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K9 Versus McK9 Academies

Written by David Ferland

The debate continues over the best and most efficient means of purchasing and training a police dog team. Quickie academies are springing up all over America, especially since 9/11 when demand for dogs in law enforcement grew at historic rates. These 2- to 4-week wonder schools sell a department “trained” police dogs and provide all the training a handler needs in an accelerated program. These fast food schools are merely an extension of our desire to have things immediately. This is the “McDonald-ization of society” as author and sociologist George Ritzer has called it.

With an investment of a couple weeks of training, the department is promised that the handler will learn how to work this dog, train this dog, problem solve this dog and know all the rules, laws and tactical uses. These “McK9 Academies” will actually certify the dog and handler as a K9 team. Chiefs are also intrigued that the department will have a dog ready to go in just two weeks. Traditional K9 academies are 10 to 16 weeks, so the attraction of having a handler leave the department to attend training for merely two weeks is a good deal.

The fast food tactic used by these quickie schools is to use skilled dog trainers to train the dog ahead of time, thereby causing fewer errors in training, fewer setbacks and will produce a predictably good outcome in the dog. Training new handlers who then in turn train the dog is considered to be too time consuming and inefficient. However, the dog is not a machine. It is not something that will have predictable results unless it is used in a manner consistent with its training. The true problem is this: the person who trained the dog is not the handler.

Traditional K9 academies have long required a minimum of 400 hours of training throughout a 10-week course. The police officer handler is paired with the dog, and they go though basic K9 training together. The untrained dog is matched with the novice dog handler. The 10-week academy follows a basic timeline and lesson plans designed to have a final product at the end of the 10 weeks.

Prepared by senior trainers who have trained hundreds of dogs, these lesson plans outline the average place a dog should be at any given time during this training. For example, by the end of Week 2, the dog should be able to follow a human scent 100 yards with one turn in the track. By the end of Week 5, the dog should be doing a 400-yard track with three turns, and so on. When the dog does not progress at this designed speed, the head trainer is summoned to help problem solve with the handler to get this dog back on track.

Traditional graduation day is one in which an independent certification takes place. The dog will be tested in obedience (ability to obey verbal and hand commands), agility (ability of the dog to surmount various obstacles such as a common picket fence), evidence recovery (dogs ability to seek out and locate evidence that has been touched by a human hand such as a discarded ski mask thrown into the woods shortly after a robbery), tracking (the dog must be able to follow a human scent trail), building search (the dogs ability to locate hidden humans inside a building), and officer protection (the ability of the dog to protect the handler along with a verbal bite release command).

The dog and handler will be judged as a team. Should the dog go to another handler for some reason, the certification is no longer valid because it was the team that had been certified—not just the dog, and not just the handler.

The evaluators are also important because they must have no vested interest in the dog team. Independent evaluations are critical in order to ensure that the team had achieved a certain level of performance. Teams that are judged by the person selling the dog would certainly lend to an appearance of impropriety, if not an actual fraud, to merely complete the sale.

Another value of traditional K9 academies is that the handler becomes the trainer. Granted, this handler would not have enough experience after just one dog to be considered a head trainer, but the handler is the trainer to that one dog, having done much, if not all, of the hands-on training with this dog. It is the job of the head trainer to teach the handler how to best train that dog, and it is then the handler who trains the dog. At the quickie McK9 academy, there is no time to train the handler on how the dog was trained. There is merely time to show what the dog can do at that given time and no time for team development.

When it comes time to move this dog into advanced work performance, the McK9 handler does not have the foundational training skills to achieve this. The McK9 handler with the grand total of about 100 hours of total training does not come close in having the dog-training skills of the traditional K9 handler with 400 hours of basic dog training. The traditional handler will have experience and a knowledge base to be able to train the dog into the next level. The McK9 handler will be forced to keep making calls to the fast food vendor asking the dog trainer for continued guidance on training the dog.

The dog is not a machine and cannot be treated like one. Through our zeal to be more efficient and more cost effective, we lose reliability. Complex dog training is not “drive thru” and takes time and skillful handling to be deployed with predictable outcomes. Poorly trained K9 teams are a horror show waiting to happen. When this does occur, this one poorly trained team will affect the credibility of all police K9 teams with public image problems and restrictive court case law.

Take the example of a common building search call. This type of call would be categorized as needing complex dog training because it involves obedience training (obey commands), scent training (locating by smell the hiding place of the bad guy), agility training (going up stairs in the dark or walking up a fire escape) and criminal apprehension training. All the sub parts of dog certification are involved in the building search.

You must have a well-trained and balanced dog to conduct a building search with safety, skill and predictability. You can have the world’s most obedient dog, but if it does not know how to search, he will not find the bad guy and will not be a good building searcher. Conversely, a champion hunting dog that can not protect himself or the handler will not last long doing building searches as he will surely be assaulted by these bad guys sometime in the near future.

Take our McK9 handler with a skilled dog in a building search. This time, the dog is not really interested in searching out the bad guy. It really enjoys smelling the floor that has not been washed and still smells of spilled roast beef. How will the handler problem solve this? The two-week McK9 academy didn’t cover this, and now the handler must think outside the box to find a solution. A more seasoned handler will probably be able to work around the issue right away, while the fast food handler is forced to find a cell phone to call the original trainer.

The truly effective dog team is not just the dog but the handler, as well. The handler must be a skilled trainer, not for all types of dogs, but at least for the dog that he is working at the time. Giving a trained dog to an unskilled handler is like giving the racecar to the teenager who just got a license. How well would that team perform?

The most effective way to produce a reliable K9 team must be with both of them training and learning together over time. A few weeks are not long enough for a handler to learn the intricacies of the training, tactics and legal issues surrounding the K9 team. Yet, McK9 academies promise just that, and they are popping up everywhere.

Our desire to have more police dogs deployed and our need to have them right now has police administrators looking at these McK9s as the solution. The dog may be trained, but the handler surely is not.

The department bosses need to recognize that McK9s are like a candy bar. There is short-term gain and a feeling of being satiated, but in the long term, a candy bar offers little but a temporary gain with long-term problems possible. The quickly trained K9 team will also give that short-term buzz in the form of media coverage and a feeling from the public that the police are doing something. However, you will have problems when the dog turns from an image of security to actually being needed for security.

Captain David “Lou” Ferland has been a police officer in Portsmouth, NH for the past 24 years. He acquired his master’s degree in criminal justice administration and is a doctoral candidate with Franklin Pierce University. He has been with police dogs for the past 20 years, is a nationally certified police K9 trainer and judge, and is the previous head trainer of the NH Police K9 Academy. He can be reached at ferlandd@pd.cityofportsmouth.com.

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2008

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