The 11 Fundamental Steps of Narcotics Detection Training
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By Karin Wagemann


            Car searches are probably the most common searches that narcotics detection dogs do. Unfortunately, it is car searches that most often cause legal problems. Often handlers jump onto interior vehicle searches before their dog is ready for them. Additionally, as there are many laws surrounding the use of narcotics detection dogs to search vehicles, handlers need to be aware of where and under what circumstances their dogs can search. The following essay gives ten simple steps that summarize the complex steps involved in getting a dog ready to search the interior of a car. 

Fundamental Training Plan

            Step One: Chose the right dog for the job. Although this step does not have to do with training, choosing the right dog prevents having to deal with numerous issues later in training. A dog with too low a drive will not have the same work ethic as a dog that has a high prey drive. A lower drive dog may turn to the owner for help more often, or may just give up the search all together. When choosing a dog look for a dog that has both high prey and search drive and does not require too much prompting or handler help to retrieve or become excited for the ball.

            Step Two: Play ball or tug with the dog to bring out the prey drive. It is important to make sure that when training for narcotics detection and doing narcotics searches that the dog is always in prey drive and does not revert to defensive drive. At this stage, have the ball stored with the pseudo narcotics so that the ball will smell like the narcotics. When the dog plays with the ball he smells the narcotics and begins to pair the drugs with playing with his ball. Stop the play before the dog is finished playing; this leaves the dog wanting more and excited for the next game.

            Step Three: Now have the handler place the ball under her foot and have the dog try and get the ball. Once he scratches release the ball to him. This builds the scratching indication and builds drive. The ball can also be hidden on a car where the dog can see it and easily scratch to get it out. By starting training with vehicles this helps transition the dog to vehicles much quicker.

            Step Four: Hide the ball where the dog can only just see the ball. The ball can be hidden under a scratch board or on a vehicle where it is still visible; the dog should not be able to get at the ball by scratching or biting. Either have the scent or narcotics hidden with the ball, on the location or the ball still scented with narcotics. At this stage two different alerts can be trained. The dog can be encouraged to aggressively scratch at the board or scratch and sit. For the sit alert the handler must issue the sit to the dog after the dog scratches.

            Step Five: Work on having the dog do searches off lead. While working on building the indication, in the first weeks of training, chose locations where the dog can safely work off lead. The focus is to make sure the dog stays in prey drive and does not revert to defensive drive. Focus on teaching the dog to have fun locating the drugs/ball so that when he does advance to more advanced locations his whole goal will be to find the reward and the leash will not be needed. If safety is an issue or the dog has trouble staying focused, allow the dog to drag a short leash while searching.

            Step Six: Hide the ball where the dog cannot see the ball or drugs. The ball can be hidden in a crate or on the exterior of the car. It is important that the dog cannot see or get to the ball unless the handler takes it out. Wait for or help model an alert from the dog. Now that the narcotics are visually hidden, some trainers may remove the ball from the hide site. It is recommended that the ball still be hidden with the narcotics. Keep the ball with the narcotics until the dog has covered all training scenarios.

            Step Seven: Use modeling behavior to build relationship and drive. Now that the narcotics are visually hidden the dog may struggle to find the narcotics at first. Pretend to search with the dog by sniffing and looking for the narcotics but do not actually find the drugs for the dog. Soon the dog will become more interested in the search.

            Step Eight: Transition to vehicle exteriors. Handlers should have been using the vehicle to train with from the beginning. At this point in training, an actual search of the vehicle will commence. Before doing a search run through the steps you, as a handler, would take; in other words do a dry run and allow the dog to watch. Then have the dog check the vehicle in an up and down V, search paying close attention to seams. Modeling behavior should be used to make the experience fun for the dog. Additionally, hide the narcotics at various levels and locations on the car.

            Step Nine: Use point to point searching to further develop the drive of the dog. This method works great on car searches with multiple vehicles. The handler should go from one point on the car look at it, then another point, while the dog watches. Then the dog is allowed to search and once the handler gets to a point she says check here to the dog.

            Step Ten: Now the handler should move on to blind hides. Blind Hides are critical preparation hides for interior car searches. The handler will discover if she has been cuing the dog to alert or if the dog has been alerting on its own. This will help prevent the handler from cueing an alert on an exterior search leading to interior search that is actually empty of narcotics. Work with another trainer that is experienced and can both hide the narcotics and help the handler problem shoot. Start with easy finds and then move to hard finds. Always finish blind hide searches with an easy find to build the dogs confidence.

            Step Eleven: After completing steps one through ten, interior car searches can be started. Wait for a proper exterior alert before searching the interior. Place the ball with the narcotics. The location of the drug should be followed in order based on the handout. Always have the dog enter the location he alerted on and check that area first; if no drugs are found there or no alert is made then search elsewhere. As with other training areas the handler can help with the search and encourage the scratch alert through modeling behavior. Show the dog the narcotics while the dog has the ball in his mouth to increase the excitement for searching and finding the narcotics.

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