Lessons from a military K-9 trainer

By Jeff Franklin, PoliceOne Contributor

Through training a multitude of dog teams for military special operations, I have gained significant insight into how best prepare K-9 teams. Below are some valuable lessons I would like to share with the police community.  

The importance of dog selection

Having as much control and focus as possible makes for a better all-around K9 team no matter the obstacles thrown at you. (Photo/Jeff Franklin)
Having as much control and focus as possible makes for a better all-around K9 team no matter the obstacles thrown at you. (Photo/Jeff Franklin)

Selecting the correct dog for the job is the most important thing. Do not get a dog because you like the “looks of the canine” or the “breed,” or because a vendor convinced you to.

The worst thing to hear is, “I am a superstar dog trainer, so I can teach them what they are lacking.” Understanding what you can control versus what you cannot is imperative. Some things can be taught or coached, such as environmental socialization and basic commands, what odors to find and how to clear a building. However, if a dog is lacking a genetic drive, they simply cannot be taught. Either the dog has strong drives genetically – such as retrieve, hunt, fight, prey, track – or they do not. Yes, these drives can be enhanced, but it’s a huge mistake to think like I did at one point in my career that, “I am a great trainer and I can teach that.”

I have one example where I had selected a dog with a high prey drive and low fight drive thinking I could teach him to stay in the fight. But in a terrible place during combat my training failed and the dog’s genetics took over. Honest assessment during the selection process must align with the work you want the dog to do. This is the best way to have a solid foundation to move forward in training.

The importance of obedience training

Another area often overlooked is obedience, or the lack thereof. For my entire career I have observed more K9 teams than I could count that had very little to ZERO basic control or obedience. I have heard this phrase repeatedly over the course of my career, “My dog doesn’t need control; he is just a detection dog.” Ironically, most of these same “single-purpose” dogs waste countless energy dragging the handlers around or not releasing the reward toy. 

I hear complaints that teaching control and/or obedience takes a dog’s drive away and makes them handler-dependent, but this is erroneous. If a dog’s drives are there, obedience and control work will simply make them better at their job.

I do understand that over controlling the dog can have a negative effect. However, this can be mitigated through picking the correct dogs for the work and with proper and consistent training. In fact, this control makes our dogs more focused and driven by harnessing their energy and directing it exactly where you want it to go as the handler, as opposed to the dog making that decision for you.

The importance of control

With so many factors outside our control – weather, terrain, human interaction and error – having as much control and focus as possible makes for a better all-around K9 team no matter the obstacles thrown at you. Having a lack of control tactically makes no sense. If you are working a dog while wearing a badge and carrying a weapon, it should not take anyone to tell you (if for no other reason than for your and your dog’s safety) that some tactical obedience is a must. You must be able to point and shoot your weapon with your K9 partner as an asset, not a distraction. Our K-9s want to help us, but we must teach them how to do it efficiently and effectively.

About the author

Canine training specialist Jeff Franklin has trained over 10,000 dogs and has spent the last two decades developing the finest quality canines for military, police, detection, drug, tracking, personal protection, and pet dog obedience. For more information on Jeff, visit https://cobracanine.com/.


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