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Dog psychology: A vital training tool

Training a dog without understanding what affects his behavior will greatly reduce your likelihood of success


Photo courtesy of Police K-9 Magazine

By Sgt. Rex W. McKinney
Police K-9 Magazine

Early in my K-9 career, while training dogs in a large warehouse late one evening, I found myself hiding in a small storeroom with high ceilings. There was a ladder leading to a roof that the trainer had me climb. Several dogs had already run the scenario and found me with little difficulty. One of the final dogs to run the scenario showed some different behaviors than the others. He entered the room in full search mode, lifted his nose high in the air like the other dogs, and about the time I expected him to bark he lowered his head and left the room. The trainer took steps to make sure the dog had a positive experience and the dog was taken out of the building.

When a dog “fails” or is weak in a particular area during training, in many cases the handlers and trainers will have a brainstorming session to determine how to train the dog to make him more successful in similar situations in the future. In this case, a solution that is often suggested, based on a trainer’s or handler’s past experience, is to have the agitator make some noise to get the dog to bark and notify the handler of the hidden person’s location. But is this the correct method of training?

In this scenario, and many others like it, a critical step has been skipped in determining the best way to solve the problem. Often we will recall working with a different dog in a similar situation, take the training method that proved successful before and repeat it with every dog. While that same training approach will work with some dogs, it won’t work with every dog.

In some cases, following the tried-and-true method may correct the dog’s behavior but may not give him what he needs to perform to his full potential. Then we try other training methods in an effort to get the dog to exhibit the desired behavior. We may end up calling our colleagues to ask how they have corrected a similar problem with a dog they were training.

What’s Motivating the Dog?
After identifying an incorrect or “needs improvement” behavior in our partner, the first thing we need to do is recognize what mental factors may be causing the dog’s behavior. In order to do this correctly, we need to have a thorough understanding of dog psychology.

There are many different teachings on dog psychology that provide a good knowledge base regarding dog behaviors. I am not going to advocate one particular approach over another. Many of them just have a different way of describing a particular behavior or a different term for it. The ones to avoid are those that are anthropomorphic, meaning that they ascribe human characteristics to dogs (or anything non-human, from animals to inanimate objects).

For trainers it is important to know what drives the dog’s behaviors, why a dog is driven to react a certain way to a particular stimulus. I have been taught the Utah P.O.S.T. approach to dog psychology and have found that to be very helpful in problem solving when issues arise. I will try to keep the terms as generic as I can and still give an explanation of working through a problem. A flowchart for analyzing canine training issues is provided [see page 36] to facilitate problem-solving.

Drives and Other Factors
A dog in a search scenario may be motivated by any of a few different drives and affected by various psychological factors as he is searching. The primary drive we want the dog to work in at this point is hunt. However, other factors may come into play, such as confidence, environmental issues, physical limitations, courage, fear, fight, and rank. Some of these may not commonly cause the dog to exhibit unwanted behaviors such as leaving the room, but they are potential causes. To properly diagnose the issue and solve it as quickly as possible, we need to start by identifying what is really triggering the behavior.

Is the dog’s neck injured, so that the act of looking up caused the dog pain and led him to cease the hunt? Does the dog have a fear problem, such that when he located the man, he left to avoid a confrontation? A rank issue might also present as the dog locating the person but then leaving—not out of fear, but to prevent the handler from finding “his” person (i.e., the prize).

In the search scenario previously described, the dog is not staying with the agitator. It appears that the dog locates the agitator but then leaves. Among the potential reasons for this behavior, one of the most likely is that the dog has not had sufficient training in this “hunt” scenario. The solution, then, is more training —possibly backing up a few steps in the building search training, then working up to a high hide again. You can then run the dog through the scenario that challenged him before and see if the additional training corrected the problem or if you need to do more analysis.

As it happened, the dog in this scenario was not lacking hunt drive but had a serious avoidance issue. The dog’s hunt drive carried him through to finding the agitator, but then hunt drive switched off and another factor took over. The dog did not have enough courage to stay in a dark room, away from the handler, and focus on the agitator. He was compelled to leave the situation.

What Training Can Fix
Some canine behavioral traits can be affected by training and some cannot. Avoidance behavior is one that cannot be “fixed” by training. Although the dog could be encouraged to fight an agitator in this situation, we would be activating his survival instinct, not his hunt drive. The dog would fight because he felt he had to. This would be unacceptable on the street, with the dog’s reaction to a real bad guy ranging from avoiding the bad guy when possible to engaging him inappropriately.

In the night search situation, the handler and trainers had a long discussion about the dog, noting that he had a history of these types of incidents. Their decision was to remove the canine from service and replace him.

This is one small example of how applying dog psychology was used to avoid putting an unreliable canine on the street and matching the handler with a more balanced canine to accomplish his duties. If the trainers present had just applied a stock training method, the handler and trainers would have become increasingly frustrated with the dog’s lack of progress and could have possibly endangered officers on the street by allowing an unacceptable canine into service.

Learning about canine psychology is fun and it’s great to talk about fight, prey, hunt, and other drives. Knowing what drives and character traits are, how training can affect some, whereas others cannot be impacted, is important in dog training. Applying those concepts to our training can decrease training time, increase safety, and improve both our understanding of proper training techniques and our ability to implement them successfully.

Sgt. Rex W. McKinney heads up the K-9 Unit of the Aurora (CO) Police Department. Contact him at

Police K-9 Magazine is the only national publication dedicated to police officers who work with service dogs. The magazine provides timely features, columns, and departments written by experienced K-9 trainers, lawyers, veterinarians and law-enforcement officers.