Can you train a police dog using only positive reinforcement?

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.


14 Responses to “Can you train a police dog using only positive reinforcement?”

  1. I think so as well. We just went to a nosework camp and were introduced to training tracking through positive reinforcement. The trainer proved it works herself, she is multiple Danish Champion in tracking 🙂

  2. Caroline Says:

    This is so wonderful to read. I’m really interested in operant conditioning in dog training nd wish more normal dog owners knew how to train their dogs properly with positive reinforecment. I have often wondered about how you teach aggression positively. My husband visited an RAF base with his school some years agao and was taken to the dog unit. There were a couple of Belgian Malinois there ready to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and they had been trained to attack and hold on or worse in the most extreme situations. The handler said that they were so aggressive that when their working life came to an end they would have to be destroyed as they could not be placed in a normal home. It struck me as so sad that these amazing dogs who are serving on the front line and serving people so diligently are not trained in such a way as to allow them to relax and live and enjoy life when they are no longer of use to humanity. Is it possilbe to train even these dogs positively so that they can switch “it” off and be normal happy dogs when they’re not working?

    Keep going with your work. It’s fab to hear of a compassionate positive approach to working dogs.


    Hope you can reply


    • You can train dogs to do anything using positive methods. Police and’ military dogs will always undergo ‘agitation’ which is fight training for dogs if you like. This clearly involves threat and physical contact with the agitator but the aim is to teach the dog how to win and become stronger. If the dog is made of the right genetic material and prepared properly then is is generally their favourite exercise. Making a safe, balanced dog comes down to having the right dogs and the right training. Not being able to switch the dog off is usually the result of weak dogs and/or poor training. If handlers can’t keep their retired dogs we generally have no problems finding suitable homes. Thank you for your post.

  3. Hi there

    A friend of mine just posted this article which I read this morning. Thank you so much for putting out a simple and easily read description of the basics concepts of positive training. Simple yes…but hard to get across to people! I will definitely share.

  4. Awesome work, you get so much more stable police dog work this way, and much less likely the situation where the dog will decide to defend on his own terms. I trained my old lady with positive reinforcement too, when doing protection. It’s amazing to see such a calm and focused mal.. Keep it up!!!

  5. Michael C Says:

    I knew a police dog who was tazered on one of his first bites in the field. Most dogs this would have been a career ending incident. The handler took the dog to a specialist who did not use P+, the dog went on to be a very successful k9 in the san joaquin county.

    • A specialist in what? I’m not saying you can’t train dogs with aversives. I’m suggesting that you get better dogs, better handlers and generally have more confident dogs if the handler can avoid using punitive methods. I don’t know of any dogs trained using P+ that are handler aggressive but I know plenty of handler aggresive dogs trained ‘old school’.

  6. I understand exactly what you mean by establishing a cue and expected behavior (the basic idea behind classical and operant conditioning) because the school I am training through is a mostly positive/progressive school of training. What I don’t fully understand is how you teach a dog an “aggressive” behavior like, say, chasing a criminal or latching onto them (bitework?) in a positive fashion. Like, I’m curious as to how you teach the response you want, like biting, which is usually a result of the dog experiencing a negative emotion, to be performed on cue, not out of emotion. Can you maybe give me an idea/ example?

    (PS, my goal once I am done my externship and get my cert is to work with service animals of some sort, but I always kind if wanted to work with police dogs too)

    • Chasing and biting a running criminal is not an aggressive act. The dog is motivated and trained in prey drive. Fulfilling breed specific behaviour like this is intrinsically rewarding to the dog. It is like eating when you are hungry or drinking when you are thirsty. It induces no negative emotions in the dog and is highly positively reinforcing to the dog. That is why so many people have control problems with bitework. We teach the dogs that it is just as rewarding to leave the bite by biting bite pillows etc. when they do.

      Police dogs clearly need to deal with real threat and this is a process I call working the dog through defence. Having taught the dog how to bark and bite at the helper the helper increases the threat level. The dog learns that it has the ability to defeat people with aggressive displays and biting. There is obviously an increase in stress during this process but if the increments are small enough the dog remains confident and start to enjoy the confrontation. This is what I refer to as fight drive. The dog, like a trained fighter, seeks out and enjoys the confrontation. It is a state of eustress which is stress that is positive and gives a high. Like adrenaline junkies that seek out the thrill. The complete opposite to distress where the stress starts to have a negative effect on the health and welfare of the individual. Does that explanation help at all?

      • Thank you. It does… but I am curious… If you teach the dog he can “defeat” people with aggressive displays and biting, does that in any way run counter to projecting yourself as the pack leader/alpha dog?

      • The dog is learning to fight his own battles. It is more about responding to verbal and situational cues from other people. As you have stated, operant and classical conditioning. As regards the relationship between me and my dog it is just that. A relationship. There really is very little evidence to support pack theory or dominance theory in dogs. I allow my dog to eat first, go through doorways first, he defends me, pulls me when we are tracking and yet still does what I ask him to do and affords me the same respect I show him. That’s because these things don’t affect a relationship and he does the things I ask him to do because I have trained him to do them – he finds it rewarding to do the things I ask. It is really no more complicated than that. It is possible to get him to most of the same things through threats, violence and tyranny but he won’t be as comfortable around me as he is now, he wont be as confident generally and the risks that he perceives me as a threat and therefore resorts to aggression aimed at me will increase exponentially. It is the use of harsh methods that often cause the aggressive response that makes people feel they have to ‘show the dog who is boss’ in the first place. It is now widely known that the wolf, the ancestor of the dog, lives in family units. Dominance/submission are the mechanisms for overcoming aggression in what is a relatively stable family environment. Even if dogs are pack animals, being in a pack is not the way dominance theory as it pertains to dog training suggests. I suggest you read some of David Mechs work and it may help you see why the idea of ‘alpha dog’ is not such a useful construct.

      • Well, as you suggested, dominance and submission are not the same as aggression and can be useful for maintaining a stable family environment. I don’t know if you misunderstood me or I misunderstood YOU, but I was certainly NOT suggesting use of harsh methods in any way. Thanks for the suggested reading material..

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your talks during the IMPACT seminar Guy. I have trained my Malinois Police Dog using positive methods but you have added a new dimension to my training. Thank you for the insight. Neil

  8. Miami Puppy Trainer Says:

    Great article, informative and articulate.
    Thanks for being part of the positive reinforcement camp!
    Dog Training in Miami

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