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Competition does not lead to success

By SMI Joseph Wright (Ret.)

I was asked by ASCT to write an article, any article. Make it something that everyone can relate to - I was told. So, I spent about a month thinking about the forty odd years I spent in police K9 service. I remembered all those dogs and handlers that I trained and the seemingly limitless organizations I was a part of. I carefully processed information that you - the reader - could benefit from and use. What I settled upon was this one thing - the biggest downfall of K9.

When I first started as a K9 handler, I was sent to a local guy who trained me and immediately sent me to a regional dog trial for police dogs. I showed up at nine in the morning, a new handler who barely knew enough about his dog to even walk him on a leash - let alone am trying to certify. I was nervous and lonely. There were about a hundred other handlers at the trial and while there were a few who stood alone, like I did, the majority of the handlers were standing around in groups, clicks, - I called them, joking and poking fun at other groups who stood at a distance. I felt as if every one of those guys were watching me and waiting for me to make the first move. I was a shy type and pretty reserved so I didn’t like to mingle with strangers per se. But after about thirty minutes, I realized that if I didn’t speak to some of these guys, they surely wouldn’t be speaking to me. So, I stepped up and introduced myself. Nice dog - the very first guy said - where’d you get him?

“Rick Eberast” I replied.

The guy stood there for a second and looked my dog over. “I didn’t know Rick could put out a dog that nice.” He said with a smirk.

I didn’t know what to say. I had trained with Rick for a few weeks and though I really didn’t feel comfortable with my knowledge - I did feel that he was a really solid trainer. The small group of experienced handlers all started laughing at the one guy’s comment and basically ignored me. I wanted to leave but didn’t. Instead, I headed to the next group. There I found things a bit warmer. The first guy introduced himself as a master trainer and didn’t bother asking me about the dog. Instead, he asked me if I had certified yet. I advised him that was my purpose in coming to the trial. He nodded and told me he had about seven dogs there also and that he was a judge in the competition. He led me to a football field where the competition would take place and introduced me to his seven handlers who were all working their dogs in obedience. They were all pretty good guys, a bit cocky maybe but nice, friendly guys, nonetheless. The master trainer told me to work with these guys and I’d have the best chance of making the grade.

As the competition began, I drew number fifty-three. I would have quite a while before it was my turn to get onto the field and show my stuff. I ate, napped a bit, worked my dog several times, and even met a few more people. At the end - I was ready to go.

I was the third of nine new handlers to go. I stepped onto the field and noticed a panel of judges. From my perspective, the judges were spending more time talking to each other than paying attention to me. Somehow, I thought that the entire lot of handlers, trainers, and civilian observers who filled the stands to about a quarter full - would have all eyes on me. What I discovered though was that they were all preoccupied with themselves - having fun.

I ran through the obstacle course (falling once as I slipped on some dog crap that another handler had not bothered to clean up), worked the three bite scenarios, scented through a blind search, and hit a three car area where I was to locate one narcotic among the three cars. I completed the entire process without any trouble (except for the slip). I felt confident that I was certifiable. I didn’t care a bit about my score or where I placed in the competition. I wanted to be certified. Period.

I walked to the judge’s panel where I waited for the announcer to give my score. I was then informed that my score was 91 (I think). Regardless, I was certified. I was pleased.

I was packing up to leave when the master trainer called for me. I put up the dog and approached him. “The judges are taking a break”, - he said. “You’re not leaving are you?”

“Yes.” I said. “I just wanted to get certified. I’ve got to get back home.”

He rolled his head a bit and paused before speaking. “Listen, you’re new here. You really should stick around a while. I mean - next time you come back you wont be new anymore and the judges aren’t likely to cut you any slack on your score.”

“What’s that got to do with me leaving?” I asked. ‘I mean, I’m done. Right?”

“You have to at least wait for the placements to be announced?” He said.

“I don’t care about all of that. I really just wanted a dog to work on the road.’ I said. ‘All I really want is my certification. I mean I don’t want to seem anti-social but I just want to get to work and find people, dope, and stuff.”

“Look.” The older trainer said. “I know you want to get on the road. We all went through that at first. But let‘s have some fun here. Sure, it‘s a competition. But it’s also a club around here. We take care of each other. I mean you know - you did a pretty good job out there but you know good and well that you didn’t really score a ninety-one your first time out.”

I could tell that he saw the shock in my eyes. He continued, “I told you to train with my guys and you did. It helped get you through. But if you’re not part of us - the judges might remember that. Next time, your score might fall some - maybe a lot. What I’m saying is this…don’t leave until it’s over. Come on down and visit the judges some.

I politely refused to his dismay. On the way home, I felt like I was doomed to fail at K9. I hadn’t even had one day on the street yet but I was already feeling as though there were things going on that I just didn’t want any part of.

I immediately told my chief about the dog trail. Fortunately for me, he was an understanding - no bull - kind of guy and quickly advised me that all he wanted to see from me was performance and success on the road. “I could care less if you’re even certified.” He said. “I want your ass out there finding people - helping us out.”

I went on the road feeling pretty confident that I had support from the chief.

I never participated in any event, trial, or meeting that the (organization edit name) held that year. Instead, I trained own my on and with Rick. Rick was already on the outs with the (organizational edit name) and advised me to just keep training.

The following year, I did attend a trial to re-certify. Despite my enormous success on the street, I failed the certification. I stormed off the field and never again made effort of certifying with them.

During those years, a handler could easily get by without certifications. But things changed.

I eventually became a trainer and had enough success in training that I was asked to join several organizations. I loved k9 and would always give a new organization a try. Problem was, it was usually the same result - same old story - competition.

As I finally matured in my training knowledge and became more educated as to the legal basis of street performance for K9, I learned that there were differences in k9. Competition isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s hurtful to a serious K9 unit.

Now, get this clear. There are police handlers and the agencies they are employed with who really enjoy competing their police dogs for trophy and placements. They use it as a showpiece and that is perfectly fine. But for a K9 handler and agency who are wanting to really be productive, really be successful and get a result of the usage of the dog on the street - competition will destroy the possibilities.

Several years ago, I took a hard look at my old statistics - ones I had kept records of from the beginning. I matched up handlers from my early training days that were certified through competitions against those from my latter years who were certified through productivity and realistic street searches. The results were astonishingly clear. The handlers who were certified through competition were well short in production, captures, and seizures. The handlers who were not at all competitive with their dogs were really solid and very successful on the street.

Here’s the rub. If you want to compete - fine. But if you want to be street successful and let your street work show your success - stay away from competition.

Here are a few reasons that competitive handlers aren’t as successful.

Competition takes time to prepare. If a dog is being required to say…go from a down to a sit from a thirty-yard distance…that takes time. I’ve never known a dog on the street to have to do that. It’s simply doesn’t apply.

Competition is not realistic. Suspects do not play fair. Suspects do not lay sharp turns and place careful evidence, Etc. Competition requires that the dogs not deviate from the structure. Therefore, handlers will have to take time away from reality and train the dog to compete the way the trial is set.

Competition breeds bitterness. Anyone who denies this is a liar! Yes, I said it. Competition will lead to agencies (even neighboring handlers) and handlers within the same agency to become competitive on the street. Often, this will lead to badmouthing, slander against surrounding K9 programs, and eventually ends up with all parties remaining permanently separated - never supportive or unified to the goal of street production.

Competition breeds politics. It’s about whom you know - not what you do. I have seen handlers perform near perfectly in competition only to be stepped upon by judges because the judge didn’t care for the trainer of the dog, or the captain of the agency, or the breed of dog, Etc.

Now, here’s the real problem. When time is wasted, training becomes non-realistic, bitterness sets in among agencies, and politics becomes abound - the support system for K9 fails. This means that when a K9 team ends up under scrutiny from the courts there is no one to support the training, production, and policy of the K9 team. Instead, everyone is too busy badmouthing one another.

Unity is crucial in K9. Through my experiences (and I‘m definitely not alone here), competition for K9 results in some serious weaknesses in the overall program.

Dog competition in itself is not at all negative. I love sport competition. I adore - Schutzhund training. I enjoy the competition and competitive spirit of the dogs and handlers. But let’s keep competition where it belongs - on the sport field - on the Schutzhund field. There is no place for police K9 competition in modern day police dog handling. To me, that’s the fall of police k9.

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