Of all the training questions I receive, both through this magazine and as a trainer, one of the most common is how to deal with a dog that is not releasing on command. Often these questions arise at about the same time a handler has to do a certification. I do not know of any national certifications in which a dog does not have to demonstrate a verbal release.
Obviously passing certification is important, but this should be a behavior that all patrol dogs are proficient in all the time. In my time as a handler I have seen many teams that were not at all bothered that their dog would not release on command. When I questioned them about it, I was told it does not matter because they would never do that on the street. What a huge tactical error.
Let's take the dog out of the equation for a moment. If we were setting up tactical training using simunitions and the scenario called for you to enter a junkyard looking for a party that could be armed, you would utilize cover and move through the yard slowly and methodically. Upon seeing the suspect — crouched down behind a car, for example — you would take cover and then challenge him. I cannot imagine that you would run up to him and go hands-on with a potentially armed suspect. If an officer did such a thing, he would be called out by his peers and his supervisors for horrible officer safety. Why does the scenario change for K-9 handlers and their dogs?
Of the many advantages a police service dog gives us, one of the most important things is distance. It creates a reactionary gap between us and the suspect. If you have to close that gap to remove your dog every time he apprehends a suspect, you have negated that advantage. At times, there may be good tactical reasons to physically remove the dog. However, that should only be one of the tools in your toolbox.
You should also be able to give your dog a verbal release command — and know that he will comply and release the subject — in any situation. I have heard some handlers say that they think the dog should be left on the bite until the suspect is cuffed. Their claim is that it will distract the suspect while they approach and handcuff him. Often, these are the same people who have to do extra training around certification time. You can distract the suspect with proper tactics. Utilize cover, call your dog off, and move the suspect out from his hiding spot. If he had made plans to attack or had secreted a weapon, you will have interrupted those plans.
After Find, During Bite
Let’s say your dog has found the suspect — he has done as he was trained and either engaged immediately or reacted to the suspect's movement and engaged. You are 10 feet away and can see half of the suspect and the back half of your dog under a bush. You are standing next to a large brick barbecue pit. At this point, you cannot see either of the suspect's hands and the dog is not able to pull him out from under the bush due to his large size. Your options are:
1. Take cover and order the dog to release, then order him to guard the suspect or return to you. With training, a dog can do either of those actions on command. Next, order the suspect to come out, showing his hands. Depending on his actions, you will be able to react accordingly and you will be behind cover.
2. Approach the suspect and dog as best you can and either attempt to pull them out or stick your head under the dark bush and get hold of the dog's collar. You will then be on top of the suspect but will have no cover, no reaction time, and a handful of dog. You will now be going hands-on with a resisting, unsearched suspect who committed a serious enough offense to warrant using a police service dog to apprehend him. Either you have put your life in the hands of your cover officers or you are relying on the assumption that a person who is being bitten cannot hurt you. In addition, if the situation turns into an officerinvolved shooting, your dog will be in the middle of it.
If I were to pick from those two scenarios, I know which one I would want to be involved in. Without the verbal release, your options are limited. You will have to approach the suspect to take control of your dog and the suspect. If he is a committed suspect or if there are two or more suspects together, you are at even more of a disadvantage. On top of all of this, there are numerous court decisions regarding the duration of a bite. Again, we have rules to follow, while the suspects do not. When I set up training scenarios, it is very hard to “beat” teams with a verbal release that utilize cover properly, while the teams that cannot effect a verbal release are relatively easy to defeat. I urge to you test this during your own training days. If the handler has a good verbal release, he will be able to maintain cover and order the dog back to him and then determine the next step. Ideally, at that point we have the suspect located and contained, so time is on our side.
Using the scenario described previously, I have set up training searches with a dog handler and cover officers in a junkyard. In one instance, the dog did a thorough search and located the suspect, who was wearing a concealed sleeve. The dog did as trained and immediately engaged the suspect. At that point, the handler and his two cover officers worked their way past several areas of cover and went hands-on with the suspect. The handler immediately holstered his gun and started to lift the dog off.
When we debriefed the scenario and talked about other options, the handler said he was trained to leave the dog on the bite and approach. After talking about options, we ran the same drill again with the same team. This time I had them use cover, call the dog back, move the suspect out into the open and prone him out before leaving cover and approaching him. The team quickly saw all the advantages to this approach. The same handler called me a few weeks later to tell me he had used that technique on the street and was very happy with the way the arrest took place.
Train and Maintain
A verbal release is simply an obedience command, nothing more. Granted, it is a command given when the dog is in drive and there are many distractions present, but it is still you imposing your will on the dog. Through proper shaping of your dog’s behavior, this is not impossible to train and maintain. To write out a step-by-step article teaching the release would be difficult, as there are so many variables between dogs and handlers. Instead, I will offer several ideas and techniques I have been taught, or discovered through trial and error. I am making the assumption that you and/or your trainer can teach a basic release. The following are things I hope will help you at some time. Any trainer will tell you it is always good to have as many tools in the toolbox as possible.
The Green Dog
If the dog is a green dog, I will start by teaching the dog to release a toy. I try to make this a game that is as much fun as possible. I like using jute tug toys as this is much like a bite suit and it will get your dog used to opening his mouth. I start off with simply making a game; during play I will stop pulling on the toy and give a release command. After a short time of me not pulling, the dog’s drive will decrease a little and he will be willing to open his mouth. I then take the toy and immediately start playing with him again. Pretty soon, he will let go on one command with no correction at all, so I start playing again. If the dog does not respond to this approach, I will use a twotoy method that has been described several times in previous issues of Police K-9 Magazine.
Addressing all the tricks and problems involved in getting a difficult dog to release could comprise an entire article on its own. However, many dogs will respond to the aforementioned steps if the handler is consistent. The key here is the same as with all of the next steps. I show the dog what I want while he is calm and clearheaded. Then I keep repeating the same exercise as I increase the drive of the dog. I start to play more vigorously with the toy while still making him release it on command. If needed, I will give him a leash correction. Starting with a toy for release takes some of the stimulation out of the dog and makes it “personal” — I am telling him what I want with just the two of us there. Establishing a good foundation at this stage will be beneficial as you progress.
Start Over If Needed
If you are having troubles maintaining or even teaching a release command, it might be time to start with a clean slate. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that there are certain words or triggers that can instantly start a fight. Think about what that is and think about your reaction to it before it even happens. If you know the argument is coming, chances are that you are going to be short-tempered and ready to argue. I have seen this same thing happen with dogs that have been resistant to training the release.
When I go to problem-solve, the first thing I want to see is the team in action. Show me what you are doing and what you have tried in the past. Many times what I have observed is the release command — the very word — will bring out a lot of conflict and fight in some dogs. The dog has often chained up the ritual — bite, command, correction — and is ready for it. If you use peremptory commands, you can sometimes see the dog bite hard as soon as you say, “Show me your hands.”
Depending on how much history you have in trying to fix this problem, you might try changing the entire process, including the command. I have had great success instilling a proper heel even with distractions (decoys on the field, etc.) and changing the release command to the dog’s heel command. After all, the dog cannot heel and bite at the same time.
Try a Muzzle
As I mentioned earlier, I have had good success in getting the dog to release simply by instilling a proper heel command. Often I will start this process with the dog in muzzle and the decoys in full bite suits. I always want at least two decoys; I will explain that later. The decoys are in bite suits so the dog can get used to following commands even with the distractions in front of him. I will have the handler heel the dog either off-lead or on a 15-foot lead, and instill the heel with a power collar. The dog should already know how to heel at this point; I am just going to fine-tune a behavior the dog already knows. By having the dog in muzzle, you are able to simply pull him back into the heel position upon command. I do this until the dog responds to the heel command each time and will start having the decoys agitate the dog more as he demonstrates the heel more consistently.
Once the dog will release and return to a heel when the decoy is still moving, I will take the muzzle off. Until this point, the decoy had been working the dog in very high drive while in muzzle; now with the muzzle off, the decoy will behave more passively. This is the same concept as working the toy release when the dog is calm and continuing to challenge him as he responds.
Repetition Is Key
Once the dog is heeling well and now is biting in the suit, I want to show him that the release is just a game, the same game as the toy release game. When I first let the dog bite again, I will have the handler give the heel command as soon as he makes contact. If needed, I will enforce the command with a power collar or leash correction until the dog is complying consistently.
Once the dog is heeling, I will have the handler send him to the next decoy. I continue the same very short fight several times — this is to re-instill the proper release to a heel. We will lengthen and vary the time of the fight as soon as the dog demonstrates a consistent release to a heel. Many times as we work our way to longer fights, I have observed that if the dog will release after about 20–30 seconds, he will most likely release at any length of fight. At the same time, increasing and varying the amount of agitation from the decoy will teach the dog to release under any circumstances.
Take a Mulligan
The dictionary defines a “mulligan” as when a player gets a second chance to perform a certain move or action. When I was first trained as a handler I was often taught that the dog had to do what was commanded and if he did not, he would be corrected until he did. Most of the time that approach will work well. The problem is that when it does not work, it can create long-lasting conflict.
As an example, the dog is given a release command and it is apparent he is not going to release solely based on the command. A correction is given and the dog still does not respond. Sometimes this process will go on for way too long to be productive. What I have seen over the years is that the quality of our dogs continues to improve. Many of these dogs simply are genetically inclined at times to accept any correction we can deliver and not release. These dogs have been selectively bred to be physically hard. It is at moments like this that I will give the dog a mulligan.
Even though we have given the dog a command and followed it with a proper correction, he is still not releasing. I will then have the handler just remove the dog using a liftoff — no more corrections or commands, just a non-emotional liftoff and return the dog to a heel. The handler will then heel the dog around the decoys for few minutes until the dog clears its head. Most of the time, the dog will release on the very next bite. I know some will say that the dog “won” when he did not release. However, even if you do a liftoff, the dog is no longer biting and is back in a heel command. If this is done in a timely manner and without emotion, I believe it keeps from creating the conflict that we talked about earlier. This is not to be done with a dog that does not have a release; rather, this should be saved for the dog that usually does release and just needs a mulligan once in a while to instill the proper behavior.
Two Decoys for Training
I mentioned earlier the need to have at least two decoys on the field for training. This accomplishes several things. First, it will get your dog to focus more on you and your commands.
With a single decoy, the dog can lock onto him even when you are heeling or doing other exercises, because the dog knows that all of the “action” will be with your one decoy. If you have two or more decoys and send the dog at random times to each one, the dog will have to pay attention to you in order to be able to bite. Practice watching your dog and when he is “locked on” to one of the decoys, send him to the other one. You will quickly see him clear his mind and pay attention to you. Secondly, additional decoys can be used in the same manner as the two-toy reward system. As soon as your dog releases one bite you can immediately send him to the other decoy. He will soon see the release off a bite suit as nothing more than a fun game.
When I was young and first learning to ski, I remember bragging at lunch one day that I had not fallen all morning. Instead of being impressed, my instructor simply said that meant I had not pushed myself. He explained that skiing conservatively so that I would not fall was not a way to ever get any better. I see dog handlers do the same thing all the time. If you are afraid to “fall” while you are training, it is likely that you will not get any better. Training should be a time to push yourself and your dog. How many times have you seen a handler who has a good dog that is well-trained, and then you see him again one year later and he is at exactly the same level? I would be more impressed with the team if the dog were constantly improving.
Using multiple decoys and ramping up their movements and actions is a great way to push yourself. I constantly change what the decoys are doing so that my dog will not care if they are moving, yelling, shooting blank guns, lying under something, on top of a jungle gym in a playground, etc. What I have found is that pushing to almost crazy limits during training will make your average street apprehension very easy for the dog. As I stated earlier, this article is by no means intended to provide a comprehensive list. I hope I have given some food for thought to those who do not believe a verbal release is a valuable tactical tool. If you have feedback, questions, or good ideas on this topic, please email me at Jeff@PoliceK-9Magazine.com. If I receive enough good suggestions, I will create a “part two” of this article, including reader feedback.