Using your K-9's play drive in bite work

There may be times when we can use the dog's desire to play to accomplish a task or help solve problems we may encounter in bite work

By Ken Pietras
Police K-9 Magazine

When training police dogs to perform certain tasks, we use the dog's inherent drives. That's why, when we test a dog for police work, we must be sure that he has the appropriate drives for the task. For example, in scent work — whether it is for tracking, narcotics or explosive detection, cadaver work, or article or building search — we look for hunt, retrieval, prey and, of course, play drives.

Play drive can be used to reward a dog for completing a task (by giving him his toy). But what about using play drive when the task involves bite work? Some trainers don't believe in using that drive or are hesitant to channel it into bite work — especially in training the veteran police dog. That's only natural, because bite work falls into the more serious aspect of training, so we tend not to focus on play. However, there may be times when we can use the dog's desire to play to accomplish a task or help solve problems we may encounter in bite work. This article discusses an appropriate use of play drive.

Photo courtesy Police K-9 Magazine

Meeting Performance Expectations
Recently, I attended the North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA) National Seminar in Indianapolis, Indiana. While working the aggression control problem-solving venue with Master Trainer Kevin Weber and Trainer Matt Collins, I got the idea for this article. Some handlers wanted to work on training "call-offs," "recalls," "outs," etc; however, it can be difficult to determine the best training method when you don't know a dog's history. If you've never seen a dog before, you don't know what drives are dominant, what type of foundation he has or what method of training he has been exposed to. If the dog does not obey a command, what type of correction should be used?

Some dogs are "harder" than others and may have a high fight drive. If that's the case, certain types of corrections may put the dog into an even higher fight drive, adding stress to the situation. We know that dogs learn best under less stressful conditions. Other dogs may not be as hard, or may operate more in prey drive. Certain types of corrections may not be appropriate and, again, stress the dog. The question remains: "What is the best way to teach the dog to obey the handler's commands?"

I firmly believe that if you have a good foundation in obedience, the chances of having problems in aggression control will be less. That being said, there are times when our dog will test us, and we want to use the best method to keep him obedient.

The dog I am handling now, for example, does have a good foundation in obedience. However, on occasion he will fail to perform as I expect him to. I am always in a position to correct him if needed. However, I do not want to end a training session in a correction. We always want to leave the training site on a positive note, with the dog a winner. That is why I always bring a toy with me. When the training scenario is over, or during the last exercise, the dog wins his tug and carries it back to his den (cruiser). So, in fact, he has ended the aggression training in play drive.

But in using that method, I must be sure the dog's drives are balanced during the aggression work. For example, if the dog is looking for his toy after an "out," I have the decoy escape or agitate to get the dog's focus back onto the human. That is why the toy is brought out only at the end of exercise.

Using Play Drive Judiciously
When using the toy to problem-solve in aggression work, we must make sure that play does not become the dominant drive. I have seen a dog release from a bite early, prior to the handler's command, to look for his toy. That can happen when we are reinforcing the "out" and using the toy to satisfy the dog's desire to bite. Such behavior would tell me that play drive is dominant over fighting with the human and I would hesitate to use a toy — or at least reduce the amount of times I use a toy — in aggression work. Instead, we can use the two-decoy system, in which, upon release, the dog is sent onto another decoy, satisfying his desire yet keeping the fight focused on the human.

We have seen dogs that ignore the toy when the handler tries to introduce it and shows interest only in the human decoy. That's OK, because it shows that fight drive is dominant and the dog prefers the human. Another aggression training scenario in which we've all seen play drive used to get a correct response from the dog is the "high hide" in a building or area search. The final objective is to get the dog to indicate — bark — at the human who is positioned up high, without equipment, motionless and silent. The decoy may even be out of sight so the dog works on scent alone.

How do we get the dog to bark at the human who is no threat to him? I would prefer that the dog indicate because he wants to engage the human. However, it's difficult to train some dogs to respond in that way, so we use play, and toss a toy to the dog when he barks. If the dog is primarily driven by play, he may take the toy and leave the human. If that happens, we should consider not using the toy.

Another method is to dangle a bite sleeve from a long line. After the dog indicates, the sleeve is tossed down and the dog is allowed to play tug. We must remember that even if the sleeve is out of sight, it is equipment and it does have scent. The bottom line is to teach the dog the correct response through repetition. Consider combining verbal praise from the handler with the decoy coming down from the high hide and doing a chase off. Once the dog understands the exercise, we must keep his fight and play drives in balance.

Balancing Canine Drives
The way I determine whether a dog's fight and play drives are balanced is to observe him at the end of the session. I give my dog his tug and play with him on the field with the decoy still present. When I am done playing with him, I let him keep his tug. Without any comments from me, the decoy becomes somewhat of a threat to the dog. The decoy stares the dog down and moves toward him slowly in a threatening manner. Once again, I say nothing; I simply observe the dog's response. If the dog totally ignores the decoy and wants to go play with his toy, I reduce or even eliminate the toy. I also want the dog to be in control so that he doesn't apprehend the decoy unless commanded to do so. I simply want to observe to see which drive is dominant.

On the command to apprehend, if the dog releases the toy and engages the man, I can be confident that the dog's play and fight drives are indeed balanced.

Ken Pietras is a K-9 handler/trainer with the Erie (PA) Police Department and a Master trainer with NAWDA. Email him at

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