Archive for July, 2011

How to train the recall

Posted in Training Articles with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2011 by guy2932


The recall is such a simple exercise and if the groundwork is carried out correctly there is no reason why a dog with the highest of drives won’t come back as quickly as he went out on a single command. This level of control not only makes the dog safer to work on the street but may well save his life should he be heading for danger.

The exercise starts at home or in a field with as little distraction as possible. Wait until the dog is away from you and when he looks at you use your body to generate interest and encourage him back to you. When he gets there reward him. Repeat several times until you are confident that your actions will result in him coming back. Don’t say anything at this stage we are simply making coming back to us rewarding.

In the next session do the same as before but this time say your recall command as your dog is coming back to you and reward when he gets there. Repeat half a dozen times.

Next say the command slightly before you do the things you do to get the dog back and reward him. Repeat half a dozen times. As you progress, increase the delay between the command and the actions. When you can say your recall command when your dog is looking away from you and he turns and comes, you know he understands and can start to progress.

As we progress you will have to do less and less to attract the dog back to you. I keep flapping both arms like I’m trying to fly as this is a good visual signal if the dog is too far away or I want to recall him quietly.

The exercise now needs to be built up slowly by recalling in the face of greater distractions. The secret is to try to never recall if you don’t think he’ll come back. You always have the option of going to get him or relying on the technique you relied on before to encourage him back. You need to try to control the environment until you have the control.

You need to think of every scenario you are likely to want to recall your dog and then break that scenario into easy versions and progressively more difficult versions. For instance if you want to recall your dog from other dogs then start by recalling him when the other dog is a long way off. Build up so the other dog is closer before you recall. Then once they are playing, wait until the dog gets bored and you can see they were about to stop playing anyway and then recall. Let the dog approach old dogs that you know won’t play and recall him. Eventually your recall will become so reliable that you can recall your dog whilst he is mid play session.

A good exercise to practice recall is to place the dog in a sit and throw his ball out. Release him and recall him. The majority of the time, allow him to fetch the ball but you can recall him and reward with a tugger.

You can have a helper some distance out in front of the dog and they can be as distracting as you like to encourage the dog out. Practicing recalls in this way before the chase and detain has been taught is a great way of creating that habit before the pull of the helper becomes too great.


Can you train a police dog using only positive reinforcement?

Posted in Training Theory with tags , , , , on July 10, 2011 by guy2932

It is much easier if you are starting your training with a puppy but it is possible with an adult dog. For the absolute purists I would have to say that there is a small sprinkle of negative punishment in my regime. For those that don’t know the technical terms then why not buy Positive police dogs:Philosophy. This will tell you everything you need to know about the theory of learning and some useful insights into how and why traditional punitive training is not as effective as some would have you believe.
I actually have a few routines I use to create a conditioned negative punisher (negative punishment is withdrawing/withholding something the dog wants or is expecting) so in reality I am actually only using a verbal cue. This verbal cue means to the dog “what you are doing or about to do isn’t going to be rewarding”.
I use absolutely no violence, hitting, slapping screaming and shouting, physical manipulation or punitive methods at all, even in bite work.
This is not to say that I have never or will never again lash out in anger or frustration. I am human after all and at 3am when I’m tired and things aren’t going my way I am susceptible to allowing my frustration get the better of me. The difference is that because this is not my normal state of mind or my usual approach with my dog, it serves as a wake up call to me and I then take a deep breath and reassess the situation. If need be I will put the dog away until I am in a better frame of mind. I am no more likely to hit my dog than I am my wife or kids because that just isn’t the kind of relationships I wish to have (twenty years with my wife so far but I hear the next twenty are the hardest so i’ll keep you posted).
If you aren’t going to punish what you consider bad or unwanted behaviour then you must have an alternative approach.
As humans we are aggressive and punitive by nature which is why we sometimes find it hard to resist our natural urge to punish (think of a country that has a justice system not based on punishment). There is another way though but it does involve learning a few new things and like any new skill some practice is required. With time will come experience and so things will become easier. The joy of positive reinforcement is that the same theories apply to your kids, wife and even yourself.
With positive reinforcement based training you need to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and how you hope to achieve it. You have to have a good idea about your students and what makes them tick. You need to understand what they like and don’t like and what their natural behaviours are.
Without this knowledge you wont know what your student(dog) is likely to do in any given situation if left to its own devices. You wont know what they like or want and that is important because you will use these things to reward the behaviours you want.
The point that a lot of people fail to realise, especially those that are currently relying on punitive methods is that you can’t just train as you always have but substitute a reward instead of a punishment. You need to build exercises up first gradually, firstly making appropriate associations between command (cue) and action and then ensuring you are reinforcing it sufficiently. You need to create the habit of performing the cue on command and the belief that doing so is more rewarding than any other alternative before you increase the difficulty, distraction and high-octane elements of training.
You cannot teach a good recall whilst the dog is chasing a criminal. You cannot teach the out whilst the dog is biting. These things need to be established and built up before you get to this stage.
Trying to do so is what often leaves people feeling like there is no option but to punish non compliance.
Positive police dogs:patrol dog will be available soon and will talk you through the process step by step. In the mean time Philosophy and many of the articles on this site will help you get the right mindset.
Using positive reinforcement to the exclusion of punitive methods not only produces more confident dogs, but it reduces stress and confusion for the dog which in turn has a knock on effect for the handler. It also requires that you learn the basic theory which helps you solve problems and just makes you an all round better trainer and handler. All this plus the knowledge that you will be above reproach in relation to your training style.

Check out this short video. It shows my mali when he was young, performing what some would consider a difficult recall but this was some time ago and he is just getting better with age. He doesn’t break from the sit as some  have suggested. He sat of his own volition. He has learned a very high level of self-control and doesn’t show a lot of the nervous, anxious behaviours you see in a lot of high drive working dogs.

Are sniffer dogs effective?

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , , on July 9, 2011 by guy2932

The current wave of bureaucrats, accountants, senior management, ill-informed rights activists and general ignoramuses spouting off about the credibility of search dogs is becoming annoying at best.
This article rings bells of a management team not too far from my heart who wanted to cull 50% of the explosives sniffer dogs because they hadn’t found any bombs and were therefore a waste of time. What these people fail to realise is that if there are no bombs to find, you cannot find them. The searches have to be carried out though none the less for obvious safety reasons and if not by dogs then by people. Lots of people. On the last occasion that our force did have a bomb it was found. Not by people but by a dog. On almost every occasion you undertake such a search you could adopt the attitude that the risk is small so there is no point even bothering. If that is the case then fine. Don’t search. There will be great savings to be had by not searching but clearly the risk is increased. However, if you are going to search then not only are the dogs a cheaper option than using a search team (we sweep with the dogs and then finger tip with search teams. Without the dogs, protocol states two sweeps with the teams) but they can identify devices in places search teams can’t get to or wouldn’t bother to dismantle.
The same can be said of drugs warrants. The warrant is going to be executed with or without the dog. The difference is again that the dog can search quicker and more effectively than a search team. You really have to see a search team in action, doing a thorough search to realise just how painfully slow and labour intensive it is.
When it comes to screening dogs whether they be trained to identify drugs weapons or anything else, I fail to see how this can amount to a breach of anyones human rights. The dogs are non invasive, do not make contact and merely scent the air. It’s no different to a police officer smelling cannabis on someone or in a car.I don’t see how this is any different to being looked at but perhaps this is part of the point. Perhaps some factions object to being policed at all.
The fact that a lot of searches have a negative result is not a massive surprise. Given that most substances will leave a residual scent, the fact that nothing was found does not equate to an unlawful or unwarranted search. Stop and search powers generally do not provide very high results as it is far to easy to conceal or discard contraband and such like.
The final allegation that handlers deliberately induce false positives in order to give them grounds to search stinks of conspiracy theory to me. It amuses me how ready the media and other such fantasists are so keen to look for such elaborate plots when the reality is that most police are just trying to do their job in sometimes quite difficult circumstances.
This is not to say that handlers don’t produce false positives. My experience is that this happens more in training when the handler is more confident that there is something to be found. It is a lot less likely to happen in an operational environment because the handler just doesn’t know and is therefore less likely to give those encouraging signs.
It comes down to training and ensuring that the false cues coming from the handler are trained out early on and that training is both realistic and not set up too much by the handler.
This latest story is from Australia but it seems to be a similar story everywhere around the globe. Perhaps when the financial climate improves there will be at least one faction who lose interest. The Australians it would appear have been questioning the use of search dogs for some time though as this report from the NSW ombudsman into the drugs detection dog act 2001 shows.  You get a sense from the recommendations made that despite the aim being to target the supply of drugs, it is desirable to do this without causing any inconvenience to drug users. Heaven forbid that they should feel they had to change their using habits to avoid detection. Perhaps they should give consideration to legalising drug use thereby avoiding the issue of inconveniencing anyone in their efforts to detect and deter. A saying about omelets and eggs springs to mind.

How to dominate your dog

Posted in Training Theory with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2011 by guy2932

The word dominance is loaded with an unhealthy attitude towards dog ownership. To dominate in everyday language suggests the need to overpower, and control.

In terms of training dogs this is not only unnecessary but when you are talking about Police dogs is a step in the wrong direction. So many dogs that fail to make the grade do so because they haven’t got the confidence to do the job. By dominating and controlling them you are hardly likely to maximise the dogs potential.

Think of that really scary teacher at school. The one who ridiculed and shouted. The one who made people afraid to speak out of turn. There was no messing about in that class. There was also no creativity, freedom of expression and no fun. That teacher dominated the class.

For you to adopt the attitude that you are going to dominate must also mean that you are looking for the dog to submit, to yield to your mighty power. Hardly the basis for a productive partnership.

Instead think of yourself as a teacher. A mentor. Not the scary dominating type but the inspirational type. The teacher who had the power to enthuse and excite. The type to reward good behaviour but with the ability to distract and refocus unwanted behaviours.

Leadership is about being clear about where you are going and how you are going to get there. It is about communicating effectively and having the ability to listen as well. It is about being calm and assertive (the only time you will hear me say anything that sounds like a Caesar Milan quote). It’s about consistency and fairness. It is absolutely nothing to do with domination. Dogs understand leadership. If you lead they will follow. Equally if you fail to lead then that responsibility will fall to your dog.

If you want to understand dominance and submission in proper behavioural terms then may I suggest you read “On aggression” by Konrad Lorenz. Or if that’s too heavy then “The evolution of canine social behaviour” by Roger Abrantes. If you don’t fancy reading either of them then perhaps you can just read the conclusion to this article.

There are only three true drives. Sex drive, prey drive and self-preservation. Everything your dog does is motivated by one of those things. Which one do you think you can control or suppress by shouting, slapping, hitting or electrocuting?  Sex drive says what it does on the tin. You may scare the dog into not showing any outward signs but the desire will still be there.

Prey drive is what motivates the dog to hunt. It is a matter of life and death. You will not be able to summon enough fear from the depths of hell to control that. It is what makes the dog what it is. You can no more make the dog control its prey drive than you can make the dog change the colour of its fur. What you will do though is provoke the third drive by making yourself a threat. This will manifest as aggression, avoidance or as most dogs aren’t free to leave then displacement behaviour. Again, you may be able to suppress the symptoms but you wont change the motivation.

Dogs need to learn how to control their drives and you need to help them learn how and when to do it. Self control is vital and this comes from the dog learning what is and isn’t rewarding. By simply punishing behaviours you don’t want you are merely adding to the anxiety and confusion that is often present during any form of training and making it less likely that the dog will be able to control its self.

Many books are laden with rules that you should or shouldn’t do such as eat first, don’t let the dog go through doorways before you and don’t let them on the sofa. My take on it is this. If you have no rules and no boundaries then you will likely have an unruly dog. Adopting many of these rules is the first step to having some form order that the dog understands.

Allowing your dog to go through a doorway before you isn’t a problem in its self. I often want my dog to go ahead of me whilst working. I have the ability to stop him though if that is what is required. My rules are clear to both me and the dog. If I get there first I will go through first and the dog is not allowed to push past me. Equally if the dog gets there first I will afford him the same respect. If however he gets there first but I tell him to wait then wait he must do. I don’t however just expect these rules to be known or obeyed. I train them. I set up situations that allow all the above scenarios to take place and I reward (positively reinforce) the behaviours I want. Once I am happy that I have communicated the rules and ensured that I have made it worth the dogs while to comply, then and only then will I use any form of compulsion to enforce my rules.

I’m not harsh or vindictive though. I will give the dog a very clear warning that he is breaching a rule (I say aagghh). I have done prior training to let the dog know that aagghh means “what you are doing or about to do is not going to be rewarding”. How I do that is the subject of another post. He has a choice then. Continue with his current course of action or not. If he does I will invariably stop him, if he doesn’t I will invariably reward him.

Some people may be horrified to hear me say that I reward him after I have had to tell him off but he has complied with a command. The one that means “don’t do that”. You have to have faith in the fact that as a social animal the dog is programmed to fit in and to be a productive member of the group. They aren’t looking to oust you from power in a doggy coup. If you help them understand the rules and make it worth their while, they will comply with the house rules.

I am not afraid to enforce my rules or maintain my boundaries because I know that I have done everything in my power to ensure the dog understands them. I know that I am not vindictive or spiteful and I also know my dog knows this too. He isn’t afraid of me in the slightest and that’s just the way I like it. He isn’t afraid to try new things because he knows I am there to help and guide him.

So when asked how best to dominate a dog I reply “don’t”. Lead and your dog will follow. Consistency is king and remember that training is your responsibility. If you don’t train it you won’t get it. Be aware of your punitive nature, it’s the human condition, and learn to overcome it. The rewards for both you and your dog are immeasurable. It takes time and effort to learn the new skills and practice to become good but as they say, nothing good comes easy. If you like this article and want to read more then you can purchase Positive Police dogs:Philosophy HERE.

Drugs dog reliability being questioned

Posted in News with tags , , , on July 1, 2011 by guy2932

Several recent studies have cast doubts on the reliability of drugs search dogs.

One study even questions if the dogs can actually find drugs at all. I think the issue here is to understand what the limitations of these dogs is and many of the issues are training issues.

Dogs can detect and indicate the presence of drugs (or any other scent for that matter). This isn’t the real issue.

Problems arise in training in that it is impossible to determine just how much scent is available to the dog at any given hide. Although drugs may only be used within certain weight limits both upper and lower, this doesn’t necessarily equate to the scent available depending on air flow, packaging etc.

So the problem comes when the dog starts to generalize and indicate smaller and smaller scent patterns. How do you know when the dog is indicating on the sparse scent of a well wrapped ounce or the sparse scent from a trace element?

Another issue is that of false positives. We all know handlers can influence their dogs, they look to us for guidance all the time. The problems can arise when a dog starts to rely on the handler, often when things get difficult or confusing during initial training. The things the handler does to assist the dog can become false cues in future if you are not careful.

A lot of problems that I see develop around the indication and reward phase. Clicker training overcomes a lot of the problems as it makes life clearer for the dog at this critical phase. The other benefit of clicker training is that because to use it effectively you need to keep improving your knowledge of theory and practical application. This makes you aware  not only of the presence of false cues but the knowledge that they are a fact of life and overcoming them is part of the process.

This will then produce a dog that is a lot more self-reliant and looks to its handler less for guidance. Once past the initial training phase, it is also beneficial to avoid the temptation for handlers to keep putting their own drugs out for a quick training session. The less you know, the less you can help the dog and so the risks of the dog picking up on your unconscious clues will be reduced.

Another way is to leave the dog in the indication position and recover the hide. This eliminates the risk of rewarding false indications, especially operationally. You can check out one of the many stories here