PK9 Magazine Q&A 2012

How do your experts feel about some of the trainers that are advertising very short training times to put dogs on the street? I have been a trainer for about 20 years and have seen many things change for the better. However it seems like on average from green to certified for either patrol or detector is about 10-14 weeks. I have seen some trainers advertising as short as one week for a detector dog and even less to put a patrol dog in service.

Typically shorter courses are for dogs that are pre-trained, and the handler is then given a handler course to show them how to work the dog. Many agencies cannot afford to lose a handler for 14 weeks (Some of my customers who buy green dogs do 16 week classes for patrol and then another 16 weeks for detection specialty).  There are extremes though.  A K9 is primarily a locating device, and one week isn’t sufficient in my opinion for a new handler to understand and read his dog properly in detection or tracking. Practice makes a big difference, and the experience of having sufficient opportunity to read a dog is critical. That’s not to say that going through a 14 or 16 week course with a green dog is the only good way to get a dog in service. Most of the time in a 14 or 16 week course is spent developing basic behaviors. Only later in the course like the last 4 or 5 weeks is the dog finished enough to the point where the handler can start reading him in the environment of deployment like training. So in a lot of ways the courses are very similar. In one case the handler develops all the behaviors from the ground up. It affords perhaps better bonding as the team spends a lot more time together, but there is potential for novice handlers to make a lot of critical errors, as they are not experienced. If a professional trains the dog, and then the handler is shown how to work the dog, the team can be just as effective as one trained in a long class from “green” to certified. Fewer mistakes will be made along the way in training, and a more skilled hand is instilling all the behaviors. Everything in life is a tradeoff, and dogs trained both ways can be very successful.

Many departments call me asking to buy a trained dog, and because the handler has had a dog or dogs before, they don’t want to take the handler course, because they have “experience.”  It doesn’t matter how experienced the handler is with another dog, a class with the dog they are getting is still critical. They need to learn how to read that particular dog, and they need the time to do it. I don’t know what a one week handler course could possibly accomplish with a new handler. It seems it would be rushed and incomplete. Where is the time to set up all the different phases with enough repetition to get the teams comfortable at working together? When do you teach the science behind the training, such as detection science, the behavior of odor on tracks, chemical scent behavior, deployment considerations and case law? I would stay away from a really short course like that. It may be more for the trainer’s convenience then the benefit of the agency .

A department in my area is training dogs on the odors of commonly abused prescription pills (hydrocodone, oxycotin, etc) in addition to the common odors of illegal drugs. I can understand this if the dog was worked in a controlled environment such as a school or correctional facility where the mere possession of these is against rules and regulations. They are training dogs for departments to work on the street to detect these odors. I remember specific court case that deals with the K9 sniff in which the justices stated that a sniff is not considered a search because it is less intrusive. It does not expose a person’s legally possessed items to search and seizure. Do your trainers think this is a good practice?

I think the questioner has answered his own question. I have a big problem with training dogs on “pills” in general. The binders in the pills are very common, and in many cases there is only a mere eye drop of active ingredient in the binder, and the training runs the risk of conditioning the dog to alert on all pills with similar binders. Training would have to be very carefully conducted to extinct responses on binders, and this information would have to be documented in the training records. Those departments training on “ecstasy” pills run this risk too in my opinion, unless they are doing extinction on the binder odor in training. If a dog alerts to ibuprofen because of the binder being common, this would negate the “less intrusive” element of the search. In addition as the questioner points out, if I have a legal prescription for a narcotic, I don’t have to disclose that information about my medical condition to the officer performing the traffic stop. If the K9 alert affords entry into my vehicle, for a legally possessed controlled substance, there is a violation of the 4th amendment.

The same reason holds as to why you cannot train a street patrolling drug dog to detect weapons (as might be done in a school for example). Having ammunition in your car or a gun in your trunk properly secured according to law is not illegal, and if the K9 alert affords entry into the vehicle, it would be a violation of the 4th amendment. I think we have to be very careful not to set ourselves up to lose the ability to use K9s to do sniffs because of poor training, or training that can have unintended consequences.

My dog is 3 year old patrol trained single purpose Malinois that has been on the street for about 18 months. He is doing a good job finding suspects and engaging when needed. The problem is he is getting more and more in tune with ‘enhanced odor’ that real suspects put out. He is starting to get so frantic on real finds that he is not indicating on source as well in training. On real street finds he gets in the scent cone then starts going crazy, running back and forth and biting anything he is near (lawn furniture, trees, kids toys in the yard etc….).  It is impossible to re-create it in training as he does not get as excited for training finds.

The last part of the question is what intrigued me so I did a little research. There are two olfactory systems, one for consciously detecting odors, like smelling of popcorn being popped in the microwave. Molecules of odor created in the popping process bind with receptors in the olfactory system and trigger the scent memory. There is also another system, referred to as the accessory olfactory system in the vomeronasal organ. This organ reads pheromones that transmit information concerning territory, aggression, and most prominently, reproduction. Nancy Diehl , an assistant professor of equine science at Penn State University, quoted in the article “Can dogs really smell fear?” by Jillian Koopman (, says the following about that:

“it is widely acknowledged that pheromone communication via the accessory olfactory system is possible only within animals of the same species. This limitation makes it impossible for any animal to smell fear in members of different species. Instead, Diehl suggests that an animal’s sense of fear may depend more on behavioral clues than on olfactory signals.”

If this is in fact the case, then maybe the assumption that forms the premise to your questions, that your dog is reacting to the “enhanced scent” and getting frantic, and this is something you cannot create in training, may be somewhat incorrect. Perhaps your dog is getting frantic because he anticipates a previous occurrence of a “real bite” which can be a big adrenaline producer for a dog, based on his past encounters, so he is getting frantic in anticipation. Perhaps your training is not doing as good a job recreating the environment he sees on deployments, creating a divide between what your dog sees as training and what your dog sees in deployments, which are behavioral cues.

Aside from Pheremones,  what is commonly referred to as “fear scent” can be a combination of things including the subject having a high heart rate, excessive production of CO2 from running , excessive perspiration (all things which the dog CAN detect). Have your decoys hide from you after running hard for a little while, behind a closed door, with no equipment and see if you can re-produce the frantic behavior in a more controlled training setting.  Perhaps also he is having difficulty resolving the scent pool, and this is the element that is frustrating him, causing the frantic behavior.

I think this is an interesting case, but be careful, dog trainers often create causality from one thing to another in an incorrect manner. Many people assume since “A” happened, and then “B” happens, that  that A caused B. This is a logical fallacy. In this case you are looking for the thing that would separate a training environment from a real deployment. But the pheromones of “fear scent” aren’t likely the culprit. I intend to do more research on this topic because it is pretty fascinating. Do some experimentation with your dog, with a strange decoy, while you are working the road, no equipment, with the decoy heavily perspiring and see if you see something close to what you see on deployments.


What are some good ways to get a dog more social? I inherited a ‘problem’ dog from another department. I was assigned this dog as my second dog. He is a 3 year old Dutch Shepherd that is good in most ways. The problem is he show unwarranted aggression to people. He is not handler aggressive at all, and most of the time he is neutral to others. But then he will often just ‘snap’ and go after people who are paying no attention to him. If we are working and he is in drive he has no problems at all. It is almost as if he has so much fight drive that he just decides he will pick one sometimes. He has yet to actually make contact so he has not been successful. My last dog was a very a balanced dog that never did this behavior. While I can make this dog work as is, I would like to improve his social skills.