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Uncovering patterns in your K-9 training

Make sure you are not creating unintended responses in your dog because of the way you are doing your training


When I first started in dog training (a long time ago, now) I was part of a Schutzhund club in North Carolina, and I was one of the main training decoys for the group. Prior to me leaving the club to pursue other training opportunities, I worked with a woman for a number of months who owned a very nice dog. About six months after I left, she called me and told me of a problem with her dog.

Apparently, when on the back-tie, the young dog would no longer come up off the ground to get the grip when offered, but rather would wait for the decoy to present the sleeve low and push the grip into the dog’s mouth. After working the dog privately I realized the decoy she was working with was not making the dog come to the grip, but rather jamming the sleeve into the dog’s mouth when he delivered the grip. The dog was just waiting for the decoy to provide the valet service of placing the sleeve in his mouth!

In my book, Controlled Aggression, I make the point that when working young dogs we need to develop the dog’s strike by making misses, and holding the sleeve high upon delivery so the dog gets used to driving into the grip, rather than having the grip be given to the dog. This was a rookie decoy mistake, but it highlights an issue: even if they are inadvertently introduced into your training, patterns will become conditioned responses in your dog over time.

Richland County K-9 deputy Gerald Atkinson trains with Chico, a Belgian Malinois, during a training exercise Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008, in Columbia, S.C. Looking on is instructor T.J. Westrik, of Holland's Royal Dutch Police. Some 40 police canine teams from around the U.S. participated in the week long training. (AP Photo)
Richland County K-9 deputy Gerald Atkinson trains with Chico, a Belgian Malinois, during a training exercise Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008, in Columbia, S.C. Looking on is instructor T.J. Westrik, of Holland's Royal Dutch Police. Some 40 police canine teams from around the U.S. participated in the week long training. (AP Photo)

For example, you use and practice tactical removals in your patrol training almost universally, and then when certification rolls around your dog will only out if you are right on top of him, and he ignores the verbal out at a distance. Clearly in a real apprehension you are going to go hands on your dog and remove him from the grip. Therefore, you do need to practice this skill.

The problem is that by not varying the mode of release in training, you create a habit — or expectation — that letting go is associated with the handler being hands on and close to the dog. The dog begins to ignore you when you are away from him and he is biting, because you do not practice influencing his behavior in this context often enough for it to matter to the dog. The dog becomes dependent upon you being near him as part of the cue to release. When that cue is missing, the dog fights on.

This pattern of training created an unintended consequence.

Another example: You send your dog for a long apprehension. The dog bites firm, full, and hard as he is supposed to. From a distance you tell him to release, and he does not. You run toward him, and when you are about ten feet away coming in like a thundering herd of buffalo, the dog releases into a guard and holds the suspect. As a result of his compliance you do not correct him. Your trainer tells you the dog just doesn’t respect you.

In reality, you have never actually enforced the release from a distance, and have come up on him to enforce it, so the dog makes an association that the out process is one command at a distance that is ignored and he must only release when you get close enough to deliver the consequence. You have created a pattern that the dog has learned well.

Each of these examples is a real situation that happened to a real dog handler. The upshot here is to make sure you are not creating unintended responses in your dog because of the way you are doing your training. Avoid falling into patterns and conditioning a response that is ultimately at odds with the behavior you want to create.

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