One of the major problems exhibited by a large percentage of Law Enforcement, Military and tactical dogs worldwide, is their orientation to, or fixation on equipment. In its most simple form, the dog will hold on to, or run off with a piece of equipment when the decoy drops it.
This is typically a carryover from sport training, but in reality is a serious training scar for any operational dog and as such, needs to be eliminated. Arguably, the technique is still valid for sport dog training, however some sport dog trainers prefer the dog to be equipment fixated/focused, rather than targeting the man.
Twenty years ago, it was generally accepted that the type of training techniques that involved making the dog highly equipment fixated and rewarding him by allowing him to win the sleeve and/or carry off his prey (booty, treasure, etc.), were necessary in order to train the dog to bite properly. This belief system has proven to be false however, as truly tactical trainers no longer follow these protocols and still achieve excellent results, producing hard biting and fighting dogs.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another, the vast majority of trainers throughout the world still follow these protocols, often in the mistaken belief that they are necessary to produce a quality dog, or at least a strong grip. Over the years we have had hundreds of trainers from many different departments, agencies and countries surprised to see that we did not allow our dogs to hold or carry any objects or equipment (even as a reward for a job well done). Despite this, our dogs are still strong biting and hard fighting – often harder fighting than equipment orientated dogs.
Another particularly frustrating factor regarding this topic is that contemporary books and magazine articles frequently publish quotes such as “it is nice to be able to reward the dog with sleeve on occasion”. Unfortunately, this comes from a long-standing, ingrained belief system that creates most of the problems in the first place. If the dog is trained correctly, it will not care about being rewarded with dead objects; its motivation will be to engage in the activity (to hunt and fight).
As the old belief systems are so ingrained, it is often nearly impossible to convince trainers that these techniques are not necessary until they witness the benefits associated with a dog that is not object or equipment fixated. I am sure there will be many trainers reading this right now who will be doubting my words and re-affirming their current belief systems, especially those who want to develop a strong biting dog. While I genuinely understand the origins of these ideas, these trainers will continue to impede their dog’s performance outcomes unless they see and experience an alternatively trained dog for themselves.
With some dogs, particularly those with relatively low drives, it would be reasonable and sometimes necessary in the foundation stage to use a tug toy of some description as a form of reward but ultimately, we want a dog that is not object fixated, but instead is activity motivated (in a tactical dog that means a love of the engagement/fight).
PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH OBJECT AND EQUIPMENT ORIENTATION
There are multiple reasons why we need to change the dog’s orientation away from the dead object and or winning its prey. The most obvious one is that if the dog was to rip a jacket off an assailant, it would be required to spit out the jacket and immediately re-engage. In the case of an equipment fixated dog however, the situation would likely end up with the dog holding onto, or running off with, the jacket (this has been directly observed and documented by multiple Police Officers and experienced trainers over the years).
In similar situations, particularly during house searches, the offender may grab an object such as a pillow and put it in front of the dog, and in most instances, the dog will bite the pillow (or more or less any object held in front). What matters here is that as soon as the offender lets go of the object, we need the dog to release the item and immediately re-engage with the offender.
Whilst the above example is a common reason cited for not having an equipment orientated dog, there are a multitude of other examples of why allowing the dog to hold and even more problematic, carry dead equipment/articles, is counterproductive to high quality tactical dog training.
Dependency on Equipment
An object or equipment fixated dog commonly requires the sight of the equipment in order to switch into drive. The more equipment motivated/fixated the dog becomes, the less likely they are to engage a target that is not wearing equipment.
Incorrect Search Focus
Some dogs are so equipment orientated that they are in fact searching for a piece of equipment, rather than searching for a person. I have seen dogs during a search look at the decoy and because they aren’t wearing any equipment simply walk right past them, either because the picture wasn’t what they expected, or they are not interested in finding anybody without equipment. The dog is also more likely to get distracted by and / or pick up objects (especially those it may interpret as training equipment), instead of focusing on hunting for humans.
An operational dog should be able to search and work effectively in an environment with numerous distractions and competing motivations, including everything from balls and tug toys, through to bite sleeves laying around and/or hidden throughout the AO (Area of Operations).
Effect on the Out
Object and equipment fixated dogs are normally difficult to train to release/out off the bite – all most all of them require a lot of compulsion to become reliable in this exercise. Most trainers mistakenly believe this is because the dog is a highly motivated or ‘strong dog’ and that is why it is reluctant to let go. Once again, 20 or 30 years ago I would have agreed with this philosophy, however I now know it to be untrue as I have trained numerous dogs (many of them extremely hard, tough animals) to recall off the bite and release/out on command with very minimal use of compulsion. The secret lies in the fact that these dogs are not obsessed or fixated with holding or possessing any object or piece of equipment. Their primary focus and therefore their reward-base, is to fight with and/or stay engaged with the assailant. Once the dog has this focus (as opposed to being fixated on winning an object or filling his mouth) it is no longer difficult to train him to release the bite and/or recall to the handler.
Increased Predatory Behaviour
It makes the exercise a more ‘prey’ inclined activity, where the dog is not necessarily in the right state of mind to complete the training task.
TESTING FOR OBJECT OR EQUIPMENT FIXATION
It is relatively simple to test whether a dog is object or equipment fixated and as such, whether he is properly trained in this area for tactical roles (Military, Law Enforcement, security etc.). The most basic test is to have a decoy wearing two sleeves, one on his right arm and one on his left, and allow the dog to bite one of the sleeves then have a short fight with the decoy. After five or ten seconds, the decoy should slip the original sleeve off and from there we observe the dog’s behaviour. If the dog has been trained correctly for tactical work (as opposed to a sport dog) the dog should immediately spit out the sleeve and re-engage back onto the decoy. The decoy then can reload with another sleeve and do this activity a number of times – slipping the sleeve and testing to see if the dog will quickly lose interest in the object, and prefer to re-engage with the decoy. We refer to this as an arm to arm transfer and it is one of the basic principles of training a dog to lose its equipment fixation.
With more advanced dogs, we may have a decoy wearing only one sleeve and on the other arm, a hidden sleeve under their jacket. The same exercise as above is conducted, however the dog cannot see a second sleeve on the decoy and as such, may be more reluctant to give up the original sleeve in his mouth. With the proper training, the dog should immediately drop any object or equipment that is no longer connected to the decoy/assailant and immediately re-deploy back onto the man. This should happen automatically, without command or any direction from the handler.
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
As the experience level of the dog and the training progresses, we need to shift the dog’s motivation from any dead object (rag, tube, sleeve, jacket, etc.) onto the source. The dog will become less and less interested in objects and equipment and more and more focused on the decoy or assailant. The end result is that equipment can be left on the ground and/or placed in front of the dog at any time, even during bite work sessions and the dog will show little or no interest in these objects, focusing instead on the assailant and its handler (which is how it should be of course).
Essentially, we need to change the expectation and the relationship with the equipment and the decoy. When searching, the dog needs to be hunting for humans (not equipment and not humans wearing equipment!); it is not even acceptable for the dog to believe that the human he finds has equipment, even if he can’t see it. What we need in a tactical dog, is an animal who no longer cares about equipment; they more or less see the equipment as irrelevant in the equation. Not only that but they care very little about the equipment because their motivation is to engage with the decoy/assailant.
As with most of our training, in order to develop the dog’s focus on the decoy/offender and move it away from equipment/objects, we use multiple mechanisms. First and foremost, we shift the dog’s idea of the reward away from winning its prey onto a more game/activity focused outcome. In other words, our dogs don’t see winning the object as the reward, in fact we progressively shift them away from even caring about the dead object.
What tactical dogs should see as the reward, is the opportunity to engage with the decoy/assailant and the last thing they would want to happen is for the activity to stop. Some trainers have the dog bring/carry the dead object back to the decoy to re-engage in the activity; however based on my past experience, this is completely unnecessary and in fact can cause some unwanted contingencies/negative transfer. To a certain degree this is related to the intermediate stage that some trainers go through when they are reluctant to give up their belief that the dog needs to be rewarded by winning the object.
A far better intermediate stage is to allow the dog to hold onto the object, but NOT to run off with it or play with it. I stress that this is only an intermediate stage that we would do with pups and/or green dogs with lower prey drive and we progressively move away from these types of activities as the dog develops.
As part of this process, we actively discourage the dog from ‘self-gaming’ from a young age. The term self-gaming refers to the dog being able to make his own game out of the dead object; while this is not a bad idea for a domestic dog (as it is an excellent way to keep them amused in the backyard), unfortunately it is quite counter-productive for operational tactical dog. I should stress that there are a small number of dogs that can self-game with an object at home and still remain very man orientated in the operational environment. Regardless, it is highly recommend that you do not allow your dog to self-game and instead, build the correct relationship with objects where the dog learns that they are dead and offer little excitement or opportunity for reward (at least by comparison with engaging with a real person).
If for other reasons you do want your dog to play with a reward object (ball or Kong for example) then I recommend you stick to one or two reward articles at the most. Educate the dog that only this article (a Kong is a good choice) is something you can play with, but definitely not anything and everything you find. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss all the pros and cons associated with reward articles and self-gaming; suffice to say I have seen dogs conduct searches looking for assailants, and when instead they find a ball they grab it and run off, feeling satisfied. Try putting balls, tug toys, and bite sleeves around in the search environment and see how they impact the dog’s behaviour/performance. Be creative!
If we don’t provide opportunities for the dog to self-game, whilst at the same time regularly engaging in tug games during the foundation stages and then bite work as the dog develops/matures, we progressively get a dog that is less and less interested in dead objects and far more orientated towards engaging with a man. To reduce the likelihood of equipment fixation, we need to conduct these activities in as many different contexts and situations as possible and consistently teach the dog that if it gives up the dead object, it will be rewarded with a higher value reward (i.e. the opportunity to engage in the game/fight).
Once the dog has a lot of experience in these processes and is demonstrating its understanding that holding onto dead objects is no longer a priority, we can add some compulsive mechanisms. Once again, we do this in many and varied ways with the most simple being that if the dog holds onto the object when it is slipped, we immediately command the dog to release/out the object. If it does not release it immediately, we correct it accordingly (either a leash correction or E-collar stim) for non-compliance to the out command. It is also beneficial to set up a range of different exercises that teach the dog that holding onto the object is counter-productive and that its best course of action is to release it and re-engage with the decoy.
In addition, we should integrate civil agitation, hidden sleeve, low light/darkness and muzzle work into our training sessions to further confirm in the dog’s mind that the equipment may be part of the equation, but is certainly not the key element.
Eventually, when the dog is well-developed we would correct the dog on the E-collar any time it shows interest in, or holds onto a piece of equipment; this is the final component of convincing the dog that dead equipment is counter-productive and its focus needs to be entirely on the man. As is the case with virtually all training programs, the use of aversive incentives (especially intermediate to higher level stimulation on the E-collar) is reserved for the final stages of the process when we are focusing on ‘polishing’ and locking-in the correct (already learnt) behaviours, not for teaching!
If you introduce high level physical corrections (such as harsh leash corrections or high-level stim on the E-collar) too early and/or when the dog is still learning what is required, you will almost certainly get unwanted side-effects/negative contingencies. A good indication of whether you are using these higher-level aversive incentives too early in training is to understand that when you give these types of corrections, the dog should respond quickly and appropriately; that is to say, the dog should immediately change its behaviour from the undesirable response into something it has been trained will bring success. If you find yourself giving multiple corrections (more than 2 in a row) and the dog is not changing its behaviour into something more correct and/or the dog is showing signs of stress, then almost certainly you have not completed your foundation/development training and have introduced the high-level aversive incentives too early – even if you think you haven’t!
It is not uncommon to see trainers make the error of using these type of corrections too early, in the mistaken belief that the dog understands and is just being disobedient. Firstly, as is mentioned many times throughout this manual, dogs are contextual learners and each time you change the context, situation or environment, there is the potential for ambiguity/confusion. With some dogs and some exercises, it can take many months of hard work to truly generalise learning across all contexts. From a human perspective, this seems difficult to grasp as we are far better at generalising than dogs and can make the connection from one situation to another with relative ease – dogs cannot!
By consolidating your foundation level training and building a strong understanding of how to achieve success before introducing a more compulsive mechanisms you will, without question, achieve a much better end product. Trying to speed up the process by prioritising the use of aversive incentives is what we used to do before we knew any better. To be blunt, it was behaviour based on ignorance and lack of understanding; however in modern training, we have moved past these processes to a more intelligent and effective way of developing our working and service dogs. Being mindful about training and developing the right foundation means we end up with a better end product and don’t have the contingent side-effects and problems of the past.