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by Thomas Brownlee, Carroll College, Certified Master Trainer, American Society of Canine Trainers

The following information was presented as an applicable assignment during the ASCT 408 Teaching Methods Class.       

     Current ASCT Standards for Basic Handler’s School:  50 Question written test issued to student on day 8 of the Handling School, 80% success is needed to qualify as a Handler. Testing resulting in failure cannot be re-attempted. One of five different tests is issued at random by ASCT to the Instructor.       Handler’s attending a second Basic Handler’s School can opt for a waiver on a second testing, and in its place can take an open book test with the Handler’s Manual.     
Advanced Level Class Standards: All attending must complete a test at the conclusion of the class in order to receive ASCT Educational credit(s) for the class. Anyone certified at the level of Senior Master Handler or above must conduct a teaching practical in order to maintain certification.Analysis:
     The Why’s and Wherefores of Testing. The reasoning for why the testing is in place-for all levels of certification- is elementary and three fold. First we need to literally ‘test’ the individual’s motivational level. Is this person highly motivated to be involved in K9? The commitment level K9 requires invariably is higher than was expected by beginning Handlers. The commensurate rate of pay increase that accompanies K9 in no way compensates or even ameliorates the 24/7 commitment it requires. Being involved in K9 may very well mean that individual has to pass up future promotion opportunities. Being involved in K9 (especially in small departments) means being available for narcotics or tracking call-outs and a litany of other, lesser duties, such as PR demos. On and off the job, the commitment level must be total; testing is merely a step we use to ascertain that level.  Secondly we use testing as a means of judging the individual’s ability to assimilate and retain information, plus recall it often under duress and ‘on the fly’…as it were. Above and beyond all the legal, procedural, and departmental protocols a LEO must be constantly aware of, K9 introduces another facet altogether. Properly assimilated and deployed it makes the Handlers job easier, more effective, and safer. Improperly done it becomes a hindrance for the Handler and other LEOs around him, and a huge liability issue for his department. In this instance, testing assures the Handler’s continuing ability to perform at a high level. Thirdly though it is rarely spoken of, testing introduces another increment of stress and pressure. There is a time line involved, and a standard to adhere to. This often introduces, at least in the Handlers mind, an inordinate amount of stress to the situation. Point of fact is that it is considerably less stress, and of a different kind, than a LEO encounters on the street on a daily basis.
     How he or she handles this added increment is notable. For some it is merely another brick in the road to success, for others it seems to border on crisis level. Everyone handles different types of pressure differently, testing allows us to see how some handle academic pressure. Failure is not an option:  With a testing standard of 80% to pass ASCT has raised the proverbial bar, and with good reason. Again motivation and liability enter the picture. K9 requires highly motivated individuals due to the liability it incurs. In K9 motivation must be found in inverse proportion to liability. In an ordinary academic setting a score of 80% could be considered a low “B”, well above a “failing” score.
     In K9 an “average” score will not cut it. The knowledge base required, the level of motivation, the ability to quickly process information and assess situations must be very good to excellent primarily because of the increased level of liability involved. If a collegiate student makes a “C” grade, his GPA suffers slightly (or not, depending on the individual.) That is his largest consequence. If a K9 officer doesn’t process and deploy on a high level, the public at large, his fellow officers, and his dog per se are all put into a dangerous position.    When we have a student that score under 80% and refuse to allow him to re-test we are simply tightening up the process as a whole. This individual did not arrive on scene prepared to do well, motivation or application-wise. As the old adage goes “you only have one chance to make a first impression”. Allowing them to re-test and nursing them through the process until they succeed is time consuming, counterproductive and would result in a spectrum of problems. Like a first impression, you only have one chance to avoid making a big mistake. The ‘average’ or ‘below average’ individual in all likelihood, will make it.
     Benefits and Problems with Testing: The first benefit of testing has been alluded to. Testing will quickly separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Motivated individuals, with an ability to assimilate information and handle a little extra stress will quickly show themselves under initial testing. Subsequent testing ordinarily reinforces the perception of these qualities in an individual. Testing is the easiest and most traditional way to measure an individual’s progress and performance, but it is not without its pitfalls. Problems with any testing are many, and varied. First and foremost I have experienced ( in my own learning endeavors) and have seen in others the ability to completely forget a concept once it is written down on a test. It is the difference between retaining information-for a time- and truly assimilating it. Traditional testing promotes retention more than assimilation.        
Traditional testing also promotes a tendency by students to ‘parrot back’ information they have been given, rather than truly attempt to understand it, analyze it, and extrapolate on it as a concept. Traditional testing I feel is a necessary evil but it can be ‘tweaked’ to be more beneficial to student and instructor.  The stress factor in testing affects different people in different ways, depending on their personalities. Some who respond well to other forms of stress start to crumble under testing? I actually consider the stress factor a good thing, and something to be considered strongly if it plays a part in the selection of individuals for K9.
      In K9 it seems to always come down to Court Testimony. A handler can very well be put into a stressful venue and have pointed technical unrehearsed questions by complete strangers put to him. If he or she cannot handle traditional testing, in all likelihood they won’t do well under the more stressful trappings of Court Testimony. If anything, I would be inclined to ‘ramp up’ the stress of a testing situation. 
      Solutions, Suggestions:
 1. Present a concept in class, then test the student’s ability to extrapolate upon it, rather than simply ‘parrot’ it back. This can be done on paper at times or in the field at other times.i.e. Air flow in a vehicle/ How a narcotics scent stream travels: Point out in class how a slightly opened window or door affects air flow in a vehicle, and how this can be used to not only speed up the process of a dog being able to indicate on the exterior, but speed up the process of him finding the source of the odor.  Take the students to the field and have them set up a few known hides to demonstrate the principals involved. The way they do it will demonstrate their grasp of the subject. Secondarily set up more difficult hides for them, which may necessitate changes made to the air flow to see if they can or will extrapolate on the base concept, thus showing they understand it. Once it has been demonstrated and experienced it will be a great deal easier to recall, and remember, for traditional testing, either written or oral.
2.      On traditional testing, again either oral or written, rather than have the students define a term, the question should be presented using the terminology in context. This not only gets them to recall the definition but reinforces it via its use in context. I.e. Question- Define: Alert.   Vs.  Question- When your dog Alerts to the presence of contraband he may do a number of things. Name three...Secondarily re-word the question and approach it from another angle, again to solidify the student’s understanding of the concept.I.e. Question- Your training and call-out log should reflect every form of alert every time the dog demonstrates one.  T or FIn this instance if the Handler has the customary confusion between the terms ‘Alert’ ‘Indication’ and ‘Final Response’ this will inadvertently serve to solidify the terminology, at least in part. 
      Stress: The question has been posed on how to reduce stress in testing. As I have alluded to earlier I personally do not feel the level of stress in ASCT testing is out of line, and indeed were I to do anything, it would be to increase the level of stress. I would do this in a couple of ways which would reflect real world scenarios in the hopes of better preparing the officers involved for those scenarios. For example: an easy way to do this in Advanced Schools would be to have attendant Trainer Certified members (and there are always some present…) go along on tracks/searches etc. with Handlers they are not personally familiar with. Have them critique performance, rightly or wrongly as the scenario unfolds, primarily to test the Handler’s reaction to the critique. In a real-life scenario there is no shortage of officers peering over the K9 Handler’s shoulder remarking that he, or his dog, don’t know what they are doing. Theoretically this exercise would help the Handler get through these situations without his performance, or his psyche, being affected. I would also increase the amount of Court Testimony scenarios conducted in a courtroom venue. The affect this has on normally unflappable officers never ceases to amaze me. My thought here is that if they can quickly articulate accurate answers in this setting, they will be able to do so virtually anywhere. A ‘jury of their peers’ in a normal street scenario should flow quickly and easily in comparison. An offshoot of increasing courtroom scenarios is basically a requirement to really understand the concepts put forth to them in class. Hopefully the intimidating venue would add impetus to their willingness to learn. Encouraging Material Digestion and Increasing Performance:  I have placed these two concepts together because one basically leads to the next. The more material that is truly digested, the more performance is increased. Regrettably both of these are linked directly to an individual’s level of motivation, so we must approach the topics in such a way that the average K9 officer will benefit, whether he realizes it or not.   
      From a testing standpoint I think this is best done with some of the aforementioned suggestions, and an increased emphasis on oral examination. Many times the oral gives the student a chance to articulate what he cannot put succinctly on paper, with the big plus-also previously mentioned- that the information doesn’t get ‘flushed’ from the memory banks once it is written down. If time constraints are an issue with the Instructor, the aforementioned Trainer Certified individuals could be pressed into service to administer oral exams. They have all had experience with testing, both written and oral, in Basic Handling schools they’ve done, and utilizing them, if they are of open mind could easily be a learning experience for them as well. Likewise on field exercises when the Instructor/Trainer notices a little nuance in the way the Handler does a thing with his dog, and asks him for an explanation.
     A lot of times these little things are literally done without thinking, and   when asked to explain the Handler often arrives at an “Aha” moment when he realizes he is indeed putting principles learned in class to work. He has connected the dots without knowing it. Again, these little things are indicative of assimilating knowledge, not simply retaining it. Along with these tiny revelations and epiphanies comes a resultant increase in performance. Sometimes the accompanying Trainer/Instructor has to encourage the connection, sometimes he has to point out some of these little nuances to the Handler, where again a ‘connect the dots’ moment is had.     In either event these things require more one-on-one time with the Handlers, not always a possibility, but not an unreasonable expectation in most Advanced Schools.
     Speaking from the Trainer’s perspective, I learn something from every Handler I’ve walked through these exercises. They don’t know it, but I have been learning from them all along.       

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