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Top Mistakes K9 Handlers Make

When considering the mistakes we as handlers/trainers make, I immediately thought of handling/training skills, which are obviously important to our success in the field. I will address some of the mistakes that I make myself and that I see other handlers make. However, there are mistakes made off the training field and streets that adversely affect our training and street skills. These mistakes must be addressed first if we are to succeed in training and real world applications.

Officer Walthall and K9 Takoa

The first mistake is something that happens in every police department/agency I have ever spoken to about their K-9 program. Handlers make a mistake when they believe that their command staff and peers think of them as the elite unit they truly are. In other words, you aren’t appreciated for what you bring to the table, nor will you ever be. That is a fact that won’t ever change. Learn to function effectively within that world. I have never seen a K-9 program that was successful in which the handlers, trainers, K-9 supervisors didn’t have to fight tooth and nail for everything they had. Those that are not willing to do that, will not be successful. They may continue to exist, but they will never see true success. That is the mistake/problem. How do we solve it?

The answer to that question somewhat depends on your personality type. I have dealt with this problem since I started handling my first dog 17 years ago. My personality is kind of, “Here it is, deal with it.” I basically told them the way things needed to be if they wanted to succeed. They may not have liked that approach, but I backed up what I said with facts. Whether you choose to be forceful or more polite doesn’t matter. What matters is you do your research before making your approach to staff about your needs. Educate yourself. Then educate them. Understand that when you lay things out there, you must be willing to live up to that standard. The work falls upon you. I will address this topic throughout the rest of this article.

In my experience, and that of handlers I have spoken with, the top things K-9 handlers have to fight for is training time. Again, the key is to educate yourself and then educate those that dictate the time you get to train. The first thing you must understand is that the overwhelming majority of staff members have never been K-9 handlers. Their thought process is something like, “SWAT only trains once a month.” They believe SWAT is an elite unit within the department and they may be. What they are failing to understand is the fact that K-9 behavior is dictated by four things; genetics, chemistry, early experience, and adult learning (Mackenzie 2015) (not these mysterious things we call “drives”, but that is a whole other topic). Once we have a somewhat mature dog that we can start training, we really can’t do much about the first three. Our selection process, if done correctly, will have taken care of those things. But, we can have a huge impact on the last thing, adult learning. That means training. Dogs learn by repetition and reinforcement, whether positive or negative. All of that means we must have the time to repeat exercises over and over again, just like SWAT. But things are different with people than they are with dogs, the learning process is much different, as you know. The problem is “they” don’t know that or understand it. It is up to you to educate “them” on the subject. Obviously, SWAT members can be shown a new exercise or tactic once or twice and they “get” the general concept. Dogs don’t learn that way. They must be shown something again and again and again. The best example is aggression. You all understand that I can’t just let my young dog watch a veteran dog release on command once or twice then expect him to do the same. Building a good, dependable “out” is a long, sometimes difficult, process. You must educate your staff on such things. My best advice on training time, and many other K-9 topics, is to become a member of Terry Fleck’s website. Terry is considered one of the foremost legal experts on K-9 matters. I don’t work for Terry or get any “kickbacks” from him, but I am a member of his informational website and I have found it to be very helpful for many situations. More information on that can be found at

Remember though, I said earlier that once you lay out the standard for training time, which is a minimum of 16 hours per month industry wide, you have to live up to that standard. It is all too common to see K-9 handlers and training groups that become lazy and don’t use their training time for what it is intended, training. We have a tendency to unconsciously abuse our training time. We take 1 ½ hours for lunch, eating at sit down restaurants and shooting the breeze long after the meal is over. We take entirely too long between exercises. We tend to cut-out early because our patrol teams aren’t missing us anyway. All of these things are pitfalls that must be avoided at all costs. Whether you think so or not, word will eventually get back to staff that K-9 training time isn’t being used for training time. Quickly training time will be cut and you may find some lieutenant that doesn’t know anything about dogs dictating when you can and can’t train. Not a good place to be, so don’t allow yourself to be put there. Train, train, train. All that other stuff can wait for another time. Besides, what is more fun than dog training?

Our next topic also involves training. Are you seeing a trend yet? Once we get staff to agree to a proper amount of training time, we start training more and everything is great. But soon, we fall prey to our habits and our way of training. We never take the time to reach out to other agencies and groups that also have K-9s and training going on. That severely limits our knowledge base. I have spent 17 years immersed in “dog”. About 10 years ago I began the greatest professional journey I have ever been on. I began what was basically a 7 year apprenticeship to become a certified trainer then master trainer through the North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA). It was shortly into that process that I realized just how much I had learned in the past 10 years and just how much I still had to learn. After making MT, I realize that the learning should never and will never stop. If you’re only training within a set group of handlers/trainers week in and week out, you are cheating yourself, your dog, your department, the citizens you serve, and your fellow officers. If you are only hearing from one trainer, you’re not learning everything you should be learning. No matter how good your trainer is, no one person can possibly know everything about K-9 training. That isn’t a jab to them. It’s just a fact. Reach out to other handlers, trainers, and groups. I used to believe that this problem had everything to do with egos. I have come to realize that it does, but for different reasons that I first thought. I used to believe that handlers and trainers looked up others as inferior and they didn’t want to take the time to train with people that didn’t meet their standards, which is nonsense. If you’re not making others better then you’re wasting your time and you don’t understand why we are in this business to begin with. But, that’s not really the issue, in most cases. The real reason “we” don’t want to reach out is because we don’t want others to see the issues we have. Get over it! Everyone that handles a dog has issues. No team is perfect. You won’t get any better by only training within a set group.

I’ll move off my soapbox now and get into some mechanical things I see handlers and trainers doing that could be improved. The first two things kind of go hand-in-hand. Really they open up an entire plethora of problem areas. Lead control and presentation are something I see as a weakness in a good number of handlers. Lead control is much more difficult than the average person realizes. We watch veteran handlers move with their dogs, whether doing a narcotic/explosive search, tracking, or obedience, and it seems like it is an effortless endeavor, if they have spent the necessary time training. The problem is many handlers don’t. It seems to me that handlers, for whatever reason, work on lead in basic handler’s school until they start to learn the skill and their dogs begin to “get” their job. Then handlers cut the dogs off lead and rarely train or deploy on lead again, only doing it when safety is a concern. This is probably because their trainers have told them again and again to cut the dog off lead and “get out of its way.” I get that concept and agree with it, to an extent. The problem arises when handlers must leash their dogs and they haven’t trained for it since the beginning of handler’s school. At that point, they look like a monkey humping a football. We all have experienced times when our leads get tangled in the dog’s legs, around their heads, and in the brush we’re tracking through. Many times, even the most experience handler can’t help getting tangled up, but training on lead sure does improve your chances of not distracting our dogs by stopping to untangle them.

The next issue stems from not training on lead. We finish basic handler’s school. Our dogs have a good grasp on what we expect from them during a search, so we cut them off lead and let them do their thing. The problem with that is that many handlers step away and expect their dogs to complete the search on their own. Working dogs have to have independence. We don’t want them to depend on us for everything. However, we can take that too far and expect them to do all the work. One of my mentor’s, NAPWDA MT Bill Faus, loves to proclaim, “You’re a team. Your job is to present. Your dog’s job is to sniff and alert. You get him in the area. He tells you where it is.” Bill is 100% correct! As much as I love training dogs, not everything is training. We train for real world deployments. We can’t control everything in the real world like we can in training, which is a somewhat “sterile” environment. Most of the time, in training, we know where the training aid is, whether it’s narcotics, cadaver, explosive, etc. We obviously don’t know that in the real world. We can’t control our environments, air currents, amount of aids, or other outside stimulus. In the real world, our dogs may be searching great, but they aren’t getting into odor. Let them free search for a few moments then step in and uphold your end of the arrangement.

I know what many of you tracking/trailing handlers are thinking. You’re thinking something like, “I don’t have to present to my dog. It searches on its own.” Well, that’s true, to a certain extent. Once you have presented the scent article to your dog, it’s up to them to find the trail/track leading away from that article. But, your end of the partnership still remains. You cannot just hold on and follow along. Your job is to watch and read your dog. When your dog is no longer displaying tracking/trailing behaviors, it is up to you to read that and act upon it by taking the dog back to the last place it was showing “in odor” behavior and present that area to it again. So, your role in this partnership remains extremely important.

This brings us to our next topic, which is related to lead control and presentation. We’re back at handler’s school and everything is going great. Our trainer is doing a great job teaching lead control, presentation, and rewarding. We leave handler’s school and hit the streets. We start training in our group (hopefully not alone), the world is ours. Then our enemy, apathy, starts to creep into our training. Pretty soon, we stop doing anything on lead, ever. Then we stop presenting areas for our dogs to search, next, when our dog does find something and alerts, we walk-up to them and hand them their reward, pat them, say “good boy” in the most pathetic tone possible and then move on to the next training search. After a while, we notice that our dog’s scratch or sit and stare has diminished to a non-existent state. Even worse, the dog stops wanting to search or work at all. We, being the intelligent humans we are, blame the dog and tell everyone he has gotten lazy and doesn’t want to work anymore. We offer every reason and excuse we can think of for our dog’s poor performance, except the truth. The truth is we, the handler, are the problem. It isn’t our dogs that have gotten lazy and don’t want to work anymore. It’s us! We stop training lead control, we start cutting the dog off lead all of the time, we stop presenting, we stop interacting and partnering with our dogs, we stop doing primary rewards, if we ever did. Basically, we crapped out on our dogs. But, we don’t want to admit that to ourselves or anyone else.

One of the things we are looking for when selecting a dog is a strong hunting behavior. We want dogs that will hunt until they find their prey or drop from exhaustion trying to find it, only to later train the dog that their prey really isn’t hiding in the woods, the school locker, the suspect’s car, or the luggage on the bus. It’s really in our pocket, the same pocket day in and day out. Once the dog gets in odor, all we expect is for him to give some indication, and we walk up to him, take the prey out of our pocket, and hand it to him. What I’m saying is, train the dog naturally. When a wolf is out hunting for food for his pack, he watches the rabbit run into a thicket and he starts digging through the brush to get to the rabbit. The pack leader doesn’t show up and hand him another rabbit. That isn’t the way it works. The wolf digs through the brush until the rabbit has no choice but to pop out and attempt escape or he sits and stares at the thicket waiting for the rabbit to pop out again. When he reaches the rabbit or it pops out and runs, the wolf attacks and kills the rabbit. Our dog training should be no different. Put the reward with the source. Proof the dog from the reward by hiding rewards without source. If the dog indicates on the reward without odor, give a verbal correction and move on. When the dog alerts on the reward with odor, make it a game of sit and stare (focus) on the source. When the dog’s focus is on the source and is intense, whether sitting and staring or scratching, remove the barrier and pop the reward from source just like that rabbit in the thicket. I promise that you will see your dog’s hunt and focus intensify like never before.

I see handlers try all kinds of things to avoid allowing their dogs see them giving the dog their reward. They contort their bodies, move all over the room, and have a second person throw the reward. Dogs aren’t stupid. It didn’t take them along to figure out that you were taking their reward from your pocket and that you were the one clumsily throwing it, hoping they wouldn’t see you. Dogs have a much wider peripheral range than humans. They see you. So, we give the toy to another person to throw. It isn’t long before the dog sits and stares at the second person. So, we give it to a third person and so on. Before long we have to have five people at our training sessions and the dog is staring at every one of them when it gets into odor. Cut all of that stuff out and start training with primary rewards. You don’t have to do it all of the time, but it should be the rule and not the exception.

Voice tone is extremely important. Most of the handlers I’m around are cops, male cops. That means they’re tough. The only emotion they ever express is the joy when telling a story about thumping some mope that needed it. Their eyes light up and their veins pop out when relating one of these stories. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a male cop. I have my own stories and I love telling them. But, I’m not afraid to get excited around my dog either. When my dog accomplishes a task we have spent years training for, I don’t say, “good boy” like a grumpy, old, tough cop. I yell, “GOOD BOY!” in the most little girl like voice I can muster. Then I dance around like I just hit the Powerball. My dog just lived up to his end of the partnership. He just tracked and apprehended the burglar. He just found the turd that broke into a house and ran. He just found the pound of weed, or the ¼ gram baggy. I don’t care what it was. I asked him to do something we have spent countless hours training on and he nailed it. I’m not going to say, “good boy” in a gruff tone and move on. I may as well punch him in the face. Get happy! Make a fool out of yourself. Look like an idiot. Who cares? If you’re as tough as you want everyone to think you are, you won’t care what they think of your behavior anyway. I have heard some trainers say that pack leaders in the wild wouldn’t act that way. They say it is childish and weak of a pack leader to display such behavior. All I know is my dog loves it. He gets excited. When I do it, he plays along and is ready to repeat the behavior he thinks led to this fun game. So, I’ll stick to it.

The last topic I’ll talk about is just a few general things we do in training. A lot of the times, training is just plain and generic. We have stuff going on in life. We are busy. We get to training and we might be exhausted. We might have any number of issues we are dealing with outside of dog training. Don’t get me started on interdepartmental politics within police work. That’s another topic altogether. Anyway, for whatever reason, sometimes we just don’t feel like doing much. We have to avoid that feeling. We are training for real world deployments. That means we must actually train for real world deployments. We can’t just train for certification and expect to succeed on the street. NAPWDA, and any other reputable certifying body, will readily admit that their certification standards are minimum standards. The hope is that K-9 teams will meet minimum standard as a start, then they will only get better from there. So, we have to do more scenario training. It really isn’t difficult. It takes more effort than simply putting out a few aids, running a short track, eating a two hour lunch, doing O.B. and going home. But, that isn’t real world training.

One of my constant problems as the trainer for my group is that not every dog and handler are at the same level. That’s an issue for every training group. I’m guilty of thinking that I need to bring this dog up or that handler up before we can all train with scenarios. That’s really just me being lazy and making excuses. The truth is, scenarios can be adjusted for the skill level of each dog and handler. There really are no good excuses for not taking our training to the next level, no matter what level you’re currently at, unless you’re one of those that can’t get any better. I’ve met a few of those guys. I’m not worthy.

Train in scenario mode. Throw whatever you can think of at your training group and let them do the same to you, within reason. With that comes getting away from sleeves all of the time. All we’re doing is training our dogs to only engage arms. We have all seen or heard about the dog that will run along beside a real suspect and not bite him if he raises his arms high. That isn’t the dogs fault. He has been praised for that over and over again if you’re only using sleeves. It’s your fault. Sleeves are Ok if that’s all you have or you’re working a young, inexperienced dog, or working a problem that requires it. Otherwise, man-up and put on a suit. Teach the dog that it is ok to bite anywhere on the body. If you don’t have a good decoy, find one, or become one yourself and teach others. With that in mind, if you think a good decoy is that guy who is tough and wants to prove it by “working” dogs, you couldn’t be more wrong. That type of “decoy” needs to find some other way to prove what a bad dude he is. Decoying is about helping the dog become better and stronger, not proving how tough you are. If you are looking for a good source on decoying, I suggest the book I referenced earlier in this article, “K9 Decoys and Aggression” by Stephen A. Mackenzie.

It all comes down to us. WE are responsible for our training. WE are responsible for our mistakes. WE are responsible for our improvement. “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” You can be as good as you want to be. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Any handler/trainer worth anything will tell you that we all have issues to work on and they will help you work on yours. TRAIN FOR LIFE! Yours may depend on it…

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