Preparing for Surprise Attacks in Search Scenarios


One of the biggest issues in police dog training is how the dog handles surprise attacks. If you are a police officer, you can know intellectually if you go into a particular place under a particular set of circumstances, that a surprise attack may be likely on your person, so you mentally and physically can gear up for the possibility prior to entering the situation. Unfortunately, too often, we assume our dogs should just “be ready” for such an eventuality if they have sufficient “courage.” They don’t have the benefit of our intellectual ability, so they rely on previous experience just like we make logical assessments. The problem is, a dog can get caught in the wrong frame of mind, and his defense mechanism might shift him into avoidance if he is not prepared in training. Too many dogs can get caught off-guard in a surprise attack scenario because they have not been properly prepared for it.  Foundation training should include proper defense training basics, so the dog is capable of dealing with threat by becoming aggressive, but sometimes we forget to actually train a young the dog to deal with the shock of a surprise attack, even though he is courageous. As a police dog matures, he becomes familiar with contexts through his experience, such as dark buildings and area searches at night, where he may be taken by surprise, and the conditioning he has had to these situations in the past gear him up mentally prior to being deployed. However, a young dog straight out of the training academy needs continued training in these situations. Too often inexperienced trainers do a “let’s see what happens” and they do a surprise attack on a dog doing a search exercise in a dark room with slick floors, and on top of it they also throw some strange object at the dog or threaten him with it. The dog shows hesitation and maybe doesn’t engage and goes into a displacement mode (see Controlled Aggression by the author for an explanation of defense training and channeling methods:, and the conclusion is drawn that the dog is perhaps not courageous. You can’t draw reasonable conclusions from bad training.


The surprise attack defense should be trained in a systematic progression. It doesn’t take very long at all for the dog to generalize to any situation and any distraction if a systematic approach is taken in the beginning. Behaviorally, we are simply trying to de-condition the dog to the surprise attack (suppress the startle reflex) first. Then, during the catch and drive, distractions can be introduced, that have already been trained in a more controlled situation, like on a back tie. Thus when the dog sees these on the surprise attack, he should be well used to them. These environmental distractions include: jugs of water, jugs with pennies or stones in them, sticks, large objects, water hoses, etc. The basic training progression I like to use can be employed as follows:


(1)   Place the dog in a sit stay away (20’) from a hiding place, handler at the dog’s side, holding the dog on leash on an agitation collar. The decoy jumps out and agitates defensively, fades away from the dog and the dog is released into the grip. Decoy works the dog in channeling multiples before the dog is disengaged.

(2)    Place the dog in a sit stay closer to the hiding place, decoy jumps out and agitates defensively, send dog earlier and earlier until the dog is being sent on the decoy standing still (not fading) but still agitating defensively. Be sure to change contexts often in the beginning so he knows that surprise attacks can come anywhere, and he is being set up for success.

(3)   Place the dog in a sit stay away (20’) from the hiding place, decoy jumps out agitating defensively, slowly charging the dog, release the dog on the approach of the decoy. Decoy catches the dog and works in prey first. Decoy works the dog in channeling multiples before the dog is disengaged.

(4)   Place the dog in a sit stay closer to the hiding place, decoy jumps out and quickly charges the dog defensively, dog is released ever closer to the decoy as he approaches. Decoy catches the dog and works the dog into a defensive drive after the catch. Slowly integrate the distractions in the drive, and variably increase the intensity and duration of the defensive drives. Decoy works the dog in channeling multiples before the dog is disengaged.

(5)   Place the dog close to a hiding place, decoy charges the dog from the front, from behind, or the side, dog is allowed to release on his own into the charging decoy. The decoy works the dog in ever-stronger defensive drives (variable in intensity and duration over time), then proceeds into prey and channeling multiples before the dog is disengaged.

(6)   If the dog can heel, heel around, and once in a while, have the attack come during heeling. Practice heeling past familiar hiding places with no handler attack. If you do too many handler attacks from heeling, the dog will anticipate the attacks and want to go to the hiding place and break heel position.

(7)   Put the dog into search scenarios only when he is dealing with surprise attacks powerfully without searching. Then do simple search problems and lower the surprise intensity somewhat as we are introducing a new variable. Variably increase the attack intensity, and increase the difficulty of the search problems.


This kind of handler defense exercise will make the dog very alert to his surroundings. It is critical that the dog begin to be exposed to environments that are more stressful than his regular training area. For police dogs, these exercises should be done in and around buildings, parking lots, in dark rooms and in tight places, and these places should be introduced early in the process and varied a lot while you are still fading from the initial attacks. Attacks from behind doors will also get the dog used to looking around doorways for threats, and is a good initial step before teaching formal building searches if you haven’t already done that yet.


It is critical to remember, that if you change the dog’s environment that will add its own defensive pressure, and you will be working with somewhat less of a defensive margin. The decoy should be aware to read the dog’s body and grip, and work to increase the dog’s confidence in these exercises, and the general defensive pressure builds up in scenario-based exercises. As a rule of thumb, always expect that the dog will likely have a problem, so you as the handler and/or decoy are prepared if the dog shows difficulty handling the defensive pressure of these scenarios, and you can slide into prey, or drop to the ground during the fight to increase the dogs confidence. A poor decoy will just keep on coming and cause terrible damage to a young dog in training. Use an experienced decoy who can read a dog and make adjustments. Be sure to discuss the training scenario before actually doing it, and discuss what might go wrong, and what the decoy is to do if something does go wrong. This is pre-planning.


When catching the dog in the handler attack, decoys should be careful not to position their hands too close to the target area. There should be an opening for the dog to come to the shoulder (if you train inside bites), especially when first training the dog with fades. The dog’s momentum will initiate the decoy to absorb the dog, and the decoy should not spin the shoulder away from the dog as he enters.