Social Pressures
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The Social Pressures and Motivation of Narcotic Detection K9's and Handlers.

We all understand the scent, and scent theories, in our jobs as dog
trainers. Most of all the difference in scent theory with respect to
narcotics detection, explosives detection, cadaver recovery, tracking,
suspects' apprehension, and building searches. These theories of training
apply even when training hunting dogs, to include the bird flushing dogs.
Scent detection and discrimination remains the most commonly utilized
ability in all disciplines of working dogs. It is this ability, which
allows dogs to hunt for the food, or prey, that will fulfill their natural
survival instinct, and/or drives. And it is this ability that we utilize in
the performance of the majority of assignments of the law enforcement

In the field of scent detection, one item that is important to bear in mind
is that the social pressure from the trainer, or the handler, can interfere
with the dog's ability to perform tasks that requires a level of credibility
and precision. Please allow me to explain the specific details of this

As we are all aware, everyone has an area which is considered "personal
space". This "personal space" is the imaginary boundary, or area, around
our bodies, which when entered by another person, tends to increase our
level of anxiety, to some extent. Some people are comfortable with a
reduced, or smaller, area of "Personal Space", while others require a larger
area in order to feel comfortable. This "personal space" is generally held
to be approximately 6 feet, though the specific area is dependant upon the
person, as well as the situation.

While instructing narcotics detection classes, I have found it to be
educational to select pairs from the handlers attending the class. I then
have them stand approximately (1) one foot apart, intentionally invading the
"personal space" of both. I have determined that it does not seem to matter
whether the handlers are friends, or new acquaintances. This invasion of
their "personal space", which we shall call "social pressure", makes the
majority of people uncomfortable. I have seen handlers begin to
hyperventilate due to this social pressure.

Additionally, it has been my experience that very few of us like to be
micro-managed, although it is a fact of life. I do not know about everyone
else, but I am uncomfortable having someone following me around, providing
"Monday morning quarterback" or "backseat driver" critiques of my work. The
tighter the reins, the worse I like it. However, this is additional social
pressure that we all have to deal with, to some extent.

Granted your canine is not a person, however, I have determined that dog's,
like their handlers, also have an area of "personal space". This area, as
you may surmise, also may need to be smaller or larger, dependant upon the
dog and the situation. Most dogs, with the proper drives, will produce at
100% success rate for finds, while performing a free search with little or
no social pressure. However, when a trainer, or handler, begins to increase
social pressure; perhaps by hovering over the dog, by giving constant
commands (or conflicting commands), leash corrections, or by distracting the
dog in another way, the result is a decrease in the level of performance of
the dog. The dog may even produce false indications in order to reduce the
social pressure. It is important to realize that even the most hardened
dog, used for patrol duties, have their limit for social pressure.

It is my personal belief that the free sniff, or open-air search if you
will, is the ultimate test in showcasing the abilities of the canine. In my
experience, when a properly trained dog is allowed to perform the sniff on
an open field, without the distractions of social pressure, the dog will
continue the search and performance will normally be in the 100% success
range, and the canine will exhibit an increased consistency during the

However, when a trainer, or handler, is brought into the scenario, the dog
may interpret pressure of the leash, verbal/physical cues, or the close
proximity of the trainer/handler to the canine as some type of correction,
which increases the social pressure on the canine. The result is a decrease
in the performance of the canine, which might ultimately result in the
shutting down of the drive.

It is my belief that most of these setbacks stem from the corrections
established in the original training, and reinforced by the handler during
training and deployment. The canine cannot differentiate between actual
corrections and unintended corrections. Therefore, the canine interprets
all corrections as an attempt to correct improper or unwanted behavior,
which sets up a conflict in the canine. The properly trained canine will,
if allowed the freedom to do so, show a marked increase in performance
during a search by keeping the trainer/handler interference to a minimum.

I firmly believe the free search is the best method to perform a search, but
I also recognize the necessity of maintaining control of the canine.
However, with proper training and proper leash control training, the canine
will have the illusion of the free search. Time and time again, I have
observed a canine being choked during a search, due to improper handling of
the leash by the trainer/handler.

As you may have noted, I previously stated that performance would increase
by keeping the trainer/handler interference to a minimum, not that the
trainer/handler should be removed from the picture. One important aspect to
this theory is that the trainer/handler mistakenly believes that they have
to provide correction, direction, and/or assistance to the canine during the
search. In my experience, it is obvious that the canine is being held back
by the handler, which increases the social pressure on the dog.

This social pressure may be misinterpreted by the dog, resulting in the
canine rushing through a search in order to get the handler "off his back"
and to reduce the social pressure. The result may be poorly executed
searches, false alerts, or missed alerts, resulting in decreased accuracy
and credibility.

With proper training in both correct leash control and the behavior of a
canine during a sniff, we decrease the social pressure on the canine. This
in turn increases the success percentage rate for the canine during training
hides and during actual deployment scenarios.

That is not to say that social pressure cannot be used positively. I have
found that when I need a canine to work a certain area, I can get outside of
the canine and utilize my body to increase the social pressure on the
canine. When properly employed, this tactic can move the canine into the
area I want him to concentrate on, without physical contact. The canine
will move into the area, unconsciously moving to decrease the social
pressure, and if properly trained, the dog will continue the sniff,
searching the area that I want him to concentrate, increasing the likelihood
of success.

One of the most important characteristic of the successful search team is
motivation. I have found that when I talk with my dogs during a search,
they respond positively. When I receive a new handler for training, I ask
that they arrive with a smile. The next request is that they leave their
badge and gun at the door, so to speak. This allows them to relax, calm
down, and loosen up for the training sessions. In order to produce canine
teams that consistently produce 100% accuracy during their searches, it is
important to properly train the handler to provide enthusiasm and motivation
for the team. Speaking to the dog and showing the dog how to perform his
duties is the first step in this process.

The handler's enthusiasm level directly affects the motivation of the team
for the search. The handler's constant "prey drive" talk is an important
tool in motivating the team during the search. Constant motion of the
handler during the search assist in keeping the canine searching, continuing
to seek the target odor. The team must remain enthusiastic during the
search, maintaining the motivation level is the key to success.

I have observed training sessions where the handler is obviously not
enthusiastic about the search, and when he tells the canine to search, the
dog either will search poorly and without enthusiasm, or will simply remain
in place. Simply due to the handler's failure to motivate the team into the
search. The relationship between the canine and the handler is symbiotic,
each partner feeds off of the emotions and passions of the other. The two
parts must interconnect in order to properly function as a team.

The enthusiasm and motivation of the team, not only to search, but also to
successfully complete the search, is the basis of our job. In the event
that the team has lost the drives necessary to sniff, simply means the team
is not successful. In the majority of these cases, improper training is
determined to be the underlying cause of the failure of the team.

The dog has drives which are fixed into his physical and psychological
being. The dog thrives on these drives and the tasks that allow it to use
these drives. However, it is possible through poor handling and/or
training, to suppress these drives. Suppression of these drives result in
inconsistencies in performance, which directly affect the reliability and
accuracy ratio of the team. Poor reliability and accuracy ratios are a
failure of the team.

The handler may have lost focus, been preoccupied with other problems or
issues, lacked proper training, or simply failed to properly learn the
necessary techniques required to maintain the team properly. Whatever the
reason, the fact remains that the team is no longer a functional unit, and
will remain nonfunctional until the base cause is properly addressed.

Let's face facts. Dogs will be dogs. They follow their master, learning
the responses that the handler teaches them during the training and
deployment of the team for searches. When the handler fails to care what
the outcome of the search is, the canine will learn not to care. This is
not the dog's fault, he has learned what he has been taught, right or wrong.

In my experience, in order to be a good, effective trainer/handler, you must
first evaluate the canine in order to determine whether the breakdown is a
learned response, or a limitation of the canine. Next, determine where the
handler is, with respect to his enthusiasm and motivation. Finally,
determine what the handler is doing during the performance of the search,
which could be inhibiting the canine, and resulting in the failure of the

As I previously stated, I have determined that during these evaluations,
there is usually some type of problem on the part of the handler, which has
affected the canine team's efficiency and effectiveness. Thus, in order to
bring the team back to functional status, a great deal of time is required
to reestablish the communication between the handler and the canine. In
order to succeed with a positive outcome, the team must be enthusiastic and
motivated during the training.

Attending training seminars are an excellent method to reestablish the
motivation and enthusiasm of the team. However, as with any other training,
you get out of the training exactly what you put into it. The motivation
and enthusiasm that is invested into the training is returned through
increased performance. It is important that the training be positive and
rewarding for both the canine and the handler.

One side effect of these seminars is that the motivation level of the team
during the training is usually enhanced through the competitive nature of
the handlers, to prove their canine team is better than the others. As long
as the competitive nature does not adversely affect the benefits of the
training session, this should increase the enthusiasm and motivational level
of the teams.

Again it is important that the handler learn to recognize the social
pressure of their respective canine, determine what is acceptable to the
canine, and realize where the limits of their canine. Again, I cannot
stress enough that training must be both positive and rewarding in order to
insure constructive training sessions.

Remember anyone can say "I'm K9"; however, true K9 Trainers/Handlers live,
breath, and think K9. Always considering how they can successfully
accomplish their respective mission.

Jason Coutts

Oregon K9 Consulting
ASCT Certified Master Trainer

Editor Note: Master Trainer Coutts trains and produces a good number of solid police K9’s from his facility in the state of Oregon. If you wish to make contact with Jason regarding his programs and training you may do so by following the link below or call him @ 541.942.2988

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