PK9 Magazine – Q&A

It seems there are many opinions on the best feeding schedule for a police dog. I was taught to feed mine once a day and that seems to work. However my vet says this could be bad for him. Do your experts have any good suggestions for the best times to feed and how many times a day a police dog should be feed?

My guess is that he or she wants you to give smaller meals due to the research that shows that large meals of commercial dog food fed with water on the side can quickly double in size inside the stomach, and then can possibly lead to “bloat.”

Bloat comes in 2 stages: gastric dilation (filling of stomach with gas) and then gastric torsion (turning over of the stomach). When the stomach fills with air (dilation) the engorged stomach places pressure on internal organs, and also can stem blood returning to the heart. This dilation increases the likelihood that the stomach will flip over on itself (torsion), and when that happens, blood vessels to the stomach are pinched shut, and the gastric tissue begins to quickly die. Bloat is one of the major emergencies in veterinary medicine, and every K9 officer should prepare, in advance, a plan for getting treatment fast and learn to recognize the warning signs which include restless behavior, drooling/foaming around the mouth, and an engorged abdomen. Talk to you vet about this.

Much of the research I have seen suggests a genetic link to bloat. This means that if your dog is genetically pre-disposed to bloat (GSD or large deep-chest Malinois, i.e., most police dogs) then 2 meals a day is considered a good precaution. Some of the risk factors are breed, deep chest dogs, age (dogs over 7 years are more likely to bloat), and exercise immediately before or after feeding. For police dogs on shift work, once a day feeding is a big convenience. However, given the precautions suggested, perhaps a twice a day schedule would be better.

My personal dog is a smaller Malinois. I feed a premium food once a day, however, I wet the food prior to feeding so that it expands prior to going inside my dog. The higher quality the food, the less it will expand when it comes in contact with water. If you look at the bags of certain high-quality premium foods, many make the claim that they are designed not to expand in water. I would choose a food like this if you are still wanting to keep to the convenience of a once a day schedule. Another alternative is to feed a raw diet. Most practitioners of the raw diet, and other evidence also shows, a much reduced likelihood of bloat on this kind of diet. However, you have to do your homework to make sure your dog gets all the proper nutrition on this kind of diet.

I am retiring my current dog and about to get my second dog. This dog will be imported from Holland, he is a 2 year old Dutch Shepherd. The vendor says he is a high drive but social dog. I will be on vacation when he arrives which will give me time to bond. What are some of the best things to do in order to bond and start this off right?

First, the dog is 2 years old which means he is relatively mature. If he is generally social, he will be looking for a bond depending on how long he has been separated from his previous handler. The longer the separation, the more he will crave the social bond with you.

What I tell my handlers is this: just be his friend. Keep life simple, and don’t get yourself into any pissing contests. I have rehabilitated a lot of handler aggressive dogs, and the best advice I can give is to not put yourself in a position where the dog has to make a decision about whether he wants to fight with you. What are those triggers?

Obedience Control. Most new handlers get bit because they think they have to exert obedience control over the dog at once. Remember, he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know you bought him, and therefore are his owner. He doesn’t have to take corrections from you until you actually have a bond.  Don’t put yourself in any situation where you have to make him be obedient. Just plan ahead. Walk him, keep him moving, and let him be a dog.

Food. If he growls over his food, don’t immediately think you have to discipline him for it. Remember, he doesn’t know you yet. I prefer to hand feed the dog throughout the day, smaller meals, when you walk him. This associates you with good things, and doesn’t give him a pile of food to have to guard. It also means that you will have to walk him a lot. If you feed him in the bowl, give it then walk away. When you come back to the kennel, have some treats to give him in case he is one of those dogs that will guard an empty bowl out of habit. The food creates a positive association with you, and distracts him from the bowl. The food treats are fed then gone. Do not give him rawhides or real meat bones in his crate or kennel under any circumstances. If he will guard anything, he will guard these.

Objects. Don’t play ball with him, unless you know for sure he will happily give it up to you. This includes kongs, balls, PVC, etc. What if he doesn’t want to give it back? Well you can try the two ball method, but what if he still doesn’t want to give it back? Now you have put yourself in the position of having a conflict with him.

Redirected Aggression. If you don’t know his dog aggression history, walk him away from other dogs (males and females) as if this gets him over-excited he may redirect to you. Even a dog described as “social” can have an issue with other dogs, and if you hold him back on the leash, it can frustrate him a lot, and can cause him to redirect that frustration to you.

Affection. If the dog is dominant at all, giving him too much affection can cause him to see you as a fawning subordinate, thus worthy of some ritualistic dominance displays. I withhold all affection from my dominant dogs, letting food treats from hand do the talking. The more you ignore them the more likely they will be to seek affection from you, putting them in a more subordinate role off the bat. Do not let him socialize with your wife/husband and any kids. I preach that a dog is a piece of your equipment. Nobody handles him but you, especially before you know that dog inside and out.  These 2 weeks prior to class are not the time to take any chances.

The bottom line is this. Before you start class, keep it simple. Assume the worst, and be pleasantly surprised. Lots of long quiet walks, hand feeding, and time together for him to get to learn you. How you walk, how you talk, how you breathe, and what to expect from you. Once you get in class, you will be his “ride to the action” which will make him like you all the more. Keep yourself out of any potential conflicts. He won’t leak out any of his drive, so don’t be compelled to put him in drive for a ball or any bite work before you are in class with your trainer. Let him be a dog, get to know his behaviors, and keep it all fun and very relaxed.

Is there a good way to channel frustration away from the handler and back to the decoy? I have a 4 year old GSD that I have worked for about 2 years. He is a low to medium drive dog. When we do build up exercises he often will get frustrated when he is held back on his leash. After a second or two he will turn around and bite me, never very hard, just a frustration bite. When I correct him hard for doing that, he will shut down a little and it takes some time to build his drive again. I know he is not the highest drive dog, but it is all I have to work right now so any help would be appreciated.

Most cops, when working aggression control exercises, feel compelled to stand right directly next to the dog, putting themselves in the best place for some redirected or frustration aggression. When working the dog on “build up” exercises, put the dog on a back tie (post) and work on moving around the dog as the dog is working. You can stand behind the decoy when you alert the dog, so your physical presence is not competing with the decoy’s. Then when he is on the grip, come in and touch the dog. You can put a second line on the dog that the decoy holds, or a trainer holds slightly loose, to keep the dog from redirecting on you. Prevent the issue rather than trying to correct the dog after the fact.

With you moving in and out during the bite session, set it up so that you are not correcting him (for the out, say) when you are standing next to him. Double line him for the out (one line on the post to his flat collar, a second line used for correction into the grip from behind the decoy on the training collar) so he physically can’t bite you, and for god’s sake don’t correct the dog for nipping you if it shuts him down!  Take your body out of the line of fire and condition the behavior such that he focuses only on the decoy. Use a third person for the corrections, and use the second line to keep him from turning to you. Make this a mild correction. When the dog refocuses on the decoy, let him bite, so he learns that staying focused earns him grips. If he is on the back-tie, you can also have the decoy escape out when he loses focus. When the dog regains focus on the decoy, barking aggressively, let the barks bring the decoy back, and let the dog get the grip. Reward outs with re-grips to reduce frustration. Many times the dog bites the handler because out means the biting is over, so his drive which is now capped by the obedience at a high level has to go somewhere, and, well, your ass is right there! Outs, recalls, or any other control exercise needs to be rewarded, otherwise you increase frustration, and lose control in the long run.

Too many handlers have a black and white understanding of a dog coming back on them out of frustration. It is not a deliberate attack on your perceived “alpha” status, it is a frustration reaction. Set your training up to make focusing on the decoy a higher payoff than nipping at you, and the behavior will cease to occur.