By Professor Tom Brownlee
Most handlers who get their dogs in the traditional way, as fully trained adults delivered during a Handling School are unaware of what the dog went through in order to be there for you. As a trainer I like to keep a dog on hand, trained mostly to do the things I am capable of training, and used for demonstration purposes- the so-called 'demo-dog'.
My previous dog just hit ten years of age...time to be training her replacement. Raising and training a working dog is a different proposition than raising and training a pet: completely different. First off it has to be determined what exactly the dog will be doing in its professional life. A responsible breeder, once located will need that information as part of their screening and application process in order to select a pup for you once temperament testing is done. The dog in question for me was a GSD. It would be my new demo dog and as such would accompany me to the classes I teach daily, and would be mingling with hundreds of students, and dozens of dogs. First priority was then sociability. The dog absolutely needs to be rock solid with other people of all types, and other dogs. Second, it should have at least enough drive to train for narcotics, and hopefully tracking. Third, it needs to have enough smarts to learn some Assistance Dog tasks, and last, and of least importance, was protection and apprehension work. The puppy is picked up at eight weeks of age, a good decision as it allowed socialization with litter mates and adult dogs, and a rock solid foundation in dog body language for the pup. In those eight weeks the breeder conducted a socialization regimen, neuro-stimulation, exposure to all sorts of things, and weekly evaluations of each pup.
Once the dog is in place and you realize that everything you do with that pup, and everything you expose it to constitutes training, half the battle is won. Sociability was paramount, so everyone who wanted to pet the 'cute little puppy' got to do so, and indeed I sought them out. One day the puppy wouldn't be so cute, or so little, but he absolutely had to remain social. Aside effect of this socialization to as many people as I could find was a variety of different venues the pup was exposed to. With those venues came different sights, smells and sounds: all grist for his learning mill.
All of the potential problems that I have seen arise with dogs in K9 I was now in the enviable position to circumvent. If you paid attention and truly understood what was taught in ASCT Schools involving Neuroscience, you emerge with a much greater appreciation of the importance of early learning. In no particular order, food distraction, a proper 'out', slick floors, varied surfaces, confidence building, socialization to other dogs, kids, cats, gunshots, and the dreaded vet's office were among the concerns a trainer faces, and seeks to remedy before they do indeed become a concern.
But first off, we play. Training Dogma insists that the dog be having fun while training. With very little effort training gets incorporated in the play, and two proverbial birds get killed with one stone. One of the first things to work on was conditioning a proper 'out' . This is particularly easy starting with any toy the dog can tug on. In the middle of the tug game you simply stop ( keep holding the toy, just quit moving...) and say in a low tone and volume 'out'. Well, the toy is no longer animated by you and hence isn't nearly as fun and the pup, not knowing what else to do, releases it. Now the important part. You hand it back to him ( don't toss or throw it..) and resume the game of tug, hopefully even better than before. Repeat. Repeat again, and make a big deal of it when he releases on command.
One of the major pitfalls in training an 'out' to a dog you didn't personally start is getting frustrated and gesticular when the dog doesn't out properly, and yanking the toy/tug/or sleeve and declaring the game to be over. The dog is a predator, conditioned by a score of millennia to clamp down harder on anything trying to escape his grasp.( Why do you think we issue the command “ Suspect! Quit fighting the dog!”) As you try to pull it from him, he tries harder to maintain possession. When you finally DO get it away from him you are so irritated you put it away and end the game. You just conditioned him to know that when you regain possession, it’s 'game over'. Let that soak in for a minute.... Handing the toy directly back to him and resuming the game conditions him to release willingly, because the game ramps up after that! Always, always, end the game very arbitrarily, so the dog never gets conditioned to the impending demise of his fun. This is a very easy exercise to morph from a puppy and his toy, to a kong-on-a-rope reward, to a bite sleeve or suit. An adjunct to training the 'out' during these exercises is also training the dog to take a good, full bite. This is as easily done, at the point where you hand the tug toy back, you position it properly for the pup, and the game resumes exactly when he has a good full bite on it. This conditions his little brain to realize that full bite is the way to keep that game going. Simply put, he inadvertently learns that this is how things are done.
Every command in a dogs’ basic and advanced obedience is accompanied by a hand signal. The day will come when you need to “down” the dog, or move him silently, or both. As the dog ages and retires he may very well lose his hearing, I had a dog that did just that and the transition from a noisy to a silent world seemed like an easy one for her, and for me. It is all about the details when raising a working dog. Has he been exposed to every conceivable object, noise, and odor that he may later be working around? I have seen dogs balk at drag dummies in a fire training house, and mannequins in a department store. These and a thousand other things must be considered. A plethora of other things in the socialization training of a puppy may be construed by some people, or by the puppy, as a form of negative stimuli. Slick floors are a prime example, see through iron grid stairways are another, gunshots yet another.
For anything that may be considered negative stimuli to a puppy, I take two approaches. On the low level stuff, floors, stairs, scary statues, you name it I simply approach them as a non-event. At this point pup sees you as the Master of the Universe, if it doesn't concern you, why should it concern him? If for an instant you show concern or apprehension, it will travel down the leash to the dog, and your problem will begin..... Prime example was one of those 20 ft. tall skinny balloon characters with a motor forcing air up them so that they wiggle and wave in bizarre fashion. I almost caused a wreck when I saw one of those and slammed on the brakes to take pup for a walk around it. End result, 8 week old pup walked within inches of the noisy motor and flailing 20 ft. figure without the slightest concern.
The second approach I take to socializing. Possibly negative stimuli, is to introduce slowly and incrementally, and pair it with a positive. Pups exposure to gun shots is probably a classic. Done properly and incrementally, while the dog is engaged in a game of tug or a bite, what could have been considered a negative stimulus actually becomes a motivator. But a caution has to be issued here to not use such a loud stimulus that you damage the dog’s ear drums. Very light gunfire will suffice with a pup. The same could easily be said of conditioning to negatives on the bite. It starts with stroking the pup’s head as he plays tug, progresses to the split bamboo stick you stroke him with, on up to a padded baton. As the intensity of the game and bite increase, so does the intensity of the negative stimuli. We have all seen a dog get VERY excited at the sight of a good agitator with a stick in his hand. That happens by design and not by accident, and it starts as young as the pup will tug. You have all seen how excited your dog gets when they hear a siren over their head, or see the light bar flashing. If either of those things hadn't been paired with something fun, you would have nothing more than a frightened quivering mass in the back of your car.
Another example, a pup that shows hesitance on a slick floor, or uneven surface can quickly overcome it if you get involved and simply play with him on it. Fetch, tug, what have you. I did quite a bit of this with pup on uneven surfaces ( pallets) and homemade rubble piles. Other things were brought into the mix. An agility tunnel was first. It will be used to condition the dog to tight places. Traditionally trained to an adult dog, the tunnel can take hours of incremental training to negotiate. With a puppy who doesn't know enough to be apprehensive, it takes nothing more than throwing a toy in. Same with the agility chute, which actually has walls that touch the dog and that he can't see through. With a pup it takes mere seconds, with an adult, it takes hours. The agility 'dog walk' and A-frame are both useful training tools for pup: playing on a 'wobble board'. Playing in a tub full of empty noisy plastic pop bottles and a score of other scenarios all designed to condition the dog to various stimuli, and build confidence. The oldest adage we learn in K9, “The dog always wins” goes the whole way back to puppy training. The pup wins every time if you see to it that he has fun doing it.
Socialization with people begins immediately and is on-going. At the age of eight weeks this pup was literally sitting in the entrance to the local shopping center, watching as hundreds of people, with their noisy carts and noisier kids went filing by. Anyone who wanted to visit with and pat the cute little puppy was permitted and encouraged to do so. Socialization in different venues is the same. I expose the dog to so much that it literally becomes part of his daily life. A car ride or a visit to the local pet-friendly store is a big deal to a pet dog, and their excitement is hard to contain, and maintaining their focus is impossible. If the working dog in training gets to do it on an everyday basis, it becomes the norm, not the exception, and the norm is usually boring rather than distracting. For the same reasons tracks are laid and run in a variety of settings, and narcotics are hidden in every imaginable scenario. When the dog is deployed in real life these people, places, and things are all recognizable, and hence are not distractions.
Food is another issue. When you have the dog as a pup, you can condition him right from the get-go. Food comes in a dog dish at specified times of the day: period. Food doesn't come out of your daughter's hand, and it doesn't exist in an open trash container. Consistency is huge in dog training, and for a working dog, this consistency about food is critical. A K9 distracted by a Big Mac on a vehicle dope search is not the ideal. A Service Dog that “Hoovers” the floor of a restaurant for scraps is off-putting, at best.
As a courtesy, and as a way of just plain making life easier, I make it a point to socialize pup in the vet's office. At least twice a week we go in, the staff and vet techs fawn over the puppy, and he gets to visit with all of them. In very short order he was thinking it was the coolest place in the world. As an offshoot, without exception the vets and techs thanked me for it as they knew it would make their lives easier down the road when pup weighs 90 pounds: The same type of socialization was done at the boarding kennels with the same result. The dog loves going there.
Again, everything the working pup is exposed to is training. It is the trainer's job to see he is exposed properly so as to maximize self-confidence and minimize any 'inadvertent' training. The work he is doing must have its roots in play must be kept at the top of the fun meter and the rewards and reinforcement must reflect this. This produces a balanced dog, a dog with what we call an “on/off switch” willing and eager to work in any venue, and easier to live with at home.