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The crucial role of the decoy in K-9 training

Ed. Note: This article is adapted from the Jerry Bradshaw’s upcoming book, Controlled Aggression in Theory & Practice, available from the Tarheel Canine Pro Shop and is reprinted by permission of the author.


It used to be thought that to decoy for a police dog required no previous training or instruction, other than choosing a guy who had no fear of dogs. Get a guy to suit up, tell him to run, and send the dog! Those days have to be over if we are to progress our dogs in their patrol work.

Now, we realize, that is a poor way to train your dog. The decoy is the reward mechanism for your dog's patrol training, and so we need someone in the suit who can read the dog, and reward him with a grip appropriately, to increase the likelihood of all the critical behaviors the dog must master in the patrol phase.

A good decoy can go a long way to improving a dog's performance. Every training session is loaded with behavioral feedback to the dog. The decoy is the one in control of that feedback. Would you allow an untrained person to work your dog in obedience, or handle him in tracking? When you use an unskilled decoy you are doing exactly that. The decoy trains the dog in patrol work. Behaviors shown by the dog are either rewarded properly or not, and if we do not reward the dog for releasing, or coming back on a recalled attack, for example, we run the risk of seeing these behaviors deteriorate as the dog makes his own reward system by taking dirty grips or running through his recalls.

Proper timing, mechanics of catching the dog to avoid jams, technique to catch dogs in the front of the suit (not all bad guys are running away) on more confrontational bites, how to push the dog in defense and then relieve the pressure to improve the dogs ability to channel drives - these are some of the skills the decoy must learn.

Look at the four quadrants of operant conditioning below, known as the "Consequences of Behavior," and the associated examples of how the decoy, through his actions is the instrument we use to condition the dog during patrol training.

The Consequences of Behavior
The probability of a behavior recurring is affected by the consequences of the behavior itself. We speak of two consequences: Reinforcement (a reinforcing consequence is one that will increase the frequency of a behavior) and Punishment (a punishing consequence is one that will decrease the frequency of a behavior). Now, both reinforcement and punishment can be either positive or negative, thus we have four consequences we must define:

Positive Reinforcement: A particular behavior is strengthened due to a desirable consequence. For example a dog barks aggressively after the alert command is given, and receives a grip as a reward, increasing the likelihood he will bark when we alert him.

Negative Reinforcement: Eliminating some undesirable consequence strengthens a particular behavior. For example, in training the out with a difficult dog, we pull tight on the pinch collar (rather than making a correction) or choke collar, applying pressure, and when the dog outs, we relieve the pressure.

Negative Punishment: Withholding the reinforcing consequence weakens a particular behavior. For example, the dog stops barking in the hold and bark exercise for find and bark training. The handler snatches the dog back with the long line, and the decoy escapes out of sight. The dog is re-sent to the decoy, and the reward grip is withheld in this manner until the dog barks continuously.

Positive Punishment: A particular behavior is weakened by the presentation of an unpleasant consequence. For example, the dog wants to run out of a down command to the bite before we give the send command, so we apply a correction for the down, and send him only when he is holding the down properly. The same can be done with eye contact, heeling around decoys, sitting around decoys to enhance control over your dog when he is in "bite mode."

It is critical that decoys, handlers and trainers understand these consequences of behavior and how to apply them. Good decoys know when to apply each consequence, and why.




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