog to search one room. We want the dog to have quick rewards for taking the start, so that he doesn’t get so wrapped up in the searching that the link between the start command/context and the reward is broken. Therefore, at first the decoy is out in the open in various positions in the room, then to the left and right of the entry door, in the corners, sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, eventually working up to being par-tially hidden but always accessible to the dog for a grip. Remember, the grip is the reward for the start behavior, and we want to keep the search of the room itself simple so that the dog concentrates on conditioning to the start rather than focusing on a complex search of the room. There will be plenty of time for that later.
The Hot Start
Multiple repetitions should be made. I suggest changing the angle of entry so the dog gets used to starting from either side of a doorway. If you have a room with multiple entry-ways, that’s great; you can start the dog from different angles into the room. Keep the search simple and do not ask for an alert yet, just work on the start using quick rewards. You can alter general variables such as floor surfaces and the degree of illumination in the room, for example.
The Warm Start
The dog is placed in the usual tactical position outside of the door. The alert is given, and some minimal agitation is given in response to the dog’s alert. But instead of releasing the dog into the room, the dog is praised for his alert and quickly taken away from the setup position and walked away from the room, out of sight of the doorway he will enter in a few seconds. Initially this break is only about 30 seconds, or just enough time to walk away and come back. Once the dog is returned to the tactical position, the alert is given again, but this time there is no further agitation from the decoy. Once the dog alerts, the handler releases the dog into the room for a quick reward. For the first few warm searches, give the dog a quick reward bite right around the doorway so a rapid association is made from setting up and being released into the room without hearing the agitation.
A systematic lengthening of the time between the initial setup and the second setup and send into the room now takes place. We increase the time between the setups from 30 seconds to 1 minute, and then as we progress longer, we put the dog back in the K-9 vehicle while we wait for the time to elapse, working our way from 15, 20, and 30 minutes between setups up to an hour.
Look for a time threshold where the dog shows confusion. If you see confusion after, say, a 15-minute break, lessen the time for a few rounds and then work your way back toward 15 minutes. Then continue your progression. Typically the progression happens quickly. I use the same room and entry door for a while as I progress through the warm starts. When I change the room or building being used, I step back and reduce the wait time on the first search in a new area. After you do that, you can rapidly increase the wait time to the last threshold you completed successfully, and beyond.
Remember, we have kept the search simple and asked for no alert. When the dog is making solid warm starts, you can begin to increase the complexity of the searches, using larger rooms with still more (accessible) hiding areas. We still ask for no alert — we will train that separately, later. When the dog can do warm starts with wait times of 30 minutes to an hour, you can begin training the cold starts. That sounds like a lot of training time, but you will be surprised how quickly the dog makes progress. Further, because you are being systematic, there will be fewer times when you will need to stop progressing and remediate.
The Cold Start
For example, if you change the size of the room being searched, keep the other variables the same. As the dog does a better job searching methodically in larger rooms, go back to a smaller room as you place the decoy high for the dog to locate, or prone or sitting on the floor. As you vary the depth of the decoy’s cover (behind furniture, for example, or deep in an open closet) reduce the size of the overall search area. At this point, the dog is started cold every time.
In our academy, we deploy the dog on a long line to restrict the search area to a room-by-room advance using a modified “clear, down, and cover” approach. Without getting into a debate on the relative merits of long-line versus off-leash deployments, suffice it to say that you will get more thorough room-by-room search behavior and a higher degree of certainty that a room was thoroughly cleared by the dog if you condition the dog to search each segment by restricting his advance.
It is important to maintain the variable placement of the decoy during all training. As the dog becomes comfortable with searching each room thoroughly and making an advance to a new cover position for another deployment, we can start training the alert, but we do this separately from the search training.
The aggressive alert is customary when dogs search buildings off-leash, because if the dog gets deep into the building, you will have no way to know where he is if you don’t have some type of audible alert. However, if your dog is not allowed to range a great distance, especially when doing a modified SWAT method of long-line deployment,
Training the alert itself involves simplifying the search significantly, and you should go back to hot starts during this phase of training to keep the dog’s drive high when he encounters the decoy. I like to use a school building or industrial building that has a long hallway with opposing doors. This process is much like teaching a narcotics dog to alert on a hidden odor. Normally in the process of teaching an aggressive narcotics alert we do alert drills, which do not involve any complex searching, to increase the behavior of scratching when the dog encounters an inaccessible odor hide. We do the same thing with the building search.
I start with the decoy halfway in one of the rooms close to the end of the hallway from which we are starting the dog. The handler again gives his alert command to the dog, while the decoy is passive. On each bark, the helper moves closer to the dog, taking quick, discrete steps toward the dog after each bark, up to the point where the dog is rewarded with a grip when the helper is within striking distance. I like to do this exercise with a hidden sleeve. The decoy keeps the hidden sleeve behind his back, as he is drawn in by the dog. We want to keep this as realistic as possible. After the grip, the dog is worked properly, and disengaged. Keep the actual bites short so as not to wear out the dog and to reduce the barking from fatigue. The dog is then taken around the corner and the decoy sets up across the hall in another room, halfway in. The handler takes up a position in which the dog is looking down the hallway and gives the alert command again, and the dog draws the decoy out of the room to him with each bark. That process is repeated four or five times, depending on the dog’s condi-tioning. Do not work the dog to the point of failure to bark from fatigue. It is better to do short sessions with periods
Once the dog is drawing the decoy out of each room into the hallway by offering a good, continuous bark, the exer-cise is then set up to begin the same way, and each time the dog barks, the handler allows the dog to move discreetly toward the decoy by letting out a little bit of line after each bark. As the dog gets about halfway to the decoy, the decoy moves just inside the door of the room he is starting in, leaving a small open seam in the doorway. The decoy should place his foot against the bottom of the door and hold the handle with his hand, pulling against his foot to steady it. Keep the bite arm as far from the door seam as possible, because we want the dog to sniff the decoy’s pant leg, which lies along the door seam, rather than alert to the smell of the bite equipment. As the decoy slips inside the door, the handler allows the dog to run the rest of the way to the door seam. Now it is the decoy’s job to read the situation. Listen for sniffing behavior. If you get a good change of behavior, reward that quickly one or two times by popping the door open immediately following a couple of good sniffs and giving the dog a bite. The handler should allow a quick grip each time and then disengage the dog and move him out of the hall around the corner so the decoy can set up again.
Set up the same way, but this time the decoy goes across the hall, halfway in the door. After the dog gives a few good alert barks at the passive decoy, the decoy then slips behind the door, and sets up with a thin vertical seam in the door held between the handle and his foot at the bottom. The dog is given the apprehension command and then is allowed to go freely toward the door, the handler holding the long line loosely; this time, however, once the dog sniffs, wait for a bark or at least a squeak. Immediately reward any aggressive vocal behavior. Don’t try to get too much bark too soon — be patient. You can see that the progression from here is to systematically increase the criteria required for the grip. We want to encourage the sequence: sniff, identify human odor, and then bark. Once we are getting a few good, continuous barks, put the reward on a variable schedule.
Now we need to fade the visual cue of the decoy in the doorway. Again, we use the sequence “hot, warm, and cold.” If the visible, passive decoy is considered a hot start, now we set up the dog to see the decoy run in and out a few of the doors, and then take the dog around the corner for a few seconds. While the dog goes around the corner, the decoy changes to his final position (use one of the first four doors from the dog’s starting place) and hides in the fashion we have described, allowing a thin seam in the door with the decoy’s leg pressed against it.
Because we have made the search more complex, reduce the criteria for a reward. One bark gets a bite. Repeat this warm process as we did in the start procedure. This should be a familiar process for the dog, and you should move through it quickly. Increase the criteria for the bark so you get a strong bark response from the dog.
Finally, go to a cold start. On the cold start, again, reduce the criteria for a reward and then rebuild it. It will rebuild quickly if you did your warm work thoroughly. Again, a school is a great place to train, because you can use three different hallways for the exercise each time you complete it. Some of the room doors should be closed and kept blank during the cold starts so the dog doesn’t associate the find with a door he can’t push open. Treat blank rooms as you would blank boxes in narcotics alert training. If the dog tries to give a false response on a closed door to a blank room, give a reprimand, move the dog away from the incor-rect location, and encourage him to resume searching. You can build the blank rooms to contain unused sleeves and other unused equipment (containing no human odor) to proof the dog off of equipment as a reason to respond on the door, just as we proof the dog off of toys, food, baggies, and so on in narcotics training.
Build the Final Behavior Chain
As you make the problems more complex, bear a few things in mind. As you vary the complexity of the alert by hiding the decoy high, low, deep, and so on, make the search problem itself simpler. As the dog progresses with a good start, a powerful search, and a clear, strong alert each time, you can begin to challenge the dog by changing only one or two variables at a time. If you change two variables, change one of them only slightly at first. Be sure to set the dog up for success each time by incrementally changing the problem and making sure the reward is given to the dog to keep his responses strong.
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