TACTICAL DECOY MANUAL
A Manual for Law-Enforcement, Military and Security Dog Trainers
“The training of the dog seems to have been the ﬁrst art invented by man, and the fruit of that art was the conquest and peaceable possession of the earth” naturalist G. L. Buffon (18th century)
The Tactical Decoy Manual is not designed to train beginner decoys, nor is it designed to train novice (green) dogs; it is primarily designed to develop the skills and knowledge of personnel with some background in dog training. Its purpose is to assist with the development of intermediate/advanced level decoys and specifically towards the development and deployment of tactical K9s.
In addition to covering specific techniques and methods utilised in tactical decoy work, this manual also explains why we do things in a particular way and how things have evolved over the last 10 to 20 years. There are certainly many ways to train a dog, and different trainers will have different opinions regarding how things should be done during individual exercises and why. This manual seeks to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each method, paying particular attention to the potential side effects and negative contingencies that can occur with certain types of training and how these can be avoided by taking a more modern approach.
To make the manual easier to read and understand I have largely presented as though I am talking directly to the reader. Sometimes I’m telling the story of my personal experience. At other times I use the term “we” which means (generally) the people I work closely with on a regular basis. Certainly that includes my team at TASK-9, but it also includes the professional trainers and agencies that we work with.
The reality is that every agency we work with has a different perspective, a different mission, and a different set of priorities. Based on this the training methodology and process varies. There is no one size fits all in this business and that is at least in part why there are so many different opinions and methods out there.
The aim of this manual is to introduce to the reader a modern, scientific and proven methods that achieve high levels of performance and reliability in the operational K9. We try to maintain a balanced perspective and an open mind, taking into account all the factors involved in achieving our objectives.
The criteria we utilise in determining the methods is based on the following’s elements:
- The specific strengths and weaknesses and overall temperament of the dog
- Maintaining/improving motivation and enthusiasm-and a positivity bias
- Speed and efficacy of the training process (and the timeline we have available)
- The dog’s welfare, background and the safety of all concerned
- The tactical application and implications of the methods we use
- The roles, tasks and mission profile of the agency and/or team
We have no agenda other than to train high performance working dogs.
KEEPING YOU UP TO DATE
It is important to note that this manual is always evolving and being updated. It is not like a book where the information you receive is static – essentially it is a ‘live’ document that will grow on a regular basis. This enables us to bring you the most relevant and current information.
If we add content to the manual and/or make significant updates, we will endeavour to send you an email notification advising you of the change.
If you feel that any of the content requires clarification or would like to see more information/photographs/video footage on a particular topic, please contact us at email@example.com.
Dog training, especially for the purposes of Law Enforcement, Military and Tactical applications is inherently dangerous and by its very design, decoy work is the most hazardous element. Ensure you are physically and mentally prepared, fully aware of the risks and probably most importantly, protect yourself at all times. If you feel the risk is too great, or the activity is beyond your capabilities, or you don’t have the right equipment, or you don’t trust the handler, or the instructions / briefing is ambiguous, or for any reason you feel particular vulnerable or at risk – THEN DON’T DO IT!
The authors, servants and agents accept no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any information or recommendations made throughout this manual. The reader assumes all risks and responsibility, with a full knowledge of the potential dangers associated with these activities.
I learnt my craft from combination of personal experience training thousands of dogs and working with a range of highly regarded professionals from Europe, USA, Australia and beyond. The truth however is that the things I learnt 20 or 30 years ago, are largely antiquated in the modern era. I still regularly come across people who are training dogs and conducting training activities more or less the same way we did it 20 (or more) years ago – they show little or no evolution!
Even in relatively recent books and at seminars, so-called experts are describing techniques that we were using over a quarter of a century ago. In my opinion they have been out of date for at least a decade due to their inefficiencies and the negative transfer they often create.
The evolution and advances that have occurred, particularly over the past decade, have allowed us to train dogs more efficiently and effectively. To clarify this further, we now achieve a more reliable and consistent outcome that is less impacted by distractions and competing motivations, we use less compulsion, and therefore keep the dog in a more enthusiastic and less conflicted state of mind.
It has also addressed and largely resolved the problems of the past, where training one particular activity resulted in creating potential problems in other areas (referred to as negative transfer – where the training of one activity adversely affects another).
In the past, we accepted the fact that certain methods we were using during foundation and development work had an adverse effect on later behaviour (or in some cases were not aware that it did). We used to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to fix the problems we had created. The modern training methods change the way we train and condition the dog from the beginning; thereby eliminating, or at the very least dramatically reducing, the issues in the first place.
What this manual does therefore, is not only to describe a method of how to train dogs and conduct specific exercises, it explains why particular methodology is more effective and helps to avoid the trap of techniques and/or activities that create negative transfer.
The manual is not intended as a detailed treatise on how to train dogs, or even how to be a good decoy. To a large extent, it assumes the reader already has a significant background, with an understanding of dog behaviour and learning processes, as well as basic decoy skills. There are sections that talk about development and foundation work of both dogs and decoys, but they are not covered in any significant detail.
Decoy work, and in fact any area of dog training cannot be learned properly or completely without a lot of practical experience. Dog training as a whole is both a science and an art. In an ideal world, the learner would gain information on the science, learning theory and methodology used to train dogs, whilst at the same time getting practical experience from a skilled mentor in an environment conducive to achieving their outcomes. For the tactical decoy, that means working with a team who train dogs for tactical roles (not a dog sport club).
Notwithstanding the need for practical training, this manual offers extensive video learning that expands the reader’s knowledge well beyond what could be achieved with just words. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first video training manual (a combination of a written manual and extensive video learning) on the subject. Whilst watching the videos will not replace practical training, it will certainly enhance the learning experience and make the activities and skills far clearer than could ever be achieved in the written word. If a picture paints 1000 words then a video must surely be many times that.
In many cases I recommend watching the videos multiple times. More often than not, there are many things to learn in each video and there are subtle nuances that you will pick up each time you watch.
Further, many of the videos not only offer the learner education on the specific subject matter being discussed at the time, they also offer a more generalised learning about how the exercise is set up, what the handler is doing and the general process of how things are conducted. I cannot overstate the value in this, and in fact, I have been telling my students for at least the past 20 years that they need to gain a lot of their knowledge by watching others, this includes the best handlers and trainers doing the right thing and also people making mistakes and being corrected.
We have been videoing extensively for the past decade or more and have found that both the quality and speed of learning is improved exponentially through the videos.
LEARNING THEORY AND PROCESS
Undoubtedly one of the major issues with dog trainers in general, but especially with decoys, is their lack of knowledge and background in learning theory and the psychology of behaviour modification. I have found that those with a solid understanding in these areas learn much faster and achieve significantly higher levels than persons who learn decoy work without the underpinning/base knowledge. This is especially true if you are trying to reach a high level in any area of dog training and behaviour modification. The old saying; “the broader the base the high peak” rings true here. As, stated in his book over 100 years ago, Konrad Most advised us all to learn about psychology as that is the underpinning knowledge and processes of behaviour modification of based.
Another potential knowledge gap I found in many decoys (and trainers in general) years is their lack of understanding of the process.) I mean things such as the progressive development of skills and compartmentalisation (where we train certain elements independently until they are at a certain level and progressively merge them together when the time is right).
All new knowledge is built on a foundation of previous knowledge. The best trainers truly understand that developing knowledge and skills in the dog is about breaking things down into their basic level and/or component parts and then me progressively developing the competency, capability and confidence of dog to perform the tasks, often over a much longer period than initially anticipated!
Unfortunately, more often than not, shortcuts and end up creating problems that then need to be worked on and resolved. Not working through the steps/process also leads to chinks in the dog’s armour that will show up later on. It is difficult for those that have not been involved in training dogs for many years to appreciate the importance of knowing process and going through it in a step-by-step systematic way. This avoids the traps and potential problems that are created by not doing the right foundation work, and/or not following a progressive process.
THE ROLE OF AGGRESSION IN TACTICAL TRAINING
Decoy work for Law Enforcement, Military and Security roles is in effect, the art and science of developing a dog to hunt, bite and fight humans. This manual breaks that process down into 2 broad categories:
- The development and foundation work required to produce confident, strong and highly motivated working dogs
- Secondly, the progressive processes and mechanisms required to prepare the dog for, and deploy the dog into operational environments
Tactical work for Law Enforcement, Military, Security and protection applications is about developing a dog that will bite and fight humans when and where necessary. This does not imply in any way that the dog is overtly aggressive or dangerous. Many excellent tactical dogs are social animals and are safe around people and other dogs, even crowds of strangers. The belief that a good tactical dog needs to be dangerous or aggressive in nature (a land shark) is as ridiculous as stating that a good bodyguard or police officer needs to be a dangerous, aggressive person and cannot be sociable with others. Many of the best dogs I have seen (and owned), who’ve had many real bites, were (and are) social animals.
What we do need to create is the right picture for the dog. An understanding that in certain environments and situations the dog needs to change his mind set (state) and be ready to hunt and fight.
When I first started training dogs for protection and Law Enforcement applications well over 30 years ago, we used to place a high priority on aggression/defense. Over the years, and for a number of reasons however; the emphasis and priorities shifted. In many dog sports the quality of the bite is highly regarded and as such, this tended to carry over into Law Enforcement, Military and tactical applications. In the past decade or so, the priority has shifted to a more complete and balanced dog. The modern tactical dog is much more closely related to an MMA/UFC fighter. We train the dog to be an effective fighter, with specific objectives and the ability to control and overpower an assailant. Much of what this manual is about is training the dog to be an effective fighter against humans. To that end, aggression is relevant only where it is useful in making a more effective fighter. Further to this, we are no longer obsessed with the depth or quality of the bite, and we certainly don’t write off the dog because it is not a brilliant biting dog. What we are looking for is a dog that wants to engage and loves to fight (not just bite).
In certain Law Enforcement roles such as police patrol dogs, there may be a need for the dog to show overt aggression when commanded to do so and/or in certain circumstances, but for the most part, with dogs being developed for tactical roles, we are developing a dog that is motivated and trained to hunt, engage with and effectively fight humans in controlled circumstances.
The more experienced trainers and operators can respect that dogs will a relatively wide variance in temperament, provided they are confident and have proven that they will do the job that is required. Some of these dogs can be quite aggressive, others will less overtly aggressive but still motivated and reliable in the performance.
SPORT VS TACTICAL TRAINING PARADIGMS
Depending on the type of training and the trainers themselves, there is a significant difference between training dogs for sport and tactical roles. Some sport dog trainers like a dog that would be effective in the real world and therefore, train dogs (at least to some degree) that could and would protect/engage in a real-world situation. In many sport dog applications, there is no real intent behind the dog’s behaviour and it is often stated that the dog would not engage a human in a real encounter – in effect, the whole thing is just a game, arguably no more dangerous than a friendly game of tug-o-war with the dog.
Many (in fact most) trainers of Law Enforcement, Military, Security and other protection roles train their dogs in a combination of tactical and sport style techniques (even if they don’t know it). It doesn’t take a lot of observation or interpretation to determine whether a dog is truly being trained for tactical roles, or whether there is a strong sport emphasis in the way the dog is being developed.
Below is a short checklist that can help to identify whether the trainer and/or decoys are more tactical or sport focused. If you are looking for a tactical dog, you need to address all of the following questions. If the answer to all but one or two of the questions is ‘Yes’, then the dog is likely to be suitable as tactical dog providing you undertake some additional development training. If you answer ‘No’ to 3 or more of the points below, then you are really training a sport orientated dog – or you have a long way to go?
- Will the dog respond to its protection cue and attempt to engage with a stranger (an unknown person) that is not wearing any protective equipment?
- Will the dog bite a decoy wearing a hidden sleeve/suit in environments and scenarios that aren’t obvious bite work sessions?
- If the decoy slipped the sleeve off during bite work, does the dog drop the sleeve and refocus back onto the decoy (as opposed to keeping the sleeve in his mouth or even remaining focused on it)?
- If doing a search, will the dog respond appropriately when it finds the assailant if they have no protective equipment on and are not obviously a decoy?
- Will the dog bite various positions on the body depending on what targets are available?
- Will the dog engage, bite and fight a totally passive decoy when commanded to do so?
- Will the dog hunt for extended periods in all environments with distractions to find and engage?
Although this is by no means a complete list, if the answer to any of the above was ‘No’ then the dog is not being trained properly as a tactical dog. The reality is, the vast majority of dogs trained for tactical roles have some ‘chinks in their armour’ and/or sport orientated idiosyncrasies which are often counter-productive and potentially dangerous in the tactical environment.
If you answered ‘probably’ or ‘I’m not sure’ to any questions, this is not acceptable in the tactical environment where the safety of others and possibly even lives are at stake. You need to be sure! Unfortunately, even many of the very best trainers throughout the world are producing dogs that are not trained fully and properly for tactical roles. This is not to say the dogs would not bite or fight in a real-world situation – many of them would and have. What it means is that in certain situations or scenarios, the dog would be potentially unreliable or behave in a way that is contrary to what should occur.
One of the main aims of this manual is to identify these issues and explain how the training needs to be conducted in order to achieve a high performance, reliable tactical K9.
There are now tens of thousands of decoys, helpers and dog trainers throughout the world involved in training dogs for Law Enforcement, Military and in numerous dog sports that involve the dog biting and engaging humans. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of these trainers do not truly understand the difference between a sporting dog and a dog deployed in tactical roles (even if they think they do) and as such, are producing dogs that are not properly prepared for deployment in tactical Law Enforcement, Military or Security applications.
By way of a simple example, the overwhelming majority of trainers still develop object/equipment fixated dogs and allow the dog to carry or run off with its prey (the sleeve for example) as part of its training. Whilst there is little doubt that techniques such as these can benefit in drive and bite development, they also are counter-productive in the long term development of a truly tactical dog. This, along with others issues, are covered in the manual.
Over the years, I have travelled extensively throughout the world including; Europe, USA, New Zealand, the Middle East, Asia and my home country Australia. I have trained with hundreds of trainers, from many different backgrounds. Due to the fact that most training either has its origins in dog sport, or is still very connected to it, the processes used to train the dogs are in almost all cases, still primarily sport orientated or limited in its application. While there is no doubt there is a lot of great things to be learnt from sport dog trainers, there is also the reality that much of their training is not truly tactical and leaves many training scars that are counter-productive and potentially dangerous in the operational K9 team.
The concept of ‘drive’ in a dog that shows high motivation/enthusiasm to engage and fight with an assailant and shows great intensity when it does, is somewhat contentious. There has been various theories on drive (Woodworth, Hull, Maslow, Lorenz, Raiser, etc.) and different authorities have significantly different opinions. Some experts such as McKenzie argue that there is no such thing as a ‘drive’ and it is simply an inappropriate nickname for motivation.
‘Aggression is simply a behaviour. It is not driven by mysterious forces or drives seemingly understood only by Europeans’. Stephen McKenzie
In his usual eloquent style, Steve Lindsay talks about motivation and performance:
‘A dog’s performance is a direct reflection of its past history of reinforcement and its current motivational state or readiness to act’. Steve Lindsay
And from another great mind:
‘….. to each according to his ability and power – from each according to his nature’. Edward De Bono
The reality is, drive is not commonly used in animal training outside of dogs. Generally speaking, it is not a well-regarded term in the scientific community.
‘In recent years a tendency to drop the concept of drive has arisen’. David McFarland
On the other side of the argument, the problem with merely calling it ‘motivation’ is that we use the term motivation in many other contexts and to mean a range of different things.
“The dog does not seem very motivated today”. We don’t mean that he doesn’t have ‘drive’, because basically that doesn’t change on a day-to-day basis, however the dog’s motivation to engage in any particular task may vary depending on numerous factors.
“He needs more motivation to do this behaviour”. In this case, we are using the term motivation to mean that the dog does not see enough reward/value associated with doing the activity.
The term motivation is often utilised to describe how ‘incentivised’ an individual is to do a particular action (or to change behaviour). It has strong correlation to previous reinforcement history, learning and the current state of the individual. Trainers generally use ‘drive’ to mean a more innate impetus for action – an intrinsic desire to engage in particular activities (e.g. hunting).
Although it is reasonable to say that the term ‘drive’ is overused by some trainers and is also somewhat ambiguous (it means different things to different people), it does serve well in the training context to describe particular motivations and states (especially in dogs used for working and service dog roles).
The reality is, the term is so entrenched in dog training (especially amongst the working, service and the sporting dog community) that instead of criticising or arguing about the language, we are better served by giving it clear definition and context. All professions develop their own ‘jargon’ that helps them communicate more effectively – it is really only the misuse and misinterpretation of the word drive that is the problem, not the use of the word itself.
Interestingly, some highly respected scientific authorities do use the term. David Eagleman, an internationally respected Professor of neuroscience, uses the term in more or less the same context as dog trainers do.
‘Decision-making lies at the heart of everything: who we are, what we do, how we perceive the world around us. Without the ability to weigh alternatives, we would be hostages to our most basic drives’.
‘Although you have a single identity, you are not of a single mind: instead, you are a collection of many competing drives’. David Eagleman
Stuart Hilliard who has a PhD in behavioural science and is also an internationally renowned dog trainer, uses the term regularly to explain and describe the dog’s state and motivations. As does one of the world’s leading dog behaviour experts, Steve Lindsay.
Behavioral outlets for drive satisfaction are necessary for healthy emotional development and equilibrium in dogs. Often, however, these innate drives are expressed in undesirable behavior that must be modiﬁed or redirected [to suit our specific purposes]. Steven Lindsay
For our purposes, we will define drive as; an intrinsic motivational force, which has a strong genetic component, but can be significantly influenced and modified by environmental factors and training. Or more simply it could be stated as: An instinctive motivation as modified by learning.
The importance of instinctual mechanisms and species typical action patterns should not be overlooked in the analysis of behaviour and understanding its motivation. Steven Lindsay
It can be defined functionally as the combination of the dog’s motivation to engage in a behaviour, combined with its arousal level/state. A dog that is very motivated to play ball and is in a highly aroused state, could be said to be ‘in drive’.
To say a dog is ‘in drive’ not only means the dog is motivated to engage in the activity, but also that it is in a highly stimulated or aroused state of mind. A dog that is asleep may still have strong drive to chase prey, but at this time the dog is not ‘in drive’ (because it is asleep). When the dog gets stimulated in some way, for example by seeing a prey stimulus, its arousal level goes up and we would say it is ‘in drive’.
When we say we are ‘drive building’ or trying to ‘develop the dog’s drive’, what we are saying is that we are working to increase the dog’s motivation to engage in the activity, whilst at the same time trying to elicit a higher level of arousal during that activity. The primary mechanism here is to teach the dog that the activity is enjoyable and satisfying, thus making the dog more motivated to participate, and more excited/enthusiastic when engaging in that activity.
To make it less ambiguous and for the sake of more effective communication, the term drive is generally better utilised to talk about the specific levels of motivation and interest the dog has to engage in different activities.
‘The dog’s drives impel his behaviour, they are his motor’. Stewart Hilliard
So without trying to be too scientific, and yet having an effective communication process, it would be reasonable to say; “this dog is high (or strong) in defence drive” or “this dog is weak (or low) in prey drive”.
For functional purposes it is often recommended to put drives into 2 classes:
- Motivations or impulses to move towards or obtain something desirable/appetitive (e.g. food, prey, social interaction, etc.)
- Motivation or impulses to prevent or escape something aversive (move away from perceived threats and/or obtain relief/safety)
As Lindsay explains:
‘Instrumental choices are motivated by a drive to secure and control preferred outcomes’.
And with the relationship between drive and learning:
‘Two complementary motivations drive learning: the maximization of positive outcomes and minimization of aversive ones’.
Trainers use a variety of terms/categories when discussing motivation and drive. Some keep it fairly generic, whilst others divide it into many subcategories. The following is a list of common categories used.
Social Drive [Pack Drive]
In effect, social or pack drive is the motivation to be with and or interact with social conspecifics, and/ or those the dog has social relationships with. From training perspective, we are mainly concerned with social drive in relation to the dog’s motivation to have social interaction and social engagement with the handler (and possibly other persons).
We would say that a dog has high social drive if it demonstrates it will work actively (i.e. offer behaviours) to achieve social contact (e.g. patting and affection from the handler). Although the vast majority of dogs do enjoy social interaction, only dogs with strong social drive are prepared to work hard for the opportunity to engage in it (for it to act as a reinforcing agent).
For most working and service dogs, relatively high social drive is an advantage because it allows the trainer to use praise, patting and social engagement as a form of reward when other types of reward may not be functional or appropriate. It is certainly nice to have, but arguably not a need to have.
Personally, I like a dog with at least reasonably high social drive as it generally makes them easier to train, more cooperative, better to live with and certainly is strongly correlated to the overall relationship between dog and handler.
‘The potentiating effects of social facilitation appear to result from a state of generalized arousal (nonspeciﬁc drive) stimulated by the presence of another animal’. Steven Lindsay
Prey Drive [Predatory Behaviour]
Prey drive is the term used by dog trainers to describe the motivation, enthusiasm and commitment a dog has to chase prey, or things it perceives as being prey like (such as balls). Many dogs not only enjoy the chase, they enjoy tug games and almost any interaction with perceived prey objects. Dogs that are high in or have strong prey drive, get pleasure from both the thrill of the chase and biting.
Regardless of its role in protection work, it is certainly a great outlet for the dog, providing a lot of pleasure and satisfaction.
‘Prey behaviour is de-stressing, unwinding, unloading’. Stuart Hilliard
Prey drive and predatory behaviour varies greatly from individual to individual, and is more common in certain breeds and strains of dogs that have been selectively bred for this trait. The reality is that primarily due to certain breeding practices, many working breeds and/or strains within the breeds have lost a lot of the innate predatory behaviour that we value so much in working dogs.
‘Whether as the result of quantitative or qualitative evolutionary changes, and despite occasional atavistic examples to the contrary, most dogs have lost the lupine carnivorous drive and predatory behavior exhibited by wild canids’. Steven Lindsay
At least a reasonable amount of prey drive/predatory behaviour is needed if you want the dog to hunt for humans as they need the desire to drive them through the search/hunting process.
‘Prey drive is lust orientated, that means all prey drive specific actions will be performed in a lustful, passionate manner’. Armin Winkler
Some trainers (in an attempt to help communication) break prey drive down into sub-categories such as ‘play drive’ and ‘bite drive’. There is little doubt that some dogs are obsessed with balls, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they love playing tug with the handler. There are also some specific strains of dogs that derive an inordinate amount of pleasure from biting. This does not necessarily mean they have intent to harm, these dogs just seem to have a passion for the act of biting. This is in all likelihood due to the release of ‘feel good’ hormones when doing oral activities (such as biting and playing tug). It is arguable whether these are separate traits or just variations on prey drive.
‘As a reward, food is effective only so long as dogs are either hungry or sufficiently interested in the food item being used. Utilizing a dog’s hunger drive together with its added willingness to work for special treats promotes the strongest effect’. Steven Lindsay
Arguably ‘food drive’ is a subset of prey drive/predatory behaviour. I have separated it here because we come across many dogs that love food and are very highly motivated to get it, however they are not particularly interested in prey related activities/games (tug-o-war and retrieving for example). We also find many dogs that have very high prey drive, but are not particularly food motivated.
Food is a great tool in many aspects of dog training, however it has little direct role in protection training decoy work for tactical dogs, and for that reason I will not discuss it further here.
Defence Drive [Defensive Aggression]
In effect, defence drive is an abbreviation of self-defence drive, or the motivation to protect oneself (and arguably possessions and territory). Once again, there are potential sub-categories including; protective aggression, territorial aggression, resource guarding and others that are considered by some authorities to be sub-categories of defensive aggression, and by others as separate elements.
‘Defense drive counts as one of the dog’s aggression behaviours, and it can appear in conjunction with other behaviours’. Raiser
As with most behaviour, defensive aggression is a combination of the genetic predisposition of the dog combined with the specific upbringing, learning history and developmental activities.
In specific circumstances, it can also be influenced by the current psychological and/or physical state of the animal. For example if it is injured or has structural abnormalities (e.g. hip dysplasia), it may be significantly more predisposed to aggression.
Defence work is what brings the reality – without defence drive, the dog is essentially just playing a game. If you want a real dog with real intent, then some defence is essential. Be aware that some (if not many) dogs that are high in defence, also have a relatively low avoidance threshold. With these dogs it is the feeling of endangerment that makes them show such strong defence/overt aggression. Certainly many dogs that are high in aggression, especially in a familiar training environment, are unable to cope in strange, highly stressful environments (e.g. unfamiliar places, slick floor, darkness, yelling and screaming, blood and gore, etc.).
Stress is cumulative – it results in the adding up of impulses. This means that environments that compound the stress not only bring out the defensive aggression, but may also push the dog over its avoidance threshold.
With most dogs, our intent is to manipulate and condition the dog’s defence responses and to create as wider margin as possible between when the dog shows defensive aggression, and when that same stimulus pushes the dog over the avoidance threshold. This is one of the key responsibilities of the decoy who should be building confidence and developing empowerment in the dog.
The decoy continually challenges the dog, then gives success. Over time the dog’s belief in himself and overall confidence reaches a point where virtually nothing could or would push the dog into avoidance.
Dominance [Rank Drive]
Where a dog sees himself in the overall scheme of things, certainly impacts his behaviour and performance as a working and service dog, especially for tactical applications.
Some so-called ‘dominant’, or high-ranking dogs show a high level of aggression towards other dogs (and sometimes people) as their way of showing that they are in charge. This ‘actively dominant’ dog can certainly make a good working dog, providing the handler has the capabilities to control a dog with this temperament.
Some high-ranking dogs, and especially very confident dogs, have no real interest in showing overt aggression (in most circumstances) to demonstrate or enforce their rank/position (unless really pushed to do so). The so-called ‘passively dominant’ dog will not be pushed around or submit, but sees no real reason for causing conflict or being aggressive (as a general rule). This type of dog is effectively comfortable in his own skin and does not see the need to display to others that he is a leader.
A common trait that seems to be consistent with high-ranking dogs is a degree of ‘hardness’ (i.e. the dog’s ability to take pressure and fight back when pushed). Trainers also use terms like ‘strong nerve’ or ‘thick nerve’ to describe dogs that can take a lot of pressure and/or recover from stressful situations quickly.
Primarily for this reason, a high ranking dog who expresses dominance behaviours towards an assailant, is prepared to be aggressive, and fights hard against a rival is an asset.
The downside is that many of these types of dogs can be difficult to handle and control. They are often only suitable for strong/experienced handlers and can liability in the wrong hands.
It is important to note that just because a dog is aggressive, does not mean it is high-ranking or dominant. Many (probably most) aggressive dogs do so out of other motivations – insecurity, anxiety or straight out fear! A good decoy knows the difference very quickly and one of the first things you must establish is when you push the dog, does he push back? Unfortunately, this isn’t something you can learn about in a manual or even by watching videos – some things you need to learn by direct experience.
A dog that has strong nerves and considers himself high-ranking takes pressure as a personal challenge and counters back against the rival.
The concept of ‘dominance’ and ‘rank’ and how it relates to dogs, and even what it means is complex and certainly discussed and disputed amongst trainers and behaviourists alike. It is certainly beyond the scope of this manual to discuss it in any detail.
It is relatively well accepted and documented that there is not a separate motivational force (drive) that encourages a dog to fight (humans) purely for the pleasure of it. Many authorities (e.g. Raiser, Bradshaw, Winkler) argue convincingly that ‘Fight Drive’ is really only an example of a combination of characteristics, including being high in other drives (such as prey and defence). They argue that there is no functional reason why an internal urge to fight merely for the sake of it would have evolved, and that in fact it would be highly counter-productive to an individual’s chances of survival.
Further, in reality, there is no such thing as a dog high in fight drive but low in other drives. Dogs referred to as having strong fight drive are usually very high in prey drive, defence drive, dominance tendencies, and in fact usually a combination of these.
‘The desire to “seek the fight” is an essential ingredient of fighting drive. In all dogs with pronounced fighting drive, I also found pronounced prey drive’. Raiser
The term ‘Fight Drive’ could be (and often is) used in conversation between working dog trainers to describe a dog that shows high levels of enthusiasm to engage with and fight with an assailant and shows great intensity and commitment during the fight.
Normally when working dog trainers talk about a dog high in ‘Fight Drive’ they are describing a dog that has ferocious intensity and commitment, often including significant levels of aggression. Most trainers would also expect to see a great deal of confidence in the dog’s actions and the way he fights.
Some Trainers use terminology including, but not limited to, play drive, hunt drive, bite drive, ball drive, retrieve drive – and the list goes on. I think most trainers would agree we can go too far, however there is a counter argument that we are simply refining our descriptions. Some dogs for example have a lot of motivation (drive), to play with or chase balls, but show very little inclination to play tug-of-war. Arguably, it would be incorrect to say the dog has high prey drive just because it chases balls, especially if it isn’t interested in any other prey related activities. In this instance it may be functional to use more specific terms such as “ball drive”.
As well is having a dog with the right drives for the right job, it is important to have the dog in the right drive and emotional state (including arousal level) for each behaviour and in each situation. There are times with a working dog that we will want the dog to be in an aggressive state, at other times we want him more in a hunting frame of mind. For the training of Law Enforcement and Military style dogs, this job primarily goes to the decoy who needs to be a master in reading the dog, understanding the drives and how to manipulate/channel them.
There is of course, an optimum level of arousal/excitement to achieve optimal learning and performance. A dog that is overstimulated and/or too excited won’t perform and/or learn effectively. Refer to the Yerkes-Dodson curve below.
With that in mind, our goal is to have the dog in the right state, at the right time for the right job to facilitate optimum learning and performance.
A FINAL WORD
I learned many years ago not to get too carried away with terminology (they are only words after all). Dog training, like every other profession, has developed its own terms and jargon and, as long as we are all speaking the same language, they often serve to help us define and clarify specific behaviours and states of the animal.
Arguably, the decoy plays the most important role in the development of a dog for Law Enforcement, Military and tactical operations. The right decoy is an essential part of the training of a high performance dog. This is especially the case if we are looking for a strong, powerful working dog that also demonstrates excellent control and are capable of performing in the diverse environment of tactical operations.
The decoy needs a rare blend of knowledge, skill, athleticism and discipline to achieve the maximum potential from the dog. In addition, they need to be a convincing actor who can feign pain and injury, who can convince the dog they are mean and aggressive when they need to be, and weak or exhausted at other times. Dogs are excellent observers and read body language well, so unless the decoy’s behaviour is extremely realistic the dog will not be convinced and the training will be compromised.
There are a range of factors that set a good decoy apart from a person who just takes bites from a dog.
The first and most important factor is the decoy’s general understanding of dog behaviour and how to modify it; this includes solid knowledge of learning theory and the psychology of behaviour.
We also require the decoy to have a thorough understanding of canine communication. This involves being able to read the dog and interpret its behaviour, mood and state of mind, and an ability to effectively communicate back to the dog in an appropriate manner, based on the circumstance.
In addition to these points, a good decoy needs co-ordination, timing and physicality. Decoy work, especially at the advanced level, is a complex athletic endeavour that requires excellent timing, co-ordination, balance and confidence. Although these skills can be learnt and developed, natural ability provides decoys with a considerable advantage. People with little or no athletic prowess, definitely struggle to perform at the top level.
The reality is, it takes a lot of time effort and energy to become a good decoy and some people will never become great decoys. In order to progress, arguably the most important thing to have is a quality mentor, somebody who can take you through the process. We think of this in much that same way of an apprenticeship, where the novice decoy is the apprentice and the mentor is the master tradesman. It also goes without saying they need plenty of practical experience on a range of dogs; from the most advanced, to those just commencing their training.
The new decoy also needs to work with dogs of all different temperaments and abilities. For this reason, undoubtedly, the best way to learn to be a decoy is to work with an organisation that has access to all of these resources and can provide the guidance and training environment needed.
HANDLER AND DECOY
Undoubtedly, the best dogs are developed with both a highly skilled handler and great decoys, and in fact it takes a team of skilled professionals to develop a fully operational tactical K9. If I had to choose between having an excellent handler and a mediocre decoy or vice versa, I would choose to have a highly skilled decoy and compromise the handler. Although this is not an ideal situation, a very experienced decoy can overcome considerable handler limitations. To address these limitations, it can be beneficial to use an additional trainer (or 2) to work with the handler, assisting them to control the dog. Over time, the handler’s skills develop in conjunction with the dog’s skills.
We often use a third man (a second handler) even with experienced handlers or dogs just to give us more control and better timing.
DIFFERENT DECOYS FOR DIFFERENT JOBS
In reality, the development of an operational dog requires many decoys. This is for a range of reasons, including, but not limited to:
- The need to give the dog different pictures (old and young, big and small, experienced and new)
- Different decoys react and respond differently (someone quiet, some are laid-back and some scream)
- As part of the IFF (identify friend or foe), the dog needs to see a range of ‘friendlies’ (e.g. the team) and a range of foe (the decoys). One or two decoys cannot present a broad enough picture to properly and fully develop the IFF required
If you want to be a good decoy, you need to be in good physical condition. If you want to be an elite level decoy, you need to be an athlete! A lot decoy work, especially advanced and tactical decoy work, is extremely physical and an athletic/fit person is at a significant advantage in regard to their ability to work the dog more effectively and also to prevent any injuries to themselves.
Decoys who are out of shape can certainly do certain elements of decoy work but to truly develop a tactical dog to its full potential, requires high levels of physical fitness, agility, speed, coordination and overall athleticism. It is not only about the physical demands on the decoy, but also his ability to perform the complex array of stunts required to fully develop the dog. Being in good shape also gives you more confidence and allows you to work faster, with more flexibility and adaptability to the situation. In effect, a large percentage of decoy work is a form of athletic endeavor and generally speaking, the better shape you’re in, the better decoy you’ll be.
While you may get away with being out of shape and over weight for doing certain elements of decoy work, it’s unrealistic to expect to do the same as a tactical decoy because of the complex situations you’re going to find yourself in. You’ll need to climb up trees, on top of roofs, hide in small places and work the dog in a wide range of complex situations and environments. A reasonable level of physical fitness, athleticism, coordination and agility are essential if you’re going to get the best out of the dog.
The other obvious advantage is that if you’re in good shape, you can work longer and with more energy and vigor than you can if you’re out of shape. Virtually all unfit or out-of-shape decoys I’ve ever worked with, are okay for a short period of time but need to stop and rest frequently, sometimes at the expense of the dog or at the expense of the dogs’ development.
In addition to general physical conditioning, strength is also a significant advantage in working dogs. If you’re naturally a big, strong person, then you can probably get away with limited physical conditioning work and still effectively work big, strong, hard-working, high drive dogs. If you’re not naturally strong and in good condition, you will gain considerable benefits from participating in a strength training program at the gym.
There’s little argument that lack of strength and physical conditioning will inhibit your ability to effectively work the dog at the optimum level and will increase your chance of injury. To a certain degree, experience and skill can compensate for physical conditioning but it does beg the question “If you want to be a professional decoy, why wouldn’t you be in the best condition you can be to protect both yourself and improve your capacity to develop and work the dogs?”
A mentor of mine told me many years ago, “there are great decoys and there are fat decoys but there are no great, fat decoys.” To be honest, I don’t fully agree with this because over the years I have met guys who carry a lot of excess weight and are still quite skilled, however their weight certainly limits their abilities to work some dogs in some situations – especially training over an extended period of time, working multiple dogs back to back or decoying in warmer weather. Also, as stated, lack of physical conditioning and strength is certainly increasing the risk of injury to the decoy.
I’ve been working dogs and doing decoy work for 35 years (30 years as a professional) and have worked countless thousands of dogs of all breeds. Even now in my mid 50’s, I have no problem working any dog of any breed in the suit, in complex and technical environments, over extended periods of time. I have always placed a high priority on my strength and physical conditioning work and believe that it has protected me from injury and kept me able to work dogs at a high level, when most decoys have more or less retired. I consider overall athleticism (including general physical conditioning, strength, flexibility and coordination) to be one of the 5 key elements that determine a decoy’s ability to develop and work dogs at the highest level.
The following information is based on my personal training routine – this has been developed through extensive research, many years in the gym and a dedication to optimising my own health and fitness.
There is no one size fits all. Different people respond differently to different nutrition, rest and training protocols. It is a mistake to follow one method just because a fitness guru does. Just because worked for him (or me), does not mean it will work equally as well for you. Experiment and learn.
Personally, I recommend that you do not try to have a training program which aims to achieve strength and endurance at the same time. Cycling (periodisation) almost any training program, will get you the best results and reduce the likelihood for injuries.
I suggest you have an 8 – 12 week strength/power phase and then cycle it with a more endurance based program. This may still involve going to the gym, or you may choose to alternate by doing other activities (some of which are outlined below).
I need to stress that periodisation/cycling is primarily about changing the loading parameters, as opposed to changing the exercises. Loading parameters means: number of sets, number of reps per set, speed of movement (e.g. super slow movement versus explosive movement), compound movements versus isolation, etc.
An example of a periodisation cycle if you are training at the gym:
- Do a 12 week strength/power phase
- Cycle into an 8 week higher rep and more body-weight type exercises, such as push-ups, chin ups, dips and plyo squats, or box jumps
NOTE: I like at least some explosive and plyometric activities during this phase
This type of cycling has a lot of physiological benefits and will drive continuous improvement.
As a general rule, and especially to develop overall strength/power, it is best to focus primarily on heavy compound movements, including deadlifts, rows and pressing movements.
In my opinion, weight training is about strength training. I can do my endurance and cardio training with other activities. In the gym, it is about strength! Hard and heavy – relatively low reps.
I cycle my training between strength/power phase and general training phase. Periodisation is very important. My rep range during the strength/power phase is generally 3 to 6 reps. I train and exercise (normally once a week for me) until I can do 6 reps of that exercise, then I increase the weight – that normally drops me back down to about 3 reps, where the cycle starts again. During the general training phase however, the loading parameters are significantly different. Increased reps and different tempo through the movement, and often a different (more full) range of movement.
I don’t think there is any one program that is dramatically better than any other. Experts and legends have used numerous different training protocols and still achieve amazing results. Some train their whole body in one workout – others have a split routine, alternating half the body one day and the other half the next; repeating the process a couple of times a week. Some people train 3 days a week, others train 6 days.
It is important to make sure you are getting plenty of rest/recovery time if you are training hard and heavy. Over training and under training are both counter-productive. To a certain degree, you have to find out what works for you, but one thing I will say is, more is not better (unless it is more weight on the bar).
As a general reference, if you’re not making improvements (despite more reps and/or more weight), then you are probably over training. Try cutting back a bit and get more rest/recovery. Providing you are doing everything else reasonably well (i.e. decent nutrition, adequate sleep, etc.), you should make regular gains.
A great reference for strength training information is Charles Poliquin (AKA – The Strength Sensei). Google him and you will get a lot of great (real) advice (http://www.strengthsensei.com/).
Another great reference for physical conditioning (especially if you’re out of shape now), is my friend Scott Taylor. Here are some comments and suggestions from him:
CrossFit style training may suit some as an alternative to conventional strength work in the gym (or as part of your periodisation you can alternate between gym work and the type of program below).
From the strength point of view, I am a big believer in adding in a variety of elements. Functional strength is very important so aside from weight training in the gym, I add in regular farmers carries, deadball work, tyre drags and various other elements that use full range of muscle motion, as weights can be quite limited in the range of motion used. Training with sledgehammer slams on a tyre, deadball throws and slams etc. are also great for adding in some more explosive power.
It is certainly beyond the scope of this Manual to cover nutrition in any detail. I think most people know what should be included in a healthy diet but here are a few guidelines to follow:
- Don’t drink calories. Drink mainly water and some tea and/or black coffee. Anything else should be only occasional and in very small quantities
- Your eating plan/food intake should be based around vegetables (lots) and quality protein/fat sources such as eggs, fish and some meat (from good sources)
- Raw nuts and seeds (and things made from them) are great for snacks
- Generally speaking, fruit is overrated as a nutrient source. Most fruit is very high in sugar/fructose and just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s particularly healthy. Most berries are a decent choice. Any fruit you have to peel is a bad choice
- When it comes to fruit and vegetables, don’t peel anything you don’t have to (potatoes, apples, cucumber, carrots, etc.) It should all be eaten with the skin on – all of the time. Virtually all of the fibre and a lot of the other nutrients are either in the skin or just under the skin. If you peel them, you take away most of the nutrient value
- Limit your processed food intake to as little as possible. This includes processed cereals, all bread, pasta and about 95% of everything else you buy from the supermarket (except if it is in the produce or meat section)
- Limit your carbohydrate intake. Most people grossly overeat carbohydrates. Starches and sugars are basically junk food (empty calories) and are not going to help you get to your training goals. If you want carbohydrates, eat a limited amount of healthy ones such as sweet potatoes and regular potatoes (always with the skin on). Almost all drinks, including fruit juice and alcohol, are loaded with bad carbohydrates
- Earn your carbs. If you are not doing lots of activity, then keep your carbohydrate intake as low as possible. If you’ve done a really solid workout or trained lots of dogs, then you’ve earned some carbs. Even then, try to make healthier choices
- As a general rule, eat as close to nature as possible. That means wherever possible, eat organic. Eat only grass fed meat and only wild caught fish. Avoid unethical practices and chemicals whenever possible
- Don’t smoke
One of the major differences in developing a dog for use in Law Enforcement, Military and tactical applications is that, as the dog develops and matures and if the training is done properly, its attitude about bite work and engaging human targets changes significantly.
It is best to be begin the explanation of this process by beginning at the end.
There are certainly a diverse range of skill sets that are required before you can deploy an operational K9 team. Many of these relate to the handler’s control over the dog and environmental conditioning, however at the end of the day, our ultimate aim in developing the Tactical K9 is to have a dog whose goal it is to hunt for and fight men.
It has a lot in common with training a hunting dog to search for (hunt) and violently engage with its quarry. An example would be a dog that is trained to hunt wild pigs. The pig is a large beast that has the capacity to harm the dog and also in most cases, the dog will not eat the pig but rather engage with it in a violent confrontation. The dog may have intentions of killing the pig, but most of the pleasure/reward is in the hunting, engaging and fighting with its prey (the thrill of the chase and the love of the fight!)
The dog in this video we sold to military Special Forces. A true hunter!
Over time, if the training is done correctly, the Tactical K9 will progressively show less interest in simple gameplay, especially in environments where it perceives there is the opportunity to hunt for, or fight with a man. The dog will still enjoy a game of tug or ball play in environments where there is clearly no opportunities for the real thing, but if correctly developed, the well trained tactical dog has little interest in playing ball when there is the opportunity to hunt and fight!
There are many stages the dog goes through as this attitude develops and it will only develop correctly if the training is orientated towards this final objective. A good dog with strong nerves and the right drives, progressively gets more and more satisfaction from fighting the man (in an up close and personal manner), often on the ground and in very close proximity.
We do not place a high value on bite sleeve work, and in fact, we now consider the bite sleeve to virtually be another form of tug toy. Again, as the dog develops and if the training is orientated in the right way, over time the dog realises that when he is on the bite sleeve it is not a real bite. The dog understands that the bite sleeve is not the man, in the same way that it understands that when you play tug-o-war using a tube or bite wedge/pillow, it is not truly engaging with the man. The dog certainly get pleasure from this activity – but it is not a real fight!
Any dog used for Law Enforcement, Military and security applications needs plenty of defence work and civil agitation (no equipment) in a wide variety of different situations and circumstances. Some of it needs to be up close and personal, and we want the dog to get nasty and mad. A good decoy can present various targets to see what the dog’s responses are and whether it would bite and not wearing any equipment, whilst at the same time testing the nerve of the dog – what we call a pressure test!
As well as different environments, you need to present different pictures to the dog and create a range of real-life scenarios. There is no shortcut to developing the right attitude and mindset.
To be honest, in the development of a dog for tactical operations it could easily be done without ever using a bite sleeve and, unless the sleeve is used sparingly and conscientiously there is arguably more negatives to using the sleeve than there are positives. I should point out here that we use the sleeve regularly with many our dogs, but this is normally only because it is more convenient and gives us the ability to set up different exercises – not because it is the best tool for developing the dog
In my opinion, using the bite sleeve as the primary tool to work a dog for Law Enforcement, Military or tactical operations is the wrong way to go about the process. The bite sleeve certainly has some applications in training particular exercises and is a handy tool to have on hand, but it absolutely should not be a major part of the dogs training process, especially when you move into more complex activities and working scenarios (in a perfect world I would not run any scenarios using a bite sleeve – it should only be used in a training environment, not in situations where we are trying to simulate real world situations). Caveat on this point: once the dog is a highly experienced dog and has proven him/himself multiple times in real world encounters, then setting up scenarios where on occasion it ends with a bite on the sleeve would be fine. I stress this is only for highly experienced dogs. For less experienced dogs, scenarios should be set up using the bite suit, hidden equipment and/or muzzle all where practical with the decoy/assailant wearing no equipment whatsoever. Your training should also include regular scenarios where the decoy is not wearing any equipment and is in a position where the dog is unable to get to them (e.g. in a cage, up a tree, etc.).
Another part of the mindset, and especially with the modern CT / Tactical Ops roles, is developing a dog that is more akin to a MMA/UFC fighter – very skilled in his craft, very confident in his abilities, and very motivated to engage and do the business. Aggression per se has a place but it is not a primary focus. Many applications now require a dog that will work in very close proximity to other team members, remain silent during deployments and yet can take down a highly charged individual on cue from the handler. Aggression, just for the sake of it, doesn’t really fit this model. Highly motivated, mission orientated dogs are now the norm in tactical deployment scenarios.
This change in mindset is an important part of developing a high-performance dog for tactical Law Enforcement and Military operations for multiple reasons. First and foremost, as has been explained above, we want the dog derive pleasure from engaging and fighting with the man (not simply game play with an object).
Secondly, this change in mindset is a major part in reducing object/equipment fixation. This prevents the dog from picking up or grabbing equipment, or running off with a coat ripped off a man during a confrontation. It also plays a big role in training the dog to engage with a man who is not wearing any equipment. Some dogs are in fact searching for a bite sleeve, or a man wearing a bite sleeve – if there is no sleeve, then the dog does not perceive there is an opportunity for reward and is not interested in engaging.
Protection Training Equipment and Its Role in the Development of the Tactical K9
TUG, TUBE, PILLOW AND BITE WEDGE
By way of analogy, it could be considered that (other than with pups) doing drive/bite development work on a tube or wedge is akin to doing pad work with a fighter, as it develops the skills and confidence in an environment with little or no stress. As a general rule when we are using any form of tug, pillow or wedge, we don’t put defensive stress on the dog – it is done simply as a game. We are trying to develop the dog’s love of that game and also the rules that determine success. There should be no reason why the handler can’t play tug games and work on the bite wedge with their own dog.
Training on the bite sleeve should be considered as the sparring session for fighters, where the dog learns to refine its offensive and defensive skills. As the dog confidence develops, we can progressively add pressure and stress into the equation. Because the dog has been preconditioned through the foundation work with the tug games and bite wedge, it should already know what to do and how to do it. There are certain skills and activities where the bite sleeve is the ideal tool for the job.
If you have the right dog and have done the right foundation work, you may choose to not even use the bite sleeve (at least not initially). With our young developing dogs, we do a lot of foundation work and then (typically) bypass the sleeve altogether and go straight to the bite suit. After the dog has had several good sessions on the suit we may then introduce the bite sleeve to help develop certain skill sets, and also for the convenience of being able to do simple activities, and/or multiple decoy scenarios. Sometimes it is just not practical to use a bite suit.
Depending on the dog and your final goals, the bite sleeve may not even be a significant part of your training. This can be seen in the video below of an 11 month old Malinois who is participating in its first session on a bite suit. Up until this point, the dog has never bitten the sleeve.
This dog went directly from developmental work on the wedge, to the bite suit. Of course there are many considerations to using this method, such as how are you going to get the dog off the bite. With a bite sleeve the decoy can simply slip the sleeve, however we do not recommend that you attempt this with a suit jacket as it reduces the reality of the training scenario and teaches the dog that the suit is not really the man (i.e. it is just another piece of equipment). This should be avoided where possible with all but the weakest dogs.
Once we move to the bite suit (assuming it is done properly), it is more like MMA/UFC style fighting. Not only can we include a diverse range of positions, including ground fighting, but we also have the ability to simulate large range of real world scenarios. This will assist in the development of the dog’s skills and confidence for engagement in combative encounters. In our opinion, a good suit decoy is the single most important player in the development of a high performance operational Tactical K9. This is not to say that the other tools (especially muzzle and hidden equipment) are not important, but no other equipment is so versatile in developing the dog’s confidence, attitude, motivation and skills in engaging assailants.
An important consideration when working in the bite suit is how you are going to get the dog off the bite. We pre-condition and develop our dogs so that we can either help them off, or recall them off before they even get their first bite on the suit. Some trainers prefer to let the dog bite the suit and choke them off, or alternatively get the decoy to slip the jacket and then focus on getting the dog off the grounded jacket. We do not believe that this is the best option as it often creates problems and side-effects that we would prefer to avoid. The best strategy is to develop a reliable recall under distraction so by the time you give the dog its first bite on the suit, you are able to call it off with a minimum of conflict.
The muzzle is a great tool for development and confirming that the dog will engage and fight a man without equipment on. We do most of the muzzle work (especially initially) in a T-shirt so the dog has no equipment cues. It also has great use (along with the bite suit) in developing the dog’s skills for using his whole body to fight/engage with an assailant, not just his mouth.
It is critical that the dog be fully desensitised to wearing a muzzle in numerous environments and situations without conflict, before you even begin muzzle fighting.
The use of hidden equipment should be a part of every operational dog’s development; however the more often it is used, the more likely it is for the dog to become wise to the fact that the man has a sleeve under his jacket. When using a hidden sleeve, you need to set the exercise up very carefully and / or the decoy will need to present his arm very deliberately. Both of these become predictive cues for the dog and therefore reduce the benefits of using hidden equipment. Used sparingly and cleverly it is a great tool.
THE HIDDEN SUIT
The hidden suit is another great piece of kit. The hidden suit is a significantly thinner than a conventional bite suit and although it is usually quite stiff, it can be worn under clothing. In order to offer enough protection against strong biting dogs, it still needs to be quite a substantial garment and as such, isn’t really hidden (at least not completely).
COMMENTS AND TIPS USING THE HIDDEN SLEEVE / SUIT
Using hidden sleeves and/or suits on familiar decoys, in locations where the dog expects to do bite work, is going to dramatically reduce the benefits you would expect to get. If you do all your work in familiar locations where the dog has previously done bite work, because the dog is already pre-primed, it does not necessarily prove that they would engage a stranger in an unfamiliar location. Familiar locations, the sight of bite work equipment and even sight of people who the dog connects to the training environment can all act as occasion setters and pre-prime the dog, thus detracting from the reality of the situation, and quite possibly ruining the intent of the activity. I strongly recommend that at least every now and again, you get a completely foreign person to work the dog in a location you have never been before and set up a scenario where the dog would not be able to predict a bite work session. Once you have done this 3 or 4 times, assuming the dog has not hesitated and engages strongly and confidently, you can then be satisfied that the primary purpose of using hidden equipment has been achieved.
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.
Training the dog to preferentially target selected areas of the body as opposed to simply biting anywhere, has been a somewhat contentious issue between trainers worldwide. Some are strong advocates of training the dog to specifically target given areas such as the bicep or tricep, whilst others advocate allowing the dog to randomly bite any target at any time (depending on the picture the dog sees and or what targets are available to him).
I fully understand the contentiousness of the issue because, to be honest, in the past we were not advocates of targeting and felt that it was more relevant to sport dogs than tactical dogs. Over time however, through both working with trainers all over the world, and our own experiences training numerous dogs for Law Enforcement and tactical applications, we progressively came around to believing that training a dog to tactically target various parts of the body in different situations was in fact the better option for a number of reasons.
Interestingly, in discussions I’ve had with trainers around the world over the years, several of them have told me that their experience was similar. It seems that the more experienced trainers tend towards targeting as they more deeply understand the benefits associated with it, and its consistency with effective dog training mechanisms and protocols.
Even now that I prefer to train a dog to target specific areas of the body, I’m still very aware that without the right understanding of the process, it can easily create problems and in fact become counter-productive to our final objective.
Like so many areas of dog training there are pros and cons associated with different methods and strategies. What I will do here is outline the potential benefits and shortcomings associated with tactical targeting and then go on to discuss how it is developed and how we prevent it from becoming a problem moving forward.
ADVANTAGES OF TACTICAL TARGETING
There are a myriad of advantages to tactical targeting, these include but are not limited to:
- Significantly enhanced decoy safety during the activities
- The ability for the decoy to wear less protective equipment and set up more real life scenarios during training activities
- The dog showing more commitment when coming in initially for a strike
- The dog targeting and neutralising the weapon hand of the assailant
- The dog getting a significantly better grip through targeting bicep or tricep, rather than chest or back
- Less chance of the dog biting the face or groin
TARGET CENTRE MASS
A principle used in most tactical firearms training is to aim at the centre of seen mass. This is a form of tactical targeting that evolved from experience and it is much the same with targeting the dog. Preferential, higher value target areas, where the dog will have more functional effect, should be trained accordingly.
The first thing the trainer needs to be aware of, even as they begin to progress the dog though basic bite development (such as work on the wedge) is that, in general, we want the dog to target centre mass or the centreline of the target.
What we don’t want, is a dog that even when a man is standing upright in front of him, tends to go the outside, towards the wrists. We also don’t want a dog that targets the ankles, so as a rule, the dog should generally target towards the centre mass.
By way of example: if the man is standing and facing forward towards the dog, the dog should run directly towards the centre of the man. If the dog was in a muzzle, the ideal first strike is somewhere between the solar plexus and the neck. This would knock the man back and hopefully down. If the man was carrying a weapon (gun, knife, baton etc.), if the dog hits towards centre mass it will have the best chance of neutralising the threat as quickly as possible.
Our general training philosophy for training tactical dogs is to ‘hit high and hard’. We are training our dogs to be effective fighters, not just biters. We give our dogs the best rewards when they can get the decoy to the ground. Effectively – ‘ground and pound’. This process also prepares the dogs for muzzle work (positive transfer).
Whilst I believe every tactical dog should be trained to bite the leg if it is the only available target, I do not believe having dogs primarily oriented towards leg bites is the best option for Law Enforcement and tactical applications. Again, there are multiple reasons for this philosophy. Firstly, the legs are a lot less sensitive on most men than the upper body and considering a lot of the time when the dog bites the offender, they will either be under the influence of drugs (ice, crack, etc.) or at the very least, in a highly aroused state with a lot of adrenaline in their system. This means that the pain associated with the bite is only part of the process in effectively neutralising the threat. Leg bites cause less pain and are less effective in rapidly neutralising the offender’s capability of staying in the fight (both against the dog and the handler / team).
In addition, generally speaking if the dog bites the leg on the side or front of the offender, it is putting itself in an extremely vulnerable position that makes it quite easy for the offender to fight against and harm the dog. The main problem with a leg bite is that it leaves both arms (arguably a human’s 2 primary weapons), free to fight and/or use weapons against the dog, the handler and others in the environment (e.g. other team members, civilians, etc.). I know this firsthand because I have personally been bitten twice on the legs by strong biting dogs and whilst I acknowledge I was in a reasonable level of pain, it did not neutralise me or even dramatically affect my ability to continue. Further to this, if you watch many of the old European trainers they would regularly be prepared to take a light bite on the legs wearing only leather pants, or in some cases even less.
Since there is a high likelihood that a tactical dog would be deployed onto a person with a weapon, it in fact makes sense to train the dog to selectively target the arm with a weapon in it. We have had direct experience where dogs we have trained to target have hit the assailant’s arm so hard the weapon was knocked out of their hand. So in a perfect world, the dog would effectively disarm and/or neutralise the weapon arm. This makes the situation much safer for both the dog and any personnel. If the offender had a knife and the dog bit him on the leg for example, this would leave the dog in an extremely vulnerable position.
Notwithstanding this, the operational tactical dog should still also be trained to bite on the leg, and bite well. There will be circumstances when the leg or other body part is the only available target because the offender has protected his upper body (perhaps using some sort of shield for example) or they are lying inside a tunnel, or any situation where the dog simply cannot access upper body targets. Without exception, we train all our tactical dogs to be strong, confident leg and body biting dogs but we don’t train any of them to preferentially target the legs when upper body is available. If the upper body is unavailable however, our dogs will target and bite the legs (or any other target) without hesitation.
Generally speaking, I prefer a dog that will transfer from the leg to the upper body. Some of our dogs will transfer rapidly from the leg to the upper body at the first available opportunity; others will tend to transfer only if the decoy tries to hit the dog or put pressure on him using their arms. I don’t have a strong preference for either option and I have known many great dogs that use both methods. Some trainers prefer that the dog only transfers when pressure is put on them, and others prefer the dog to transfer rapidly at the first available opportunity to prevent the assailant getting the opportunity to harm the dog.
COMMITMENT AND POWER
A dog that is trying to target a particular part of the body when it is available will, as a general rule, engage and bite with more confidence and commitment. They have a target / objective and they are committed to engaging that target.
As we progressively integrated more tactical targeting into our training, we noticed a corresponding increase in commitment and power when the dogs engage. This commitment and power is often seen in sport dogs that are trying to bite the sleeve as well as specific areas of the bite suit. There are exceptions to this rule of course, but generally speaking dogs that are trained to target specific areas, do so with more commitment and more power!
Engaging a passive target is an essential part of tactical K9 development and deployment, and a tactical target trained dog is more likely to fully engage and be more committed when they hit such targets. By initially training the dog with tactical targeting, it is much easier to train the dog to hit passive targets and in most circumstances, our dogs effectively transfer over to engaging passive targets with ease. Once the dog is engaging passive targets reliably, we change the scenarios and picture for the dog until he understands that once he is deployed, he should engage the person regardless of their position or status.
Dogs that have not had tactical target training tend to not have a preference for particular bite areas. As such and in certain circumstances, they may bite a low value or ineffective target area that does not effectively neutralise/control the assailant. Tactical targeting dogs have learnt that their priority target areas have the best effect and if they do happen to initially engage a low value target area, they will (when and if the opportunity presents itself) transfer to a more effective target zone.
MULTIPLE DOG SCENARIOS
Multi-dog exercises should be part of every tactical K9 dog’s development and deployment options and as a general rule, tactical target trained dogs can be more readily deployed in these scenarios. Dogs with the proper tactical targeting background and experience can be engaged onto an assailant even when there is already another dog engaged. When training dogs without tactical targeting experience however, this can be an extremely risky and dangerous endeavour.
The final reason why targeting is recommended, is for the safety of the decoy. Most Agencies don’t have the luxury of having a highly experienced decoy readily available all the time, but even if they do, the dog’s training is better served by having him work different decoys on a regular basis (especially for advanced level dogs).
If the dog is a random biter, the potential for danger is quite extreme for all but the most experienced decoy. The risk can be minimised using helmets and hand protectors, however this creates a very different picture for the dog and at least to some degree, reduces the reality of the training experience (because dogs will never really see this type of picture in the real world – unless of course the dog is deployed onto a motorbike rider!)
An extension of the decoy safety issue is that if the dog is not trying to target, it severely limits the scenarios you can set up. We often set up scenarios where the decoy doesn’t even see the dog coming. An example may be when the decoy is fighting with the handler and the dog runs in from behind the decoy – biting him on the triceps. This type of exercise would be very dangerous if the dog was a random biter.
If not done properly, training the dog to preferentially target can create a dog that will only bite when specific targets are presented. In its most extreme form, we see this with dogs that are trained exclusively on the bite sleeve.
Decades ago when I was first demonstrating and introducing the bite suit to various Agencies, we found that many of the dogs would not engage with the decoy unless the man in the suit literally presented his arm in the same way he would if he was wearing a bite sleeve. In one specific situation, we were doing a field search in the forest and I was hiding behind a large tree in the bite suit – when the dog got close to me I ran off as if trying to escape from the dog. The particular dog in this exercise was strong, highly driven and bit very well. Despite this, all the dog did when I ran away was run beside me waiting for the sleeve to be presented. I ran for some distance with the handler running after me encouraging the dog to bite, but because I did not present any specific target (i.e. my arm), the dog did not bite. The story has a happy ending however because that Agency decided to utilise the bite suit going forward and with proper training, their dogs went on to confidently engage a decoy/offender regardless of the position or circumstance.
I should point out that this is not an isolated instance and I have seen many dogs that either won’t engage, are reluctant to engage; or at best, engage with very limited commitment unless there is a clear presentation from the decoy. I fully acknowledge that the critics of targeting are concerned about this issue and rightly so.
The real secret to tactical targeting is to teach the dog that every position it could possibly find the decoy in, is in effect a presentation. If the decoy is running away, he is presenting a tricep or back bite. If the decoy is standing facing the dog, he is presenting a bicep or armpit. If the decoy tries to kick the dog, he is presenting his leg. If it can only see/access a foot, then that is the target.
In effect, tactical targeting is where the dog sees every position or action as a different presentation and the dog targets the appropriate body part in that circumstance.
There also needs to be regular work/scenarios set up where the dog has very limited access to the decoy and can only bite body parts that he would not normally/preferentially target. Don’t neglect this!
As with virtually every other aspect of training, the proper foundation needs to be laid. Before we commence tactical targeting, the dog should have had plenty of quality drive and bite development work on a variety of different equipment. The dog should already be showing confident commitment to biting and fighting before we start processes below.
We do a decent area I’m working on introduction to the bite suit before we start formal tactical targeting. Having said that, everything we do in the foundation work is preparing the dog for future applications (positive transfer). The majority of the bite suit foundation work is done by having a man hiding in a field or during building searches, wearing the bite suit or simply sending the dog onto the decoy in a variety of circumstances. Most of this work involves the decoy presenting particular body parts and catching the dog correctly (inexperienced dog = experienced decoy).
So effectively, before we formally start tactical targeting, the dog has already had a number of bites on the suit, including ideally triceps, back and leg bites.
There are 4 processes that develop effective tactical targeting:
1. Restricting Access/Framing
We start the process of tactical targeting by controlling the dog (normally holding the collar) and feeding the dog directly onto the preferred target body position. In many cases, we will start with the decoy either kneeling or lying on the ground to achieve this. The dog is fed directly onto the selected target (e.g. bicep or if the decoy is lying face down, the tricep) and then allow the dog to enjoy the bite. The decoy encourages and rewards the dog driving in and countering during the bite.
During this process, it is important that the handler control / frame the dog using a combination of leash control and their body so the dog doesn’t disengage and transfer to other body parts. If the dog does disengage, it should be pulled back and not allowed to re-engage immediately.
We are teaching the dog that if it lets go of the bite to transfer to another body part that the bite / activity will end. To achieve this, if the dog does disengage, we use a time out for 10-20 seconds before feeding it back onto the same position and starting the process again. This ‘time out’ principal will already be a process the dog is familiar with because if it had ever let go of the bite during the development stages, we would have applied the same consequence. Any time the dog disengages inappropriately should be timed out and/or frustrated.
The objective is to teach the dog that letting go of the bite, except under very specific circumstances, is counter-productive. In fact, our objective is the opposite. Every time the opportunity presents itself, the dog should drive into the bite with the aim of weakening (or awakening) the decoy. Letting go should be the last thing on the dog’s mind.
If the problem persists and the dog either doesn’t want to fight / engage the particular target area selected, or when it does bite it does not stay on, then we need to re-examine the foundation work. In this situation it is likely that some aspect of the development work has not been completed successfully. This may be relating to the bite development, or the desensitisation of being up close and personal with the decoy. We put a lot of work into these aspects earlier on during desensitisation and bite development activities and as such, very rarely have any issues.
In the early stages, we use shields and barriers to block / prevent the dog from biting the areas we don’t want it to target. The most common example of this would be the hands; we use large hand guards that extend up the forearm. Over time, the dog tends to target higher up the arm, normally somewhere between the elbow and the armpit – which is our preferred target. We also use shields (e.g. ballistic shields) to cover selected parts of the decoy, only allowing the dog access to selected target areas.
3. Selective reinforcement
We teach the dog that if it bites the correct target zone (e.g. the bicep) that it will have the opportunity to have a long and enjoyable bite / fight. On the other hand, if the dog bites an area that we would prefer it not to target in a particular circumstance, we will immediately recall the dog off, or give the dog the out / release command. We then reset the exercise to ensure the dog bites in one of our preferred target areas. When this occurs, the dog will be allowed to enjoy himself with a rewarding bite and fight.
We wrap the decoy in a sheet or blanket and cover him completely.
Progressively over time, the dog realises that certain target areas ensure a successful outcome. These areas give the dog the opportunity to have a long and rewarding bite / fight with the decoy. This is a similar principle to teaching an MMA fighter specific techniques that will allow them to control their opponent. We teach the dog that certain behaviours and certain target areas are more likely to bring success and rewards. If done correctly, in a fairly short amount of time the dog will preferentially target these zones.
It is important to note that from time to time, we will create situations and scenarios where the dog has very limited access to the decoy; only being able to bite on the foot for example. It is important to do this to ensure that the dog realises that when its preferred targets are available it should take them, but when they are not available it should bite whatever it can get. If our dogs get a foot bite, they would transfer onto the leg, or onto the upper body when / if those targets became available. Again, I draw the analogy between a highly trained dog and an MMA fighter. The rule is: take the primary target, if not accessible, go for targets of opportunity and then move to a better position when the opportunity presents itself.
Dog training is not a democracy. A properly trained working dog is one that does what it is told when it is told, where ever and whatever the situation. Anything less is unacceptable.
The most important element in establishing this level of control in the working dog is the development of the correct mind set and belief system. The dog needs to understand and believe that its behaviour controls and significantly influences the outcome of any given situation. It must learn that by following instructions from the handler, paying attention, working hard and not breaking any established rules, it will achieve a successful outcome. Through this understanding the dog also learns that non-compliance to commands and breaking the rules, is in fact counter-productive to its objectives.
To achieve this mindset we require highly structured and mindful exercise design, as well as excellent decision making and timing from the handler (as well as other trainers involved in each activity). The aim is to have each activity/exercise set up so that if the dog does not comply and/or breaks any of the established rules, then it does not achieve a successful outcome (Note: for the purpose of this discussion, a successful outcome is for the dog to achieve the reward it was seeking or any other outcome that will satisfy its drives/desires).
In some cases this will merely be withholding the reward, in others it may include the use of a timeout. We can also assist the learning process by using a No Reward Mark (NRM), or Delta Signal, or other signal to communicate to the dog that it has failed.
By consistently setting up exercises where the dog learns that non-compliance is counterproductive (i.e. it does not achieve the outcome it wanted to achieve), we progressively shape the dog’s way of thinking. The younger this general process starts, the better.
This does not mean that the handler needs to do a lot of obedience with a young pup; it does mean however that the dog must learn that the handler controls the resources and if it wants access to those resources (food, social reward, games, ball etc.), they do not come randomly.
The dog needs to learn that it can achieve and get rewards through the handler. Over time, the dog learns/understands that the handler is the source of the desired resources and rewards. This understanding from the dog is the true basis of reliable and high performance obedience and control.
The use of aversive incentives, particularly positive punishment mechanisms such as the use of an E-collar and/or leash corrections, are often an essential part in developing reliability of performance, especially under distraction and with competing motivations. This process however, should not be the primary mechanism because (apart from the obvious welfare issues) it tends to break down and become a less reliable control mechanism in certain circumstances including, but not limited to the following;
- When the drive state and arousal level are significantly increased
- When the dog is at a significant distance away from the handler
- When the dog learns that here is a lower chance of being corrected (e.g. when it does not have an E-collar on)
For this reason, as well as for the dog’s welfare, the trainer needs to develop the understanding and mind set in the dog that non-compliance and breaking rules is totally counterproductive to achieving its objective/successful outcomes. This includes to avoid aversive stimuli, as well as to achieve the rewards it seeks.
To be effective, learning requires the learner to encode the information being taught into long term memory (consolidation) so what they have learnt is still there later on, when they need it. The learner also needs to be able to retrieve/utilise the information when required (retrieval). Learning is primarily an acquired skill and very impacted on by the way the information is delivered to the learner. Research shows that mere repetition does NOT SIGNIFICANTLY enhance long term, durable learning.
Prior Learning / Experience
All new learning is built on the foundation of past learning. The more new information relates to your previous knowledge and learning, the stronger the grasp of the new learning will be, the more connections you create (encoding) and that will help the learner remember it later (retrieval). ‘’All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge’’ – Roediger, McDaniel, Brown (2014)
Motivation plays a major role in both the speed and permanency of learning. Keeping the learner interested, enthusiastic and in the right frame of mind during training is critical to quality long term learning outcomes. No task should be so difficult or stressful that it significantly impacts on motivation and/or enthusiasm. This is even more important with animals than humans. ‘’Learning tasks should therefore be difficult enough to facilitate deep, durable learning, but not so difficult that they impact motivation to participate in the activities’’ – Hooper (2011).
Some degree of difficulty (some stress) in learning a skill or task aids in the learning, especially if the skill requires a reasonable amount of memory. Effectively when learning is harder, it is stronger and lasts longer.
‘’When learning is easy it is often superficial and often forgotten. Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful.’’ – Roediger, McDaniel, Brown (2014)
How well information is encoded into memory is very closely related to the attention state of the learner. Initially, we need to minimise distractions and keep the motivational state and arousal levels optimal for learning the specific task. Over time the trainer needs to teach the learner that it is important to pay attention and not let the mind wander or be distracted from the task. ‘’During demanding tasks, the central executive kicks in. The more mind wandering network is suppressed, the greater the accuracy of performance on the task at hand.’’ – Daniel J. Levitin (2014)
Ideally there should be time between both trials and especially training sessions. Learning / memory requires a process of consolidation (encoding) in which the brain’s representations of new learning (memory traces) are connected to prior knowledge, given meaning and effectively strengthened. This process occurs over many hours and in some cases will take several days. ‘’Durable learning requires time for mental rehearsal and the other processes of consolidation. Hence spaced practice works better.’’ – Roediger, McDaniel, Brown (2014)
When you interweave the practice of 2 or more (ideally related) activities it produces longer, lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in other contexts. Although interleaving 2 or more activities may appear distracting (as opposed to focusing on one task or skill at a time) when it comes to quality learning and consolidation, it is a better way to structure your training exercises.
Most of the time we want learning to generalise to the broader environment and multiple situations, therefore learning activities need to be done in a variety of situations and contexts. This includes the type of rewards used and all other elements of the training environment. ‘’Learning tends to bond with the context in which it is conditioned.’’ – P. Reid (1996)
Expectation bias can be defined as ‘having a strong belief about, or mindset towards a particular outcome’. If the learner has many good/successful experiences in the training environment they will develop a positive expectancy bias with an expectation of success, connected to that context and activity. This significantly helps to maintain and develop enthusiasm and attention during training. If the learner struggles to understand, or achieve successful outcomes, then they may develop a negativity bias in relation to that context and/or activity.
‘’Well-structured and executed training also enables dogs to cope more effectively through empowerment. Learning to control, the occurrence of appetitive and aversive motivational stimuli promotes an improved sense of power that enables dogs to approach situations perceived as threats or challenges with positivity bias.’’ – Lindsay (2000)
Rest / Sleep
Both quality sleep and rest facilitate the consolidation of learning. Interrupted sleep and/or insufficient rest will significantly impact learning, especially the consolidation / encoding of new information into long-term memory. Different types of learning occur at different times during rest and sleep. ‘’Each stage is specialised to consolidate a specific skill.” Carey (2014)
Positive & Negative Transfer
Prior learning that impedes or interferes with later learning (subsequent acquisition) is referred to as negative transfer. Foundation and/or prior learning that is counter-productive or contradictory to the way we want the dog to behave as an adult will need to be rectified. This process can be time consuming at best, and often has limited success. Foundation learning interferes with later learning.
Positive transfer occurs when early learning and/or prior learning facilitates the acquisition of new learning / behaviour. Activities (both formal and informal) should be structured so that they reduce negative transfer and increase positive transfer. “Learning activities should be structured so that one event sets the stage for the next.” Hooper (1999)
‘’Due consideration should be given to all the roles and tasks the dog will be expected to perform down the track and activities conscientiously structured to avoid the likelihood of negative transfer. All those persons involved in raising and developing the dog should be educated in, and mindful of, the effects of different activities (including play and social activities) on later learning and behaviour.’’ – Hooper (2013)
TRAINING SESSION / EXERCISE DESIGN
- Ensure the dog has a high probability of being able to achieve success in each trial
- Wherever possible, make learning outcomes consistent with prior learning / knowledge
- Design each exercise so it is, in effect, an extension of prior learning / experience
- Include a degree of difficulty in each task to facilitate better / deeper learning
- As the dog progresses, make the tasks progressively more difficult (requiring more concentration, patience and/or impulse control)
- Interleave more than one activity in each training session to facilitate deeper and more adaptable learning
- Identify if fatigue has a significant impact on achieving the learning outcomes, and then manage it accordingly
TRAINING PROGRAM DESIGN
- Conduct a detailed temperament and behavioural assessment to determine suitability, strengths and weaknesses
- Identify elements of prior learning for both positive and negative transfer affect
- Develop a detailed training plan to achieve your objective that incorporates the different stages of learning
- Schedule training sessions well apart to allow consolidation of If this is not practical, then don’t do the same activities / exercises in each training session (e.g. do tracking in the morning and obedience in the afternoon)
- Schedule training activities based on desired arousal levels and develop appropriate expectancy bias for different environments, activities and contexts
- Ensure the learner gets adequate rest and uninterrupted sleep
Generally speaking, the trainer should have a predetermined idea on approximately how many trials (repetitions) of any given exercise/activity they will conduct during a training session. There are a number of factors that determine the number of trials, these include:
- The age, maturity and temperament of the dog
- The general physical state and fatigue level of the dog
- The environmental and climatic conditions
- The motivation level of the dog (both general and for the specific reward mechanism being used during the activity)
- The general training experience and background of the dog
- The specific experience the dog has with this particular activity/exercise
- The length, complexity and energy exertion required for each trial
- The success/failure ratio of the trials
- The type and intensity of any aversive incentives being used
There are several ways trainers/scientists select the number of trials to conduct in a training session:
Determine an appropriate fixed number of trials (for example 7) of a given exercise/activity, in a given training session (regardless of the number of successes or failures). In this approach, the trainer of course wants as many successful trials as possible but is not particularly concerned about what performance level they achieve. Their aim is to achieve as much as possible in a (more or less) fixed number of trials, and then either move on to other activities, or end the training session.
Another option is to select the number of correct/successful trials (where the dog makes the right choice or offers the right behaviour and gets a reward). In this approach, the trainer may decide they want 6 successful trials in the session, and any trials where the dog does not achieve a successful outcome are not counted. It is recommended to keep the success to failure ratio well in favour of successes in order to maintain motivation/enthusiasm and develop a positivity bias.
In this approach, the trainer has a predetermined goal/level that they want to achieve in the training session. They will generally continue running trials until they have achieved that performance standard. This process requires very good exercise design and considerable knowledge of the dog’s prior learning and capabilities. It is also important when using this process, to have a strategy for circumstances where you are unable to achieve the objectives that you were targeting.
ADAPTIVE TRAINING APPROACH
This process is rarely used by scientists, but often used by experienced trainers, especially those who are only training their own dogs. Effectively, the trainer continues to run trials until they determine that the dog’s performance is beginning to decline.
With most activities, longer inter-trial intervals (at least 10 seconds pause between trials – more is better) aids learning, so don’t rush from one trial to the next.
The call off is an activity where the dog is commanded to down or recall on command after having being sent in to engage (bite & fight) or search for the decoy / assailant.
Training the dog to cease and desist after he has already been sent in for the bite is a more difficult exercise to train because the dog is already in drive and committed to the fight when it is given the command to stop.
We use the down / drop command to stop the dog when we need to, in any and all situations. We effectively consider the down command as the ‘off switch’ and expect the dog to cease all aggressive action, at any time when given this command by the handler. This process is also referred to as ‘capping’.
The down (as opposed to the recall) is a better option in the tactical environment for a number of reasons; it allows the handler and tactical team many more options and more flexibility; it is generally more reliable; and it is easier to train and more practical in a wide variety of situations and environments. Once the dog is in the down position, we can recall the dog if necessary or carry out a variety of other tasks. The ‘down’ effectively puts the dog on standby for further instructions.
In some certification for law enforcement and military applications, the call off is a required element. Depending on the tactical application, it should be part of your working dogs repertoire; not only for situations where the offender may surrender, but also where the situation becomes dangerous. There may be a danger to the dog for example, because you see the assailant has a weapon that could kill the dog, or it may be dangerous to an innocent third party who gets caught in the encounter (possibly, but not necessarily, as a human shield).
The dog must have a very strong down command in its general obedience, including being reliable under high levels of distraction and in a myriad of different situations, including having decoys in protective equipment actively walking around in front of the dog while in the down position.
Ideally the dog should also be competent and experienced in bite work and fighting the decoy. Although, arguably, the call off could be commenced early in the dog’s training; we find this completely unnecessary. What makes a lot more sense is to do most of the development and preparation work while concurrently building a confident biting and fighting dog. The dog will also need an understanding of a protection cue (the command to engage and fight an assailant).
The training mechanism utilised requires very little or no compulsion and also ensures virtually a zero error procedure where the dog learns without ever getting rewarded for incorrect behaviour.
The dog is given its normal cue to protect whilst on leash. The decoy remains 1- 2m out of range of the dog, wearing some protective equipment and creating a small amount of stimulation (attraction) to keep the dog focused if necessary. Once the dog has been out on the leash for 5 to 10 seconds (preferably barking and being aggressive towards the decoy, but at the very least focused on him with intent) the handler gives the command to down. The moment the dog stops being aggressive and goes into the down position, it is given a verbal mark (e.g. “good’’) to confirm that behaviour was correct, and then given its cue to protect again, at which time the lead is dropped and the dog is allowed to go in and fight the decoy.
If the obedience and control work of the dog is not up to standard then the dog may be reluctant to ‘down’ when given the command. We never really have this problem because we don’t begin this exercise until the dog has a good standard of obedience and, importantly, we regularly make the dog drop before we give him his protection command so he is preconditioned to understand that unless he downs on command, he will not be given a cue to protect and as such, will miss out on the opportunity to engage / fight. If the development work is conducted properly, you will simply not have a problem in this exercise.
Many inexperienced trainers mistakenly confuse poor development and foundation work for a dog that is stubborn or difficult to train. Instead of doing the right preliminary and development work (due to ignorance or laziness) they substitute this with corrections and compulsion. While this will work to one degree or another, it is far from ideal and realistically identifies the limited knowledge and/or capability of the trainer more than anything else.
It is reasonable to use some compulsion to assist in this exercise, however if the dog is properly developed it will understand that it is in its own best interest to down on command, as this will speed up the opportunity to get to the reward and as such, little or no compulsion will be required.
Once the dog is reliably going into the down position quickly and consistently on command and remaining in that position for 5 to 10 seconds; waiting for its next instruction; we take the exercise one step further. We start by giving the dog the ‘rouse’ command, then commanding the ‘down’; (once the dog is down) we pause for 5 or 10 seconds, then give the ‘rouse’ command again (with the dog still on lead and not yet getting a bite). We then give the down command a 2nd time and if the performance is consistent, we give the rouse command again and allow the dog to drive in for the bite.
If you can achieve this performance consistently in multiple environments and contexts you are ready to progress to step 2.
The next step is to more or less conduct the same exercise as above, however now using a long line (approx. 6m / 20ft). Start by placing the dog in the down position and then moving back to the end of the line, so the dog is approximately 6m in front of the handler (both facing the decoy – not facing each other). The decoy should be 3 to 5m in front of the dog when the handler gives the rouse command.
The decoy should start walking away from the dog and then the handler should slowly walk towards the decoy, allowing the dog to drag in / chase after the decoy at the full-length of the long line. Maintain a distance (between the dog and decoy) of about 2 to 5m and after travelling 5 to 10m, the dog is commanded to down. Once the dog goes into the down, the behaviour is marked with a conditioned reinforcer (e.g. ‘’good’’) to confirm to the dog that the behaviour was correct. After a couple of seconds, the dog is then given the rouse command again, the lead is dropped and the dog gets his reward by engaging and fighting the decoy.
Step 2 is a natural extension of step 1; the only difference being that the exercise is done on a long line and progressively introducing forward motion rather than doing it from a static on-lead position. Initially it helps if the decoy stops moving when the down command is given; however as the dog progresses, the decoy should continue moving away (even running away) to ensure the dog understands that it must comply with the down command regardless of the decoy’s behaviour.
As with all our training, each step sets the stage for the next and as such, progression is normally quite rapid and seamless because the dog is already so well prepared, based on his previous experience and training.
Before progressing to the next stage you will need to proof the reliability of this exercise by increasing the speed from a walk to a jog and also doing it in a variety of different environments and situations, including using different decoys etc.
You should not progress to the next stage until the dog can actively chase down the decoy in any situation and will immediately down on command quickly and reliably. This is also a good time to increase the duration (amount of time) the dog is left in the down before being recommanded to engage with the decoy. We build this up to over a minute before progressing to step 3 because it is best developed during the on-leash phase.
Until now we have physically restricted the dog from getting to his reward (the decoy) until he complies with the command. In step 3 we still prevent the dog from getting success unless he complies with instructions but we do so by designing the exercise so that even if off leash he cannot, and will not, get a reward unless he complies.
There are several ways this can be achieved. We normally start the dog at least 20m away from the decoy standing inside an open doorway or gate. The decoy must be in a position so they can rapidly step inside and close the door or gate; preventing the dog from getting to them.
Once everything is set up and in position, the dog is given a cue to engage the decoy. Very quickly after the command is given, once the dog has travelled only a few meters, the handler gives the down command. If the dog complies, the handler gives the mark (good) pauses for a few seconds and then recommands the dog to engage the decoy. If everything goes according to plan, the decoy never shuts the door and simply stands still until after the second cue has been given (after the dog has done the down and then been recommanded to engage).
At this point the dog will run in and should be rewarded with a good bite and fight.
If, when doing this exercise, the dog does not go into the down position when commanded, the decoy must immediately close the door or gate completely, blocking the dog’s access to him. This is a form of negative punishment, where we have prevented the dog from getting success (his reward), because he has not complied with the command.
We don’t use any form of physical corrections (e.g. E-collar or leash corrections) for non-compliance to the command here during the training phase, because the dog is already being punished by missing out on the expected success of getting to the decoy for a bite / fight. The reality is if the dog does not comply with the down command, it normally means that the developmental work has been insufficient – especially time spent at stage 2 and the proofing at that level. Based on this, it would be inappropriate and a bad call to physically punish the dog, since the problem has been caused through lack of appropriate preparation, development and training (as opposed to true disobedience or laziness). If the dog doesn’t comply with the down, it is recommended to go back and do another 10 to 20 trials (repetitions) over several sessions, following the protocols outlined in step 2.
Once you have consolidated the behaviour at this level you can conduct a range of proofing activities (listed below) to consolidate the learning and develop a more generalised response. This is also where we would incorporate a compulsive mechanism if required (e.g. leash corrections and/or E-Collar). An extremely important principle that applies whenever using any physical corrections is that you must also prevent the dog from getting its reward. Allowing the dog to get to the decoy and have a bite and then trying to correct it off is just bad training – pure and simple!
Since we have good exercise design and an effective mechanism for preventing the dog from getting to the reward, if it does not comply; we have set ourselves up for success and effective learning. Based on this we can push the envelope and work the dog in high drive states and high levels of arousal with the confidence that the dog will have no chance of achieving success unless it complies / performs the correct response.
For some dogs incorporating physical corrections, especially with an E-Collar, during the proofing can be highly beneficial. Use of a more compulsive mechanism such as this makes for more considered decision making from the dog. It also increases reliability under distraction and competing motivations. Using compulsion at this stage prepares the dog more effectively and makes it clear what the corrections mean at more advanced levels and during scenario training. If you are going to use an E-Collar for this exercise it should be introduced at this stage – not later on!
NOTE: I make the assumption here that the dog has been fully conditioned to the E-Collar prior to this exercise.
Once the dog is consistently reliable (zero errors over many trials) in a range of different environments, and using different decoys it is time to move to the next stage.
The next stage is to conduct the exercise in situations where we have limited control over the dog and/or the environment. When conducting activities in environments where we have limited control 2 things should occur.
- As best as possible you should have contingencies in place in case things don’t go according to plan. As we are now in an environment where we have limited controls this will not always be easy, but good exercise design, good communication, and a plan in place before you begin will, at the very least, help.
- At least initially you should significantly reduce the complexity of the exercises by comparison to what you have been doing in the previous steps. Use familiar decoys and do several consolidation trials, with controls in place, and only if everything is going perfectly; you then move to conducting the exercise with limited controls.
By making the exercise very straightforward the dog only has to focus on one thing and as a result, your chance of success is significantly increased (dare I say, virtually assured). I would also recommend that initially the dog not be overstimulated by the decoy prior to commencing the activity when you have limited controls. Based primarily on good exercise design we never really have a problem at this stage – but we are very conscientious!
Very important point to note here: The thing that separates training from reality (or from a demonstration, or testing situation) is the ability to effectively control the dog and/or the environment. Part of our definition of the word training is ‘the ability to control the dog and/or the outcomes’. For example, once you send the dog off leash into an open area to conduct an exercise you have very limited ability to control the situation, and therefore very limited ability for behaviour modification / training. If the dog’s prior experience is that once it is off lead the rules change and it doesn’t really need to comply, then you are going to have major problems in the real world.
A saying I learnt from an old German trainer (Helmut Raiser) more than a quarter of a century ago was “the leash comes off on the day of the trial”. Based on this you should only conduct training activities in this type of situation once you are absolutely confident that you will get the behaviour you want. Clearly this means rock solid foundation work, followed by progressive and consolidated formal training activities. Even then I don’t recommend doing multiple repetitions in situations where you do not have control of the dog and/or the environment. Even with our most highly trained dogs we regularly do on-leash work, and/or use other control mechanisms, and control incentives. A further point on this. If, when working in an environment where you have limited control, the dog decides not to be compliant and gets away with it, then you have created a rod for your own back. At this point you will need to back up in your training, incorporating strong control measures and control incentives, for many sessions before considering testing the dog in an uncontrolled environment. It is best to think of any activity where you have limited control as a test or demonstration, rather than a training session. Since you have very limited capacity to control the outcome, what you are really doing is confirming that the dog will perform the desired behaviours in an environment or context where there are limited controls.
It is now time to integrate this exercise into a range of other activities. This could include the conduct of area and/or building searches, when tracking and any other relevant activities that the dog is trained in. The most important factor to remember here is that when you move to scenario based training and the integration of new skills into other activities, that you should reduce your expectations, and expect (and prepare for) reduced levels of performance or possibly even errors.
When introducing the call off into scenarios and more complex activities there will be times when we go back to on-leash work, or put some extra thought into the exercise design to give us the ability to control the environment and situation in case things don’t go to plan.
At the very least, I recommend reducing your expectations and the criteria you previously had before rewarding. In simple terms, when introducing new scenarios, make it simpler for the dog. This may only be expecting the dog to remain in the down for a few seconds (rather than a minute or so), or going back to the original training environment so the dog. Also as a rule we only introduce one new element or compounding factor at a time. Again this is more of an art than a science and more experienced trainers will know how far they can push the envelope.
The best trainers always have contingencies in place, and expect the unexpected. If you always expect the dog to perform well, and therefore don’t set up the exercise to deal with possible mistakes or non-compliance, then you are setting yourself up for failure! The less experienced you have, both as a trainer and in this specific exercise, the more contingency you should build in to your exercise design I you will you no you are decreasing massive swelling doesn’t really work like that what the ending employment uses the information mildly doesn’t bite the swelling into a swelling so for example you get called.
Once the dog is reliable it is time to proof and generalise the exercise. In simple terms this means doing it in a wide variety of different situations, environments and contexts until the dog generalizes (understands and complies) and becomes reliable in any and all situations. The reality is that the proofing of exercises is more of an art than a science. Highly experienced trainers can move from one environment or situation to another fairly rapidly because they can read the dog and they will put mechanisms in place to reduce the likelihood of failure. A good trainer will know when to put the long line back on (as a backup to prevent problems), when and if a correction is needed etc.
When the dog is very reliable it is time to add in additional commands and activities after the down. Unless you are extremely confident, most if not all of the exercises below should be done on a long line, or with some other form of control in place to prevent the dog learning that if he breaks the rules he can still get some success. Most of these proofing activities could be done at stage 2 if preferred. We like to do some proofing at each stage to consolidate learning and help to generalise the response. Most of the activities below should already have been conducted as separate exercises prior to incorporating into the call off.
Proofing activities should include as a minimum:
- Recalling the dog from the down position (rather than sending him in on the decoy)
- Leaving the dog in the down as the handler walks up to him before sending him on to the decoy, or clips on and heels the dog away. We virtually always finish each trial by sending the dog in at some point
- Leaving the dog in the down and then calling the decoy out towards the handler
- Leaving the dog in the down while pat down searches are conducted on the decoy
- Leaving the dog in the down while the handler does a search of the building or area where the decoy was
- Any other situations and scenarios you consider relevant to your roles and tasks
Is important to note here that we very rarely have any problems with the dogs not complying with the down during these proofing exercises because we do such extensive foundation work (so the dog is very well prepared) that when we put him in this situation it would in fact be a shock to us if he did not understand it and/or comply with the command.
I have forgotten how many times other trainers have said to me words to the effect of “he does that because he is a naturally compliant dog” or “my dog is more committed to the bite so he doesn’t comply very well in this exercise”. Neither of these are true reflections of the situation. The reality is that either the trainer simply doesn’t have the understanding or know-how to train the exercise properly, or they have not done proper foundation work and training to prepare the dog before putting him in the situation.
This is another one of those situations where some trainers will be reading this and disagreeing with me. You will argue that I am not working with very high drive dogs, or stubborn dogs, or hard dogs, or that I trained my dog since they were puppies etc., etc., etc. None of that is correct. It does not matter whether I raise the dog from a pup. It does not matter the temperament of the dog. It does not matter how strong the drive of the dog. What matters is the correct exercise design, training mechanisms and the proper foundation work to ensure success – no exceptions – EVER!
I have seen trainers who tell the decoy to stop and/or throw his hands up in the air and surrender prior to, or at the same time as they give the call off command. I strongly disagree with this strategy as over time the dog takes the decoys behaviour as a cue. Whilst there are times where the dog should react to the decoy / assailant’s behaviour, this is definitely not one of them.
If the dog is responding in any way to the decoy’s behaviour, this will produce a number of potential problems; firstly the dog might automatically call off if the decoy / assailant stops or surrenders – the problem here is they may not be surrendering, they may be aiming a gun and as such, it must always be the handlers decision to call off the dog – not the dog’s decision based on what he sees the decoy doing.
Secondly; most dogs trained like this are unreliable unless the decoy stops and/or surrenders. This is, in fact, a trick used by sport dog trainers to help make the dog more reliable, but it is problematic and should not be utilised in training the dog for L/E or tactical roles. This type of training means the handler has limited control, and the dog is responding more to the decoy’s behaviour than commands from the handler – not good!
‘If you don’t train it – don’t do it’!
I want to start this section by stating that unfortunately, there is no real substitute for real-time street experience. It is of course imperative that a lot of training time be spent with scenarios that mimic (as close as possible) likely situations that will occur in your specific roles and tasks and whenever possible, to create a picture that dog can relate to in the street. The reality of course, is that despite our best efforts, there are things about a real time street encounter that cannot be fully replicated in the training environment.
The role of this section to discuss and explain how, in the training environment, we can best prepare the dog for real world encounters.
Many of the processes and techniques needed to develop a real street dog have already been discussed throughout this manual. Strategies such as plenty of hard civil/defence work, muzzle fighting, hidden sleeve and hidden suit and hard bite sessions all contribute to developing the right mind set and capabilities required in a serious street dog.
FRIEND OR FOE
One of the factors that can make things difficult in the tactical dog is the requirement for the dog to be social, or at least neutral, in and around other team members, and in some cases around other Law Enforcement/emergency services personnel. Finding the right balance, where the dog can be neutral/safe around a significant number of other persons, whilst at the same time take on an assailant (or multiple assailants), is undoubtedly one of the most significant challenges facing tactical and Law Enforcement dog trainers.
For some Agencies/organisations, the task is made somewhat simpler because they wear a very specific uniform (e.g. Military commonly wear camouflage, and SWAT/tactical Law Enforcement commonly wear black).
By specifically conditioning the dog over an extended period that the good guys wear black (friend) and the bad guys (foe) don’t wear black, we can create a reasonably reliable picture for the dog to identify friend or foe (IFF). Some tactical Agencies will not always wear this uniform of course, as they maybe undercover and/or wear different kits in different environments. This makes creating the right picture more difficult and complex.
Another possible option for consideration is to condition the dog to be social with all members of the team. Within a relatively short period, you could introduce the dog to and get the dog familiar with all members of a reasonably sized team. In this context, the dog would know each of the members personally, dramatically reducing the likelihood of a ‘friendly’ bite. With most dogs, the more people it gets to know well and develops any social relationship with, generally the more civilised and less dangerous t he dog will become.
The reality is, the Agency and team need to determine their specific requirements and mission profile to determine what level of sociability they need and whether they are prepared to compromise, at least some degree, the serious bad intentions of the dog in order to have higher levels of officer/team safety in and around K9 operations. Most of these dogs have at least a reasonable amount of real-time street experience and have learnt to discriminate and identify friend or foe, based on the specific nuances of the given circumstance and environment.
PREPARATION FOR THE STREET
Preparing a dog for the street, ideally starts from a very young age. The first thing that needs to happen is that all personnel involved in the training/development process (and upbringing of a pup/young dog) need to be on the same page and understand the ramifications and effects of the learning experiences dogs have.
In effects dogs are born afraid of human beings and unless they are socialised to them when they are very young (during the Socialisation Period), they will end up being fearful and reactive around people. For that reason, young pups should be socialised to humans to remove the inherent fear they have. Due to Scott and Fuller’s work we know the implications of lack of early socialisation and environmental enrichment, and for that reason virtually all trainers worldwide ensure their pups are properly socialised and receive ample environmental enrichment/exposure when they are very young.
The contentious issue is when to stop socialising your dog with strangers. It is beyond the scope of this manual (because it is about training tactical decoys, not about how to raise the dog) to discuss the appropriate upbringing practices. Suffice to say that if you under socialise the dog when it is young, it will tend to be fearful of humans. If you over socialise with humans, it will tend to become too human friendly and will lose its edge, often making it too complacent or too sociable as an operational working dog.
Unfortunately, it is a complex situation because each dog is an individual and some dogs can be very well socialised for extended periods when they are young and still become good hard street dogs. The only real way to manage it, is to assess every dog as individual as it is maturing and developing, and adjust training protocols accordingly.
If you are assessing an adult dog as a potential candidate, you need to ensure that it has enough edge and defence drive to be suitable for the specific application and mission spectrum. Assessing dogs for suitability for any working/service dog task should ideally be done by very experienced trainers who can put the dog through a raft of tests to determine suitability.
Also, as has been discussed throughout the manual, we need to create certain pictures for the dog, so it understands that in certain situations and environments, there is going to be a fight and it is going to be very serious!
CREATING THE PICTURE
Ideally from the start of the dog’s training (even when it is a young pup), we should be creating certain pictures that will progressively educate the dog that it is appropriate and necessary to behave differently in different circumstances (Contextual Learning).
One element of this is separating the play/game activities, from the civil/defence based activities. In an ideal world that means having a team of decoys and many training environments. Our aim is to conduct a activities in a nonthreatening environment, where the dog can learn and develop with minimal pressure – this may include play/prey based activities such as tug games, as well as general bite development work on tugs, pillows and wedges (especially for a pup/young dog). This will develop a love of biting, and the confidence and skill sets required for a strong biting and fighting dog.
Completely separate to that, and preferably using different decoys and in different environments, we develop the civil picture and the defensive/aggressive responses of the dog.
How much civil/defence work we do is determined very much by the individual dog. Some dogs are genetically strong in defence and don’t need a lot of civil/defence development. With other dogs however, it needs to be the priority. As with virtually all areas of training, you need to adapt and prioritise activities around the dog’s specific strengths and weaknesses (and its maturity level).
As the dog’s confidence and understanding develops (and as it matures if it is a young dog), we progressively move to environments where we can put more pressure on the dog and create the pictures in the dog’s psyche that shape his understanding of the world.
An essential part of developing a real street dog, is to run numerous scenarios and to make those scenarios as reality based as practical. Again, creating different pictures for the dog is what shapes his perspective and subsequent behaviour. There is a significant need for diversity:
- Different environments
- Different decoys
- Different setup
- Different structure
- Different protocols
The following is a range of videos showing different scenarios (focusing on different elements).