K-9 obedience: The foundation of success

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 Sprouse
Police K-9 Magazine

Making obedience training fun and rewarding is the key to reliable performance.

Obedience is a word many handlers don’t want to hear and an exercise many dogs avoid. There are a few reasons for that. The dictionary defines obedience as “submission to the restraint or command of authority.” With that definition in mind, the word obedience may sound compulsive or demanding. If a handler takes the definition to an extreme, obedience training can become negative for both dog and handler. This article discusses ways to make obedience exercises both enjoyable and productive while laying the foundation for ongoing training success.

Combating Negative Perceptions

A better word to use in place of obedience would be “control.” Long, compulsive exercises, poor timing of corrections or rewards, regimented exercises, and too much group obedience can lead to the dog and the handler disliking obedience training. Another negative perception is that obedience training suppresses the dog’s drive. Drive suppression may occur when exercises are done incorrectly and the dog becomes confused about what is expected of him. Adverse canine reactions also may result from negative occurrences that have taken place in conjunction with other exercises or environments. In other words, the dog associates obedience with negative experiences such as overcorrection.

The lack of balance in obedience training between compulsion and motivation has destroyed many dog teams. That can happen when handlers get frustrated and take their irritation out on the dog. The trainer or handler blames the dog when, in reality, they failed to understand why the dog was not behaving the way they thought he should. A famous German dog trainer and breeder of the late 1800s, Captain Max von Stephanitz, said, “Let the trainer examine himself when the dog makes a mistake or doesn’t understand the exercise and ask himself, ‘Where am I at fault?’ ”

A black-and-white video filmed in the 1970s shows mem-bers of the United States military training dogs in group obedience exercises at a military base. The video shows the handlers walking their dogs to the area where obedience exercises take place. The dogs are walking slowly, hunched over, with ears back: their body language clearly shows that they are not looking forward to the exercises. They look like a herd of cows being led to the slaughterhouse. If that is the perception of obedience training, it makes sense that the K-9 team would not look forward to it.

Most of us, myself included, want strong, aggressive street dogs, and we would rather be training search or appre-hension work than obedience. What we sometimes fail to realize is that obedience training, if done correctly, lays the foundation for almost everything else we do, including aggression work. In addition, obedience training can strengthen the bond between handler and dog like no other exercise, providing it is done properly. Obedience should establish necessary order in the pack — or in our case, the canine team. To establish that order, the handler becomes the leader. The handler does not become the leader by force only, but by using finesse. We control the dog’s environ-ment and behaviors by using the laws of nature and the laws of learning to benefit our needs. By teaching the dog that we are the provider, we establish leadership and control.

Conditioning and maintaining obedience should be balanced with positive and negative experiences for the dog. That balance is known as operant conditioning.

Concepts and Methods

Concepts are how dogs learn. Methods are the means by which we as trainers and handlers apply concepts. The most effective concept for teaching dogs obedience is operant conditioning. Operant conditioning includes positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punish-ment. For example, when the dog “sits” on command, he gets his toy (positive reinforcement). When he “sits” on command, he also avoids a correction (negative reinforce-ment). If the dog does not “sit” on command, he receives a correction, let’s say with a choke collar (positive punish-ment). When he does not “sit,” he also does not receive his toy/reward (negative punishment). Operant conditioning either diminishes the dog’s improper behavior or increases proper behavior.

As stated earlier, methods are the tools or exercises by which you train concepts. For example, if you are training the “sit” exercise, the method aspect would be whether the trainer applies a choke-collar correction (positive punish-ment) or coercion through food (positive reinforcement). Another example of method is when the dog “sits” on command, the trainer may reward the dog with a toy, with food, or with verbal praise. Most handlers have been taught methods to accomplish basic obedience exercises, but may fail to understand why the methods work. It’s important to know why they work and the concepts behind them so that when advanced exercises are introduced, you as a trainer can employ known methods or create new ones, depending on the dog or the individual goal. Each dog has a specific threshold for certain rewards or corrections. Understanding concepts and methods allows you to easily adjust training to the individual dog.

Timing Is Everything

Whether the dog is rewarded or corrected, timing is every-thing. The reward should come at the exact moment the dog displays the behavior the handler is looking for. The same principle is applied to a correction. The dog must understand where his advantage and disadvantage lie. He will understand that only if the reward or correction comes at the exact time the behavior is displayed.

Proficiency- or Scenario-based Training

Proficiency-based training is basically for the benefit of the dog. Maintaining conditioned behaviors or problem solving is considered proficiency-based training. Scenario-based training benefits both members of the K-9 team because it consists of setting up realistic exercises similar to scenarios the team may experience on the street.

Training both team members is important. My agency usually spends the first half of a training day working on proficiency and the second half working on scenarios. Proficiency-based training takes the form of traditional fieldwork obedience, whereas scenario-based obedience involves realistic situations, such as a “down–stay” at the doorway of a building about to be searched, or tactical movements through a specific area or a crowd of decoys.

Control or Precision

In either proficiency- or scenario-based training, obedience can be seen from two perspectives. The first is basic control of your dog. The second is precision. Precision obedience may include moving and stationary positions, but it is precise and fine-tuned. An example of precision training is when the dog looks up at the handler and heels at precisely the same pace, within inches of the handler’s left side, as you may have seen in sport-dog competitions. Basic control without precision may be used during tactical movements or scenario-type exercises. During basic control, the dog may be heeling or near the handler’s side, but it is not a concern if the dog is not looking at the handler or heeling in perfect sync. The recommendation is to have one distinct com-mand for competition-style heeling and another for basic, “stay near my side” control obedience. To conclude, precision is for proficiency-based training and control is for scenario-based training.

One Step at a Time

Trainers and handlers must set goals for obedience exercises. If we have trouble with a specific movement or behavior, we should address that behavior alone.

I often see handlers go through an entire routine of obedience exercises before the dog is rewarded. An example of that is the heeling exercise. The dog team goes through the complete cycle of starting in a “sit” position, heeling at various paces, completing many turns, stopping, having the dog “sit” at the handler’s side, then rewarding the dog. There’s nothing wrong with that if the dog is proficient. But why not release and reward the dog when he makes a perfect turn or looks up at the handler for the first time, rather than after he has completed the entire obedience routine?

Think about it: when you reward the dog after he has finished an entire heeling routine by sitting at the handler’s side, what is he getting rewarded for? Based on the laws of learning, he is getting rewarded for the “sit.” To make obedience more rewarding for the dog and handler, break up the routine into individual components or behavioral chains and put them all together only when needed. Wait until the dog has become proficient in one component of an exercise before moving on to the next. Make your obedience sessions short and sweet.

Many trainers conduct group obedience sessions in an effort to socialize dogs or to save time. Group obedience may not be as advantageous as single dog–handler training. When working multiple dogs in group obedience exercises, it is difficult for the individual handler to reward or correct his or her dog at the appropriate time or place. For example, if the dog does something perfect and the handler wants to reward the behavior immediately by releasing the dog and throwing the ball down field, the handler does not have the freedom to do that during group obedience training. Individual obedience allows much more freedom to train each dog based on his specific needs.

Mental Approach

Obedience should be about quality, not quantity. If a balance does not exist between proper doses of corrections and rewards, the team will suffer. If, on a scale of one to 10, a correction equals a six in the dog’s mind, the praise or reward when the dog performs the behavior correctly must be greater than the correction — an eight or a nine.

Using specific goals, sound concepts, precise timing, and proper balance, and keeping things short and sweet will make obedience training fun for both dog and handler. Always look at training from the dog’s perspective. In turn, that perspective will lay a solid foundation for everything you do as a K-9 team.

Steve Sprouse is a handler–trainer with the Broward County (FL) Sheriff’s Office and has been a patrol dog handler for 20 years. Contact him at extremek9@aol.com.

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