Questions for the Trainer

Question: I just certified my new dog, he is the third dog I have worked in my 16 years as a handler. The dog is a 3 year old imported German Sheperd that was sold to us a titled dog. I really do not know what he was titled in but he obviously had prior training. Overall he is doing well but he has an annoying trait I cannot seem to correct. When he heals he wraps himself around my leg and looks up at me, to the point it is hard to walk without tripping over him. I know in some sport dog circles this is desired, but I think a police dog should heel next to the handler paying attention to what’s in front of him. I have had him 7 months and have not been able to break this. Any ideas?

 Answer: This is one of those behaviors that is heavily ingrained in an IPO or Schutzhund dog, and is called an attention or focused heel and is part of the rules of that sport. Police officers don’t tend to like it because of the crowding, or because they are not used to it. I submit to you, however, that in many circumstances you can probably work around distractions much better than many of your counterparts who don’t have an attention heel. Example: You arrive on a scene that has a number of people making loud gestures and screaming and crying. Having an attention heel, when your dog gets out of the car you can keep him from loading on these people. They may be loud and seemingly aggressive, although non threatening, but you can focus him on you and keep him from alerting unnecessarily. In my estimation it is a very handy behavior. Since you have your dog’s attention, if you want him to focus outwardly, all you really have to do is hold his line or collar, and give his alert command, right?

Basically you need to reward the behavior you want, which is positional correctness (by your leg) but looking forward, and reward him when he looks forward (variably) by sending him to bite. Don’t reward him for looking at you ever again with praise or touching, or looking in his eyes. If you really want to get rid of the behavior, here is what you can do:

1)      Do obedience with decoys in the suit walking around you all the time. He will want to look away and look at the decoys, when he does, enforce position but not attention, and variably send him to the decoy for a relatively passive bite. This will get him dropping his head in anticipation of the coming send.

2)      Train away from the usual place you do obedience, especially if that is a field environment (what he is used to from Europe when he does an attention heel). When you start heeling, have people surprise attack you, or set him up on someone using your alert command. Do this in deployment context, with decoys jumping from behind cars, and out of alleys.

3)      Do a lot of rear transports, where the decoy will walk ahead of you and then run from you or turn and attack you with the dog in heel position. As long as you don’t correct his attention, he will start to anticipate the attacks and want to look for them by dropping his head. You might also as a byproduct, create some forging – you can correct that with the leash. Sometimes, when he drops his head on his own to look at the decoy, variably reward that by sending the dog for a passive bite.

4)      Work your alert command a lot, so he learns that whatever circumstance you work in, if he hears that, to look around. Have your decoy in hiding, and when the dog lights up, let his aggression draw the decoy from hiding, and when he does so, send him for a bite. 

It may take a while to retrain a well ingrained behavior like this, you should remember this behavior was heavily rewarded and usually compelled, so that when the dog looked away he was corrected, so he thinks he will get in trouble if he looks away. Over time you will see him relax and take to the new standard you are setting. However, I hope you will use the attention to your advantage instead of getting rid of the behavior.

Question: I think I have created a monster! I have a Dutch Shepherd single purpose narc dog that I have worked for the last 3 years. One of the things I liked about him in the selection test was how possessive he was with his toy. Now it has gotten to be a major battle, there are days he simply will not give up his toy and the problem is getting worse. I have tried the two toy system but it does not work, once he has one toy, he does not want to give it up for a new one. Do you have a good way to get him to release the toy to me on command?

Answer: You need to treat the situation like training a patrol dog to out. Just remember, though, he is not a patrol dog for a reason. He may not be as hard as you think. First, do this when you have a few days when you are NOT going to have to reward him for his drug finds. Take him someplace he never normally has to work, because you are going to use some force to accomplish the task, and you don’t want him to associate the compulsion with his work.  This is critical.

Back tie him to a sturdy fence post (better than a tree as he can’t wind himself up) on a flat collar or harness with about a 10 foot long line, and put a second line attached to your 6’ leash on a prong collar. (Yes, I said prong collar. If you have been conditioned to think this is only used as a last resort, you may not be inclined to use it, but contrary to what you have learned, it is safe, effective, and used by the rest of the world over choke collars almost universally when training working dogs. It will work for this exercise much better than a choke collar).

Use an object different from his normal drug reward, and a little less enticing, like PVC pipe. Have 2 of the same toy, and give the dog one of them, and let him hold it in his mouth for a few seconds. When you are ready to make him let go, say, “Out,” or whatever your new out command will be. Don’t use the command he has been ignoring for the last 3 years, pick a new one. As soon as the “t” in out is out of your mouth, correct him into your body fairly hard until he releases it. As soon as he drops it, give him the other toy, and let him enjoy it for a few seconds, then repeat until the dog is releasing quickly. If you do this right, he will let go after a few repetitions on the command. In behavioral terms, we are punishing his holding of the toy beyond hearing the out command, and then rewarding the act of him releasing with another toy. 

When he does this well on the back tie, introduce his drug toy in the back-tie context, and do the above exercise until he is releasing it on command. Then, when you are getting a good response on the back-tie on his normal reward toy, after a few short sessions (3-6 reps and then put the dog away, and do multiple sessions a day), put 2 lines on him as before, but do not back tie him. Use the 2 lines just as before, but the handler holds the correction line and another trainer holds the back line, and acts as a moveable back tie. Throw the dog’s toy for him, and then put him between the 2 lines, and out him as before, correcting if he doesn’t release against the posted back line. Then, reward the release with the second toy. Repeat in different contexts. As this goes well, eliminate the back line, and use only the correction line.

When the dog is doing well, bring the dog to a drug training session, and set up an easy hide, and we will test the training. Put the correction collar on the dog with a short tab line on it. Do not run the dog to search on the prong. When he hits the hide, reward him with the toy and play with him. Move him away from the search area, well away, as you are playing with him. Then grab the correction line and tell him out, and if he does, let him grab the toy again and let him play. If he doesn’t, correct as usual, and then after a successful out (even if you had to force it) let him get the toy again. If he still fights you over the toy on this test, go back to correcting away from the drug searching until you are again confident he will release on command, and put it together again in another test.

As the dog releases for you consistently, and the behavior becomes conditioned to release on command, you can remove the correction collar altogether. If he regresses, put the collar back on. Don’t make him collar wise. Put it on and off randomly at times other than your training sessions for short times when he is supervised, but don’t hook anything to it. The collar is only an aid in conditioning the behavior, so don’t remove it too quickly before the behavior is well conditioned. You want to keep the option to correct so that the dog knows he cannot get away with ignoring this command.

In doing this exercise, you should use the minimum force to get the job done, and be careful of making any unwanted associations since you are using some force. You should do this under the eye of an experienced trainer until you are comfortable. The hardest part is gauging the correction to stimulate the out without overcorrecting. You may be surprised how easy this is if you carry through it. If you need more guidance before giving it a try, you can e-mail me at