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Training your K-9's bark alert

In searching for and locating hidden suspects, a patrol dog's bark is a valuable tool. Proper training is crucial.

By Steve Sprouse

It’s 3:00 AM, and a silent listening alarm is dispatched to patrol units from a large warehouse containing expensive merchandise. Units arrive and find the rear door pried open; a small entry point allows access to the large, dark building. Alarm company personnel are advising that they heard noises earlier, but now all is quiet inside the warehouse. Patrol units conclude the call is a burglary and quickly set up a perimeter around the business. It is unknown whether the suspect(s) are still inside.

The primary officer calls for a K-9 unit. The K-9 unit arrives and the handler is briefed on the situation. Moments later, the K-9 handler takes a safe position at the point of entry and gives a lawful K-9 warning. When he receives no response, the handler signals his patrol dog to search for the suspect(s). In response to the handler’s command, the dog exhibits a conditioned behavior — he proceeds to search the warehouse. From a human point of view, the dog is “searching for a suspect,” but from the dog’s perspective, he is simply using his nose to search for human odor. This human odor should lead him to where he may make visual or physical contact with a suspect.

Minutes later, the dog has detected fresh human scent. The dog’s body language changes due to his conditioned response to the unfamiliar smell. The dog starts moving frantically back and forth with his head high in the air in front of a large stack of wooden crates that are piled up to the ceiling. The dog’s level of frustration builds because he cannot get to the source of the odor. The dog begins to bark in rapid succession while staring at the top of the stacked crates. The handler has no doubt that someone is hiding near or on top of the crates. Another K-9 warning is given from cover and a suspect emerges from the stack of crates, clearly revealing his hands. The dog now sees the suspect and continues barking with excitement and pleasure. The suspect complies with all lawful orders and is taken into custody. The dog’s audible alert in response to detecting human odor brought this situation to asuccessful conclusion.

This scenario depicts success because, first and foremost, the dog used his nose to locate the suspect. Secondly, the dog alerted by changing his body language and eventually barking. A working dog’s alert to human odor by vocalizing or barking is something handlers rely on to help pinpoint suspect location, and is particularly important when we are not able to observe the dog’s physical alert due to darkness or location. Besides indicating the suspect’s location, the bark alert allows us to take a safe position and it lets the suspect know we mean business. If the bark alert is reliable, it assures the handler that human odor from a suspect is present in or around that location.

Alerts can come in many forms and are primarily conditioned behaviors, stemming from the dog’s natural instincts. The most common displays of conditioned alerts are staring, scratching, sitting or barking. For example, the alert in the building scenario described previously started with a change in the dog’s body language and eventually led to barking. The dog learned through past experiences or training that barking led to a reward.

Forge the Correct Link
Our goal as patrol dog trainers is not just to have a barking dog, but a dog that barks for a specific reason. When we employ three important components linked together — command, human odor, and barking — the dog is rewarded. In this training context, the dog should never get rewarded for barking if one of the other two components is missing. When teaching the audible alert, odor must be present in order to trigger the bark. The dog must clearly associate his bark alert with the finding of human odor. If that link is not solid, the dog could bark for many unwanted reasons, including excitement, a closed door, or the handler’s body language.

Detection dog trainers are familiar with similar issues. Dogs learn by positive and negative experiences which are the principles of operant conditioning. Dogs also tend to take the easiest route to success. Keeping the laws of learning in mind, we need to lay a solid, clear foundation when training the audible alert with a young or inexperienced dog. As stated, the dog should form an association or link between the command, human odor, closing in on the human odor and barking. At the beginning or foundation stage, it is important that human odor is the primary stimulus the dog experiences. If it is sight, sound, or handler influence, an incorrect association may form in the dog’s mind. It’s worth repeating: the cue to bark in this context should always be odor.

To train or condition the dog to bark at the source of human odor, start by placing a live human decoy in a closed container or room that the dog will eventually smell. Don’t let the dog see, hear or get to the decoy at this point in the exercise. Containers that work best are the certification-style boxes used by some canine associations in a “box find” exercise. Another option in training the alert would be to use a building hallway with many doors or a row of cars or containers that are sequentially arranged.

Always make sure the dog is brought downwind and odor is coming out of the container the dog will check. To check where the odor is releasing from, you can utilize your senses, a cigarette lighter, or airborne particles — or have an experienced dog check for the odor’s release point. Just because the container seam or opening is at a certain location, does not always mean odor is coming out of it. Many rooms do not expel air, but instead draw air in. Check to make sure.

Work the Odor
When preparing the exercise, place the decoy in the container with a sleeve or device with which to reward the dog. Do not let the dog see where the decoy goes. Let the odor build up for a few minutes. Bring the dog on leash to the downwind side of the container and seam. Encourage the dog to investigate the container. Carefully watch for a behavior change when he smells the decoy. As soon as you see the dog indicate that he smells the decoy odor — as slight as that indication may be at this point — praise and encourage him while giving his search command. Let him “work” the odor for a few seconds. The dog should become frustrated because he cannot see anyone but can smell them.

Depending on the drive of the dog and how the handler works the dog, most dogs will bark at this point. Dogs that are not prone to bark may need extra encouragement from the handler or stimulation from the decoy. It is important to remember that stimulation from the decoy should never occur without the dog detecting odor first. As soon as the dog barks, the decoy opens the door and the dog is given a reward, which could be a bite or toy. The dog has just experienced success by linking command, odor and bark. Remember: timing is very important. The door is opened and the reward is given the instant the dog barks.

Repeat the exercise a short time later, this time using a fresh container. Be careful to air out the previous container or room before the dog is brought past it en route to the second container. Keep repeating the exercise, each time using a different container or room within a systematic ratio. Most dogs pick up on this exercise quickly if positive reinforcement is utilized properly.

As the dog learns the exercise, he should be required to bark more than once before he is rewarded. In the learning or foundation stage, once the dog locates odor, never take him away from the odor by calling or pulling him off. Many handlers are concerned about training a pattern before the dog understands that he must commit and stay at the source of odor. Completing or polishing patterns can come later. If the dog is taken away from the odor before he learns the association, he will become confused and will not learn as quickly.

On a side note, dogs can learn patterns at the same time they are learning the search-and-bark exercise if the training exercises are conducted appropriately. An example would be training the “box find” exercise. The first time the dog is brought to human odor, he is brought on lead to the first box or door in the succession. In the next session, box or door number one is aired out and the dog is allowed to check box one, but moves to box or door two where the decoy is now hidden. For the next session, hide the decoy in box three. Then for the fourth session, go back to box one again. The number of boxes or rooms available will dictate how you address the pattern training.

As long as the dog has had proper repetitions, this method allows the dog to learn odor recognition and a pattern of checking every box or door in order. He learns the pattern because he can never anticipate where the decoy will be hidden. Because the dog has had repetitive success by starting with container one through a given number, he learns a sequential pattern on his own.

The Reluctant Canine
Training the “bark at odor” exercise sounds easy until we come across a dog that does not want to bark right away. Instead of barking, he may get confused and leave the odor, he may try to scratch or dig at the container, or he may just whine. If we have a dog that is reluctant to bark at odor, we may need to build frustration in the dog.

The famous biologist and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz conducted much research into aggressive behavior in animals. He wrote in his book On Aggression that frustration often contributes to aggression. In our training context, frustration aggression would likely lead to barking. Thus, when the dog recognizes human odor, begins to change his body language and sniffs back and forth at the container but fails to bark, we need to frustrate him. Because the dog has already indicated to the odor, it is okay to stimulate him by teasing at this point. This could come in the form of shaking the door or blowing air out the opening of the container to elicit a bark. Of course, the dog is not allowed to reach the decoy before the bark. If necessary, even a little sound stimulation may be in order. Such tricks should cause the dog to be stimulated and frustrated, which will likely lead to a bark.

It is important to remember that any sight or sound stimulation must only be used after the dog has used his nose to locate the decoy but has failed to audibilize. Any stimulation from the decoy should be temporary and should be stopped as soon as the dog is successful in forming the association we are looking for. If the dog wants to dig, jump or scratch, pull him back just out of reach of the container so he cannot vent in this manner. Do not pull the dog out of the scent cone.

Keeping the dog back just far enough to keep him from scratching or jumping should cause frustration to be pent up and to find no other release but a bark. This requires patience on the part of the trainer or handler; too often trainers and handlers become impatient and resort to sound or sight stimulation too soon, which causes the dog not to use his nose. Patience and finesse are priceless virtues when it comes to dog training.

Some dogs develop a negative behavior in the early stages of this training: they begin to bark at every single door or container whether human odor is present or not. This can occur when the dog thinks that either the door or the bark is the key to his reward and leaves odor out of the equation. This can happen on occasion because the dog has not put all the components or pieces together. If the dog continues to bark at blank doors and does not get rewarded, but is successful when odor is present, he will eventually learn on his own that linking odor and barking will get him his reward.

Teaching the bark alert should be fun for both handler and dog. This usually is not difficult if the concepts of operant conditioning are carefully adhered to. If done correctly, the concepts and methods utilized for this training will prevent negative behaviors from developing. The dog will enjoy every minute of this training, will clearly understand the exercise and will learn it quickly. Remember: the association the dog learns is a total package containing command, search, recognizing fresh human odor and barking.

Steve Sprouse is a trainer for the Broward County Sheriff ’s Office Patrol Dog Unit in southeast Florida. He can be reached at extremek9@aol.com.

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