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Beyond the K-9 bite suit

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the pages of Police K-9 Magazine. It is reprinted by permission of the publisher and presented in partnership with our friends at Police K-9 Magazine in an ongoing effort to provide handlers and non-handlers with the best information available on issues that affect any department that has, or is considering getting, K-9 capabilities. We wish to thank the good folks at Police K-9 Magazine for this article and those they will provide in the future.

By Ron Gunton
Police K-9 Magazine

Talk to anyone who has worked in K-9 for any significant amount of time and you will learn that the image of a dog that goes into a frenzy at the mere sight of a bite suit is a common one. In other words, the moment the dog sees someone in a bite suit, his eyes roll back and he becomes a shark on four paws. Control is significantly diminished, and the handler spends the next part of the training session trying to get the dog dialed back down to a level at which he can be controlled.

As handlers, we often justify that type of behavior with comments such as, “Well, he knows what the suit is for,” or “He just loves bite work,” or other weak reasons for the move away from full control. It is unlikely that any handler or trainer truly finds that loss of control acceptable, but our profession often makes an exception for the dog’s reaction to the presence of equipment. This article describes a useful solution to the problem of equipment fixation.

Proofing or Avoidance?
Many training techniques have been implemented in recent years in terms of “proofing” the dog around equipment. Those techniques train the dog to tolerate the equipment that ordinarily sends him over the edge. That being said, would we not be better served if the problem were never allowed to manifest itself to begin with? Wouldn’t it be easier to avoid the problem altogether rather than working backward to a solution?

One idea that has been used with some measure of success is to not even introduce the bite suit at all — to a point. Now hold off on turning the page and stay with me a second or two. Let’s first look at why we use a suit to begin with. It could be argued (probably successfully) that the purpose of the suit is twofold. First, the suit is implemented for the protection of the decoy. Second, it is used to train the dog to go for something other than an exposed sleeve on an arm. Both of those are valid points. However, we must ask ourselves whether the same results could be achieved by other means.

The Training Progression
When conducting initial, basic training for a new K-9, consider the following training progression:

1) Get the dog to a level where he is solidly engaging an exposed sleeve.
2) Move to a hidden, more realistic-feeling sleeve.
3) Incorporate muzzle work.
4) Proof on the suit.

That sequence has been implemented with several new dogs in our training group with outstanding results. Of course, it is imperative to build the dog properly through the various stages. For example, we need to ensure that the dog is work-ing well (he has a solid, full-mouthed
hold) on an exposed sleeve before removing the visual cue it offers. We can then move the dog to a hidden sleeve and incorporate muzzle work simultaneously to get the dog to go to other parts of the body. Once the dog is no longer seeing equipment, we can randomly work the dog in and out of muzzle, with and without hidden equipment. Keeping the approach varied and random prevents the dog from assigning too much association to one particular method. In other words, we can create a real problem by working only aggression every time the dog is in muzzle. We can do likewise by working aggression every time the dog sees someone wearing long sleeves (as in covering hidden equipment).

We’ve all seen video clips of dogs failing to engage an actual suspect who doesn’t present his arm like so many poorly trained decoys do in training. By integrating hidden equipment and a muzzle, we can avoid much of that and in essence transform the dog into a “body dog,” as opposed to the much-less-desirable “arm dog.” There’s no question that will make the dog more street-worthy.

Toward the conclusion of the training class, the dog can be tested on the suit. The experience we’ve had in our training group is that although the dog is often a little confused by the new “feel” of a bite suit, he quickly gets the idea and ups his game and engagement (usually by the second or third bite). Once the dog solidly engages and holds the suit, he rarely sees it again except when absolutely necessary and is, instead, worked on hidden equipment and in muzzle — both of which are much more like what the dog will see on the street. We used that approach most recently with a new, 12-month-old Dutch Shepherd at the conclu-sion of a 12-week class. The youngster had no problem quickly realizing what he was supposed to do and exhibited a nice, clear-headed confidence as he rode the decoy’s back while firmly engaged on the shoulder — all four feet off the ground.

It’s Just Clothing
What the training process I’ve described does is teach the dog that the suit is exactly what we want him to think it is: clothing, and nothing more. The real benefit is evident when dogs brought up with this approach are on the field with dogs that were not. When someone walks out wearing a suit, the non-suit-oriented dogs give him little more attention than anyone else on the field, while the suit-trained dogs’
handlers are struggling to maintain control of their dogs.
Although this technique will not work with every dog, it is an idea proven worthy of consideration by any trainer.

Ron Gunton has been a K-9 handler/trainer for the Mentor (OH) Police Department for more than 12 years and in law enforcement for 22 years. He works a patrol/narcotics K-9 also trained for SWAT applications. Ron is an accredited master trainer of Utility/Patrol & Narcotics Detection with the North American Police Work Dog Association and a canine evaluator for the State of Ohio. Contact him at thunderzone@oh.rr.com.

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