Selection-testing a detector dog

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the pages of Police K-9 Magazine. It is reprinted by permission of the publisher and presented in partnership with our friends at Police K-9 Magazine in an ongoing effort to provide handlers and non-handlers with the best information available on issues that affect any department that has, or is considering getting, K-9 capabilities. We wish to thank the good folks at Police K-9 Magazine for this article and those they will provide in the future.

By Steve Dunham
Police K-9 Magazine

Use task-related tests that will help you choose the right dog for the job.

Proper canine selection is a critical factor in determining a canine team’s success. When selecting a dog for a particular job, a trainer must consider the task that is being performed and the genetics of the dog that is asked to perform that task. Although a good, consistent training program is imperative for a team’s success, a dog’s genes determine his drives, courage, and many other qualities necessary to make him a successful police dog.

The first question I ask myself when selecting a working dog is, “What kind of tasks am I going to ask him to perform?” Then I test the dog accordingly. Most of the dogs I test and select will be used for detection and patrol-related tasks. A selection test should show me the dog’s strengths and weaknesses. I learn more with each dog I train. The methods I use to select dogs are not perfect, and as I train dogs that have different problems, my selection tests are subject to modification. This article describes tests that I have found successful in selecting canines for detection work and procuring what I believe to be excellent police dogs.

Testing Sites
Selection tests should not be conducted in areas with which the dog is familiar. A dog gains confidence by training in the same place repeatedly. If the dog does not have strong nerves, that confidence may not be present in a place the dog has never been. In the police K-9 world, we ask our dogs to deploy into many different environments. The dog is constantly exposed to places and situations he has never encountered. Therefore, it’s imperative that the service dog has strong nerves and is able to perform his duties with extreme courage, no matter where he may be.

Two important notes: Prior to performing each phase of a selection test, let the dog relieve himself in an area where the testing will not be conducted. Also, all tests should be conducted in areas that are safe for the dog and for persons who may be present — intentionally or not.

Detector Dog Selection Tests
The primary reward I use for detection dogs is a toy; therefore, many of my selection tests are carried out using toys. I carry an assortment of toys for these tests, including

• balls — such as tennis and rubber balls;
• soft toys — such as rubber tubing, terrycloth towels, retriever bumpers, and bite tugs;
• hard toys — such as plastic tubing, including PVC.

When he is stimulated with different toys, the canine candidate should have an extreme desire to chase, hunt for, and retrieve all of the objects.

Test One. While a helper is holding the leash on an agitation collar or the dead ring of a fur-saver collar, I use a soft toy to stimulate the dog by playing keep-away with him. He should show interest, and the ideal dog will become extremely excited and want the toy. I let the dog bite the toy and slowly move it side-to-side. Moving the toy keeps the game interest-ing for the dog. If the dog is gripping the toy calmly, I push his cheeks up with my thumbs to check the general condition of his mouth and his teeth, as well as checking for any obvious fractures, wear, or excessive staining.

Observe the dog’s general appearance. Does he look healthy? What is his temperament like? Is he relaxed in new situations and around unfamiliar people? If the dog is going to be used in criminal apprehension work, I check the dog’s grip on the toy. Is he carrying the toy with a deep, full grip? Are his grips calm or are they frantic?

Test Two. Connect a 15-foot leash to the agitation collar or the dead ring of a fur-saver. Stimulate the dog with the toy, and then throw the toy into an area where the dog can see it. The handler should release the leash as the toy is in motion. Note: This test should be done in an area where the dog will not injure his pads if he slides while chasing the reward object. For that reason, I prefer doing the test in a mowed, grassy area.

I use a long line for this test, because some dogs are very possessive with their rewards and don’t want to return to the handler. It helps to have another toy of the same composition in your possession to get the dog interested in coming close to you. Generally, even possessive dogs will come back close enough for you to grab the 15-foot line. When I throw the toy into an area where the dog can see it, I am testing his desire to chase a moving reward object. The ideal dog should run as fast as he can to pursue and capture the object and return the object to the handler, wanting to play the game again. While pursuing the toy, he should not be distracted by any outside influences — such as animal odors.

I generally start by using a soft toy. If the dog is strong with the soft toy, I switch to a hard toy.

Test Three. The next test reveals the extent of the dog’s desire to search for his toy. Conduct the test in an area of tall grass or brush. I position myself so that the toy will be thrown into the wind to allow the dog to use his nose to assist in locating it. If the dog returned the reward object to the handler during the previous test, I remove the leash during this test when he is sent to search for the toy. That prevents the line from getting tangled on an object, which could make the dog think that he is being corrected.

Using the same toys from the previous test, I stimulate the dog with a toy while the handler holds the dog’s leash. I throw the toy into the tall-grass area, into the direction of any existing wind. Once the toy has come to rest (it should be out of the dog’s sight), the handler releases the dog. The dog should run fast toward the area where he saw the toy land.

Once he realizes that he can’t see the toy, the dog should begin to search for it — without assistance. You should notice a change in the dog’s behavior when he gets odor from the toy: he should work a scent cone to the toy. The dog should not lose interest quickly. Nor should he become distracted by other odors or return to the handler before finding the toy. If the dog is finding the toy quickly, I will spin him in a circle after he sees the toy disappear, then release him. In most cases, the spin disorients the dog and forces him to hunt.

Test Four. If the dog is showing promise, I test his desire to remain with his toy using no influence from the handler. I have the handler hold the leash while I stimulate the dog with his toy. As the dog watches, I place his toy beneath a heavy object. The toy is placed so the dog can retrieve it, but it is not an easy task: he has to work for it. Usually, I leave just the tip of the toy protruding from beneath a spare tire or something similar in size and weight. Once the toy is placed, the handler releases the dog and I walk away from the toy. No one encourages the dog in any way. He should not be distracted by our walking from the area. He should work until he retrieves his toy, and should not leave the area without it.

Test Five. Throw a couple of toys into an area of dense brush or bushes with thorns where the dog must encounter a small amount of pain to obtain his reward object. Note: Use caution in selecting this testing area so that the dog will not become injured. The dog should show a great deal of enthusiasm to retrieve his toy, even in an unpleasant area.

Test Six. To test the dog around vehicles, I toss the toy into the passenger area of a car or truck. The dog should have no problems jumping into a vehicle and searching tight spaces. Stimulate the dog with his toy, and then toss the toy into the bed of a truck or a semi-trailer. The dog should be able to jump into reasonably high spaces to obtain his reward. Those are scenarios he will be asked to perform on the street. If the dog works the vehicle’s interior well, I toss the toy under the vehicle to test the dog in a tight space. Note: Use caution when throwing a toy under a vehicle, as sharp edges or hot metal could cause injury to the dog.

Test Seven. Moving indoors, I walk the dog on slick and shiny floors. If he does well, I do some toy throws on those surfaces. I also throw toys around loud operating machinery such as large fans, air compressors, or a vacuum cleaner to ensure that the dog has no issues with noise. Toy throws are done on slick floors in the dark and again in tight spaces indoors.

Walk the dog up and down open-faced or grated stairs. If a conveyor belt is available, I test to see whether the dog is willing to walk calmly on a moving surface. I perform a search test inside a building by having a third party hold the leash while I stimulate the dog with his toy and then hide it. Once the toy is hidden, the handler releases the leash. I grab the leash as the dog runs to the area where he last saw his toy. I show the dog two or three areas to sniff for his toy. He should be willing to follow my directions for a short distance to help him find his toy.

The Final Step
The final step in my selection process is to have my veter-inarian perform a complete physical on the police dog candidate. In addition to the physical exam, I have hip and elbow X-rays taken if the seller has not already provided them. Even if the seller has them, it’s not a bad idea to have your own X-rays taken. Not all sellers are honest, and you may be provided with X-rays from another dog.

The speed, courage, and intensity with which the dog pursues, hunts, and locates his reward object during testing are all good measures of the degree to which he will perform for you on the street. If you have done your testing correctly, you should have a good idea of the kind of dog you have tested or selected. You should know his strengths and weaknesses. Your training should then be relatively simple and your level of success should be high.

Steve Dunham is vice president of the Ohio Law Enforcement K-9 Association (OLEKA) and a co-owner of Police Dog Services, LLC. He has been a police officer for 16 years, with 10 years as a K-9 handler working two dual-purpose K-9s. Contact Steve at

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