Anyone can train a dog to bite. Some people even manage to do it without even trying. What is slightly more difficult is getting them to do it on command. Slightly harder than that is only doing it on command. Slightly up the difficulty scale is only doing it on command and then coming off the bite on command as well.
There are lots of people who do manage this. There are far fewer that manage to do it without using punitive methods as that requires far more knowledge, skill and a very different attitude towards training dogs.
The problem with more traditional methods involving punitive methods is that you have what I call imposed control. The dog only does it because you make it. It stems from the attitude that I am the master and my dog is my slave. Therefore it should do as it is told. This then leads to punitive methods to enforce the command even if punitive methods weren’t used to train the behaviour in the first place.
My approach is very different. I am not the master but I am in charge. By the very nature of the fact that I control everything about my dog’s life I am in a position of power over the dog. I try very hard not to abuse this power and to build a relationship based on mutual understanding and trust. To use physical force on my dog in any situation other than to defend myself against him would be an abuse of that power and trust. If I have a relationship built on mutual understanding and trust then there is no reason why I would ever need to defend myself and so never need to use force.
If a given behaviour is reinforced (not to be confused with the word enforced in any way) then it will remain a behaviour that occurs. If it is placed under command (cue) control then it should only appear when cued (commanded). If the behaviour is practiced in the face of distractions and the reinforcement value is sufficient then that behaviour will be performed reliably in the face of the distractions to which you have exposed it.
If you don’t train it then don’t expect to get it. There are no shortcuts when it comes to training behaviour in dogs. As long as you reinforce the behaviour you want you will get the behaviour reliably. If your dog doesn’t perform reliably then one of two things has gone wrong. Your dog either doesn’t understand the command (this can include understand it in the context in which you are asking for it – new location for instance) or it has a more rewarding alternative. This could include doing something more fun like bitching instead of searching for property but could also include doing things to relieve an emotional state such as whining to unleash tension.
This brings me on to the point of this article. Teaching a behaviour and reinforcing it to ensure it is reliable is how I get my control. Others will punish failure to comply and that is how they get their control. This is what I call imposed control. It is limited to behaviours where the handler is present to admonish and to behaviours to which the dog has the physical self-control to do anything different.
Placing the dog in the sit at home and asking the dog to wait whilst his food is placed on the floor may be well within the dogs capabilities. If the dog gets up the handler can admonish and withhold the food until they get compliance. Asking that same dog to sit quietly whilst the helper runs away in front of the dog and you shout the challenge and preamble prior to sending him for his favourite task of chase and detain may not be quite so easy. No amount of imposed control can keep the dog in that sit if the dog doesn’t have the self-control it needs to manage its own impulse control. A lead will physically stop him going and shouting, screaming, slapping and checking may go someway to ensuring he doesn’t actually get up but it will come at a cost. The dog will be in conflict between what it wants to do and the fear that doing it will have undesirable consequences. It is this fear that will keep him there. That is the essence of imposed control; fear of the consequences. That fear and conflict will create stress which may lead to hyperactivity, displacement behaviour, stress releasing vocalizations etc.
For me this is unnecessary and is again a breach of trust between dog and handler. Not only that but the act of sitting in those circumstances will only be reliable whilst the handler is there and the threat to the dog is real. You will constantly be battling against your dog over this issue. Exercises that require similar self-control but where the handler isn’t close will never be reliable. Exercises such as the standoff, person search and leaving the bite.
These exercises require not only that the dog understand the command and be reinforced for performing the required action but that he has the self-control to be able to carry them out. Self control is much easier for dogs who are calm and much harder for dogs that are fearful or stressed. For them their emotional state becomes the driving force. So by adopting a positive reinforcement based training regime we can eliminate handler and training induced stress. There are numerous exercises we can do to ensure the dog knows the commands and is tuned in to the right command and not just reacting to environmental cues and starting on any old word you utter.
The aim with this method of training is to get the dog to want to do the things you want him to do. That way he will be working with you and not against you. The self-control exercise that I run to help dogs with their self-control during bitework has numerous other benefits too. It ensures the dog understands the rules of engagement, it really helps to tune the dog in to the bite command but most importantly it teaches and rewards the dog for showing self-control around bite exercises. The difficulty level is increased gradually in line with the dogs self-control.
Only by using methods like this can you achieve full control of your dog because he is 50% of the team and if he has no self-control, you don’t have full control.
A more detailed explanation of the drills mentioned in this article can be found in Positive Police Dogs: Patrol Dog 2. Check out Positive Police Dogs: Philosophy too to make sure you understand the principles involved.