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Teaching All Dogs New Tricks

K-9 units are making use of advances in technology and behavioral psychology to better utilize law enforcement dogs and their handlers.

November 12, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

Positive Reinforcement

Regardless of the skills being taught, positive reinforcement is a key component in training K-9s today. Unfortunately, this wasn't always the case. In fact, as recently as last year a K-9 handler in North Carolina was in the news for hitting his dog during routine training. This incident brought renewed interest to the discussion of how to properly and humanely teach police dogs the skills necessary for the job. Especially because the officer's abusive tactics were those approved by his agency.

"Compulsive training is necessary, but cruel treatment is not," says Hess. "The only time an officer should respond with that amount of force is if the dog attacks him. For training exercises, there are more humane tactics."

Jimenez agrees. In teaching dogs to clear buildings he favors surprising them with either a toy or a bite on a "bad guy" as the reward. He's found that not knowing the result not only keeps K-9s interested, but it also prevents dogs who become stressed by being expected to bite a "bad guy" every time from dreading a search. The prospect of playing with a toy provides enough incentive that the act of searching is no longer stressful.  

This is important because stressed dogs aren't effective. Jimenez recognizes dogs that have been trained using more negative reinforcement than positive in his travels as a trainer. Such K-9s can have difficulty getting over their learned behavior.

"It's harder to fix a dog that's been 'overcompulsed' than it is a dog that has been overly praised," says Jimenez.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, most trainers agree that modern electronic collars can easily exist alongside positive reinforcement. Also known as "shock collars," these devices deliver a low voltage electric shock to the dog as a part of training and maintaining proper behavior on the job. A trainer or handler initiates the shock via a remote control.

"The way the e-collars are made now, they can be probably the most humane way of training a dog," says Falco K9 Academy's Jimenez. He uses them in training, although not all of the time. As always, the emphasis needs to be on proper technique, he says.

"They're not used to punish the dog," explains Matarese. "At very low volts it's less intrusive than having a choke chain on the dog and giving him a hard pull. Like anything else, it's a great tool as long as the person has been trained in its use."

Embracing Technology

An e-collar is just one of many innovative tools now available to K-9 handlers and trainers that have changed the way K-9 units do their jobs. 

For his part, Jimenez and his team have found that video has opened a whole new world of training feedback that wasn't possible before.

"We implement a lot of video in our training to help the handlers see themselves," says Jimenez. "They're too close to the action sometimes, and they don't believe that they did something, like talk too much to their dogs. So when they see it for themselves it's helpful."

Falco K9 also posts the videos of training in action on YouTube so others can benefit from the lessons taught. Luckily, the featured handlers don't seem to mind, and in fact appreciate the feedback . 

"The handlers really enjoy reviewing the video and seeing themselves," Jimenez says.

Fitting dogs with cameras on the job to provide officers stationed remotely with a tactical edge is a completely different technology that is still in its infancy, and very expensive.

"Some of them are so complex that they can give the dog commands from the camera and see what he sees," says Matarese. But he doesn't expect for them to be used in his local K-9 units any time soon. "I don't think it's going to be a normal thing."

Technology developed specifically to protect K-9s has been around for a while, but it's continually being improved. Of course, like cameras, such products are only effective if they're used.

"Heat alarms for motor vehicles are well worth their weight in cost. I can't recommend them any more than a leash itself," says the USPCA's Hess. "They're especially important in a hot climate; even new cars break."

Just as parents are warned to never leave their children inside a hot car, handlers must be sure that K-9s are protected from excessive heat inside cruisers. Specialized systems monitor the temperature inside a K-9 vehicle by adjusting the air conditioning. If the AC fails the system turns fans on, rolls windows down, and alerts the handler of the failure via an alarm and a paging device. Unfortunately, there are still instances of K-9s dying from heat exhaustion when handlers fail to use these systems.

"The dog is an expensive tool for the department, so it's important to protect them," says Matarese.

Another protective tool for K-9s, ballistic vests are currently used sparingly. They are heavy, hot, and cumbersome, and so can hamper a dog's ability to work or lead to overheating. For these reasons they're generally used in case of a specific threat of gunfire or stabbing directed at the K-9 entering a situation.

"They're working on making them lighter," says Hess. "In a couple cases they've been credited with saving a dog. But they're not yet accepted because the technology hasn't advanced enough. With more technological advances, we'll be seeing ballistic armor for dogs more in the future."

Another technological innovation for K-9 units is software that keeps a log of K-9 training and call-outs. It can be done with a paper and pencil as was the practice in the past, but an electronic record can be easily shared and backed up departmentwide. Of course, it's up to handlers and trainers to maintain these records, which are invaluable in the courtroom. 

"If you're the best team in the world but you haven't done your documentation, you're going to lose that case," says Jimenez. "As long as you use it, the software makes things a lot easier."

Tags: Animal Training, K-9 Units

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