“Real world knowledge in all aspects of law enforcement K9 training.”

Learning Concepts

By R.S. Eden

Eden K9 Group

With the vast  training styles available in the world, it has become a common saying  that the only one concept any two dog trainers can agree on is what the  third one is doing wrong.

Even so,  regardless of the training techniques used by today 's trainers, most  have some degree of success. Even in the last twenty years the concepts  of police dog training have seen a vast variety of techniques used. Some have gained popularity while others have lost their luster. In some  cases, the techniques seem to cycle like many popular fads.

Training, in  its simplest form, is the application of pain or pleasure to a given  behavior in order to obtain the desired results. Over the years however, we have had a tendency to lean towards the use of compulsion, pain  compliance and negative reinforcement, applying the human thought  process to the application of canine training techniques.

One of the  greatest failures of law enforcement trainers is our resistance to ideas from someone outside the law enforcement circle who just may have some  techniques that are better than ours.

For example,  why do so many trainers continue to use compulsive-based methods of  training when motivational techniques seem to provide so much more  stability and better long-term success in a finished animal?  My entire  foundation of training, when I started training dogs, was fundamentally  compulsive, however over the years I have watched dogs trained in  different sports and for different job-related applications and have  learned that there are always better concepts to training if I am  willing to be open minded and learn about them.

One example of a training style that I enjoy watching is that of agility dog  competitors. If you have ever had an opportunity to watch these dogs  compete, then you know the talent that is involved in getting these dogs to perform. Much of what they do is similar to the K9 agility courses  police dogs work on, with much more added to it. The dogs run up and  down ramps, learn to jump at specific locations off the ramps, weave in  and out of poles, run through tunnels and jump over various obstacles.  Points are assessed based on the best speed, with time added for any  mistakes during the run. At what point during this program would  compulsive training be applicable?

Another example of motivational or operant conditioning training techniques comes from  the methods used by ocean mammal trainers. Virtually everyone at some  point in his or her life has seen the performances of trained dolphins  or whales at an aquarium attraction. Consider for a moment how those  trainers develop an animal such as a killer whale to the point where the animal has a desire to perform specific actions on request. I think I  can pretty safely say that none of them use compulsive methods of  training, yet their performances are flawless.

The training  styles mentioned above are dependent upon motivational training  techniques. These techniques have been created as a direct result of the study of the animal behavior of the species on which they are working.

This is not to  say that compulsive methods of training do not work, or are inapplicable in dog training. On the contrary, many compulsive techniques are used  with varying degrees of success. Frequently a compulsive technique will  solve a training issue very definitively and as such it still has its  place, even in my own training regimens. However, the degree to which I  use these methods, and the confidence I place in them have changed  dramatically over the years. Compulsive training techniques are based on pain induced compliance. From a human thought process, this is  effective and obtains the desired result. At least, this is what many  trainers espouse.

However, if we  look at the same animal and try to obtain the same desired result using  motivational methods, experience teaches us that the results obtained  are longer lasting with much less recidivism. The dog performs the  desired actions with a positive attitude, and actually enjoys the  process.

Why is there so much difference in success rates between the two methods? There are a  number of reasons, but the most prominent explanation is simply that  motivational techniques require the trainer to understand and apply  concepts of animal behavior. In other words he or she understands how  the canine mind functions and understands how to communicate with and  shape the animals behavior. A good dog trainer understands fundamental  canine behavior and is able to create desired results by communicating  with the animal using techniques the animal is able to understand,  rather than trying to get the dog to conform to human behavior.

Compulsive Training Techniques

Compulsive  techniques can work to a degree in dog training and in fact, most of  your training can be completed using compulsive methods. However the  entire process is done using pain compliance or pain avoidance and the  levels of compliance can be varied depending on each individual animal.

Take for  example a simple heeling exercise and three levels of dogs. For this  example we are going to assume that each dog we are working with has had no previous training. The first dog we work with is a dog that for the  most part we would consider a soft€ dog, or a dog that is handler  sensitive. We put a pinch collar or a choke chain on the dog and start  to work a heeling exercise. As we proceed to move forward and the dog  has its first correction, the likely reaction you will get is probably  going to be one of confusion, maybe even of protest. A really weak dog  may even go into a panic. Our compulsive method must adjust to a level  where we don 't end up ruining the dog or damaging him to a point where  it creates a social problem with him. On some very soft dogs, this  method of training would never be appropriate.

Now let's  consider using the same technique on a good quality, levelheaded dog  that is well suited for police work. He has passed all the basic  requirements for testing and is now going into his first obedience  session. Applying the same techniques as we applied on the soft  € dog,  this dog is likely going to adjust quickly and perform very well,  understanding and complying with the corrections given. Having said  this, even a well-adjusted dog will have some negative reactions to some of the corrections and will at times show a small amount of   €  softness  €  to the handler if the handler is required to perform a strong  correction. The dog will be somewhat handler-sensitive at least for a  moment subsequent to the correction, until the exercise continues to a  point where the correction is forgotten. At this point the dog starts to come around and enjoy the exercise again, particularly if the  appropriate verbal praise is being applied during the exercise. We then  work the exercise to the point where the dog is provided an opportunity  to repeat the previous mistake so that another correction can be  administered. Again, through a pain stimulus, the dog complies and the  exercise continues.

It is important here to note one basic fundamental concept regardless of the training  style you use; the dog performs to satisfy himself. If a stimulus is  strong enough to overcome the present activity the dog is performing,  the canine instinct is to yield to the stronger stimulus. An example  here would be in order. If during this heeling exercise a rabbit were to suddenly dart out in front of your dog, his instinct to pursue prey  would likely be significant enough to cause him to break from the  exercise. A soft dog would likely be so sensitive to being on line that  he would not even consider breaking.  Our more level-headed dog will  likely attempt to break, but with a good sharp correction he will likely comply in order to prevent the correction again. A very strong willed  dog with a high pain threshold will very likely ignore your attempts to  correct him and may continue to try to break away, even though the level of correction, even in a pinch collar, is very high. Thus stated, the  stimulus for what you want your dog to do must place a greater desire in him to do what you want him to do rather than for him to break away to  do what comes instinctively.

Now let 's take  our heeling exercise and apply it to a dog that is extremely  Alpha,  a dog that would be considered a hard dog. These dogs frequently have  such intensity that they can tolerate many corrections designed to  enforce pain compliance. Many agencies prefer this type of dog as it  shows all the strong confidence traits right out of the box €.  Dogs that are at the higher end of this spectrum may have a tendency to challenge the handler if the correction is being administrated physically via a  leash and collar. They are also more apt to challenge a handler who  corrects them improperly. It is not unusual for a dog that is resistant  or capable of tolerating high pain compliance methods to strike out and  attack the handler during a training routine. Such a reaction can create a potentially dangerous precedent if the handler does not immediately  overcome and defeat the aggressive assault by the dog. Should the dog  win this situation in a decisive manner, there is potential for this  undesirable behavior to continue and progressively worsen. This dog soon becomes a dangerous animal to attempt to control or work with.  Well-meaning handlers/trainers can even create this scenario in a dog  that would not normally exhibit this type of behavior if they are  consistently heavy-handed or if they correct heavily during  inappropriate moments when the dog does not understand the reason for  the correction. It is important that if the dog begins to exhibit  behavior of an aggressive nature towards the handler, or inappropriate,  unsocial behavior, whoever is working the dog should seriously consider  their training regimen, and even reconsider whether the dog is an  appropriate candidate.

Positive Reinforcement

Now take those  same three basic types of dogs and put them into a positive training  routine using motivation as the main method of training. In all three  cases we are going to work these dogs in an enclosed environment,  without any collars or other equipment on the dog.

We start each  dog the same way, using his or her favorite toy, even food. It doesn't  matter what is used to do the training, as long as whatever is used is  their strongest motivator. For my training, I usually prefer a ball such as a Kong.  I can hold the Kong in any position I like in order to move  the dog into the appropriate position. When the dog sits appropriately I immediately fire him the ball and give him verbal praise as well. The  exercise continues as we begin the heeling exercise, and when the dog is in the appropriate position the ball again is thrown directly to the  dog as a reward and small playtime is taken.

Regardless of  what type of dog we are working, there is no negative involved. From the soft dog to the hard dog, the complete exercises are entirely  motivational. Because there is never any negative reinforcement, there  is no conflict between handler and dog. All three dogs are enjoying the  routines, and even the hard dog is learning that the reward comes if and when the handler desires to give it to him. There is no conflict;  therefore any opportunity for a harmful interaction between dog and  handler has been removed.

As you can see, in all three personality types, the dogs are going to finish on a  positive note, enjoying the interaction with the handler. The soft dog  is going to enjoy the exercise with little or no negative reaction. The  moderate dog is going to perform just as well without any negative  effects of handler softness that may be created by physical corrections, and the hard dog is also going to finish the exercise with a strong  positive outcome. In all three cases, the dogs' attitudes towards the  training experience are going to be positive ones.

A major  advantage to operant conditioning techniques is that the behaviors can  be taught without ever putting a collar on the dog. The handler learns  to interact and work with the dog in a manner that the dog understands.  The dog has a desire to complete the exercise as directed.

Your dog will  never perform any task incorrectly, or do anything wrong if never given  the opportunity to make a mistake. This is where operant conditioning  techniques shine. Compulsive techniques are based on correcting the dog  for erroneous behavior, utilizing pain compliance only. However, if the  dog gets some degree of satisfaction before the correction comes, he has learned that he can succeed through inappropriate behavior. Operant  conditioning techniques provide the constant desire for the dog to  perform correctly in order to receive a given reward, never allowing him to experience any level of satisfaction from an erroneous behavior.

Dogs trained  using motivational techniques are easy to spot when watching them work  and interact with their handlers. These are dogs that can be very  intense, strong working dogs, however they are quite social and interact well with their handlers. In short, they enjoy the interactive  relationship with their handlers. The end result at the end of a full  course of training is a team that works well together and a dog that is  stress-free and is obviously enjoying the work.

This  motivational training style is also known as   €  operant conditioning  €. In  short, you are conditioning the animal in a manner where it will respond in a specific way to a stimulus or command provided. Once successfully  performed, the dog receives a reward for the correct behavior. Thus you  are shaping the behavior of the dog, conditioning him to respond to  specific stimuli.

Electrical Stimulation

The use of  electrical stimulation via remote collars works using the same concepts. The dog learns that he can turn off the stimulation when he is in the  proper position or performing in an appropriate manner. If you apply the principles of learning concepts using a remote collar in the previous  scenarios, you will find that you will have results similar to that of  using positive motivation, even though you are in fact using negative  reinforcement to obtain the desired results. In fact, you may even find  that the responses are quicker, as the dog knows that at certain points  if he does not perform an established behavior fast enough, then the  electrical stimulation will occur. Many trainers have a tendency to push their dogs to the limit using this concept, making the dog crisper and  quicker to react to direction given. The end result is a dog that looks  sharp and performs very well. Two major advantages in the use of remote  collars are that the dog does not relate the correction to the  handler/trainer, as occurs with on lead corrections, and that the  stimulation can be done at increasing distances from the trainer.

There are  negative sides to the use of electrical stimulation. If you watch  carefully you will find that dogs trained using remote collars will have a tendency to anticipate the commands. While there is the benefit of  instant correction, dogs trained using this method can have a tendency  to break and commit to a particular behavior in an attempt to beat the  negative reinforcement. (i.e.) when setting up to do a bite work  exercise you may see the dog literally vibrating in anticipation of the  command, his stress level will be up and sometimes the dog will break  and start the exercise before receiving the command to do so.

Many dogs  trained in this manner will constantly be   €  on the edge  € due to the  stress and intensity that comes with the use of electrical stimulation.  While the dog performs as directed, the relationship with the handler,  and the desire to accomplish the task at hand is achieved by an entirely different type of motivation than that of a dog trained using primarily operant conditioning techniques. This is a dog that is working to avoid the stimulation. His entire life is based on pain avoidance. This  system is very effective, with the exception of situations where a dog  becomes resistant to the stimulation, at which point the trainer must  re-evaluate his options and the workability of the dog.

It should also  be noted that not every dog is capable of coping with or understanding  what is desired of him with the concepts of electrical stimulation.  While applicable to dogs properly selected for law enforcement purposes, the use of remote collars would not be applicable to all dogs.

Looking  objectively at all three methods of training, it becomes very clear that the best all around method of training is one that shapes the dog€ 's  behavior by using techniques which use the dog's natural instincts and  does so in a positive light.

The training  techniques I now endorse are those that use motivational, operant  conditioning techniques. Wherever possible in my training regimens, the  use of positive reinforcement is applied with minimal compulsion or  negative reinforcements applied.

Training Methodology Comparison





Compulsive Techniques

  • Concept is simple
  • Easy to administer, handler only required to learn to correct inappropriate behavior.
  • Basic principles can be taught in a short period of time
  • Concept based on pain compliance
  • Any administered correction increases stress in the dog
  • Dog will have a tendency to test the waters at times, recidivism is common (i.e.: constant bite work correction)
  • Dog knows the handler is the origin of the correction
  • Handler sensitivity or conflict with the handler occurs
  • Requires a mature dog or a dog with confidence, not good for starting younger dogs




Positive Reinforcement

  • Concept based on canine instincts and behavior (approach is from the dogs point of view)
  • Can be used on any level of dog, including younger candidates without any negative effect
  • Once learned, recidivism is rare
  • Minimal upkeep on learned concepts
  • Learning is a constant positive
  • Entirely stress-free for the dog
  • Dog consistently enjoys the working environment
  • Working relationship with the handler is always positive
  • Process requires many repetitions and can be time consuming




Electrical Stimulation

  • Remote capability
  • Maximum control of the dog at all times
  • Concept includes operant conditioning ideals based on canine behavior
  • Use of collar takes the handler out of the picture as to where the corrections originate
  • Training time is less than using strictly positive reinforcement

This is a concept bsed on pain avoidance, often abused or misused as a  corrective device rather than as a training tool. As a result, the  following applies:

  • Increases stress in the animal
  • Animal has a tendency to be on edge  €
  • Dependency on the collar to overcome training inadequacies
  • Requires a mature dog or a dog with confidence, not good for starting younger dogs
  • Requires basics be taught using other techniques before the collar concepts can be applied.

Genetic and Environmental Development

It is important to understand that there are basically two types of behavior inherent  in any species, genetic (animal is born with built-in survival  instincts) and environmental (learned behaviors through life experiences).

This is  important to us as dog trainers in that we must understand that we  cannot control what behaviors are genetically created in the dog. We  know that in order to obtain quality dogs capable of meeting basic  courage, stress, stability and hunting requirements for law enforcement  work, we must have strong genetics to start with. For example, we cannot create courage or hunting instinct in the animal. We can however  manipulate and build on these behaviors if they are there. The only way  to control the genetic qualities of the stock we work with is through a  selective breeding process using animals that exhibit the strongest  genetic traits we require for police work.

We do however  have control over environmentally created or learned behaviors. Just  because we have a genetically sound dog that tests well in the initial  selection process doesn't mean the dog will work out.

We can make or  break the dog by how well we develop him through the various stages of  his life. Negative experiences can bring on learned behavior that will  have long-term effects to the point where the dog will never overcome  that experience. While initially he may have had the genetics to deal  with most situations, he may have become environmentally unsound through improper upbringing, abuse or accidental incidents that caused him  insecurity, pain or injury. These are developmental behaviors that we  refer to as environmental. We have control over the animal  € 's environment and his learned behavior is a direct result of his lifelong experiences within his environment.

Therefore, in  order for us to obtain the best possible candidates for law enforcement  applications, we must be determined to develop the most genetically  sound stock, and raise that stock in a manner that produces a  challenging, yet positive learning environment, constantly building on  the various basic behavioral building blocks given us by his genetic  imprint.

Neural Basis of Learning

The following  principles may seem somewhat complicated and irrelevant, however if you  understand how the brain functions and how an animal learns, you will  have a superior understanding of how to communicate and work with your  dog.

For us to  obtain maximum results from our training it is important for us to  understand how the dog thinks and how he learns from a canine  perspective rather than from a human perspective. We must realize that  the dog cannot understand higher reasoning concepts. Therefore, in order to be good handlers and/or trainers, it is imperative for us to  understand how the dogs mind works, how he thinks and learns. The  concepts are similar in all creatures with a developed brain, each  species having its own limitations. In other words, we will first learn  the concept of learning, then determine at what level the canine species is capable of learning. We then apply motivational principles that  shape the dogs behavior in a way that gives the animal the desire to  perform a specific action based on a specific situation and/or command  given by the trainer.

Learning  concepts hold true for all creatures with a developed brain. Behavior is a response to a given stimulus, producing a subsequent instinctive  reaction (inherently genetic in the animal when it is born) or a  reaction based on the learned behavior (environmentally-learned  behavior) of the animal.

Lesser species  rely more on instinct than learned behavior and higher species such as  human beings have the ability to rely on both instinct as well as  learned behavior involving cognitive reasoning.

The neural  basis of learning is a process of cell interaction. Every time we learn  something, we activate billions of brain cells that interact with one  another. Whenever we complete the same exercise repetitively, generally  speaking, the same cells in the brain are used to communicate what  action needs to take place. A simple example would be in order here.  When you are first learning to drive a car as a young person you were  taught the concept of signaling your intentions before turning or making a lane change. In the beginning it was a conscious thought process,  however as time progressed and your driving experience continued, you  found yourself signaling without thinking.

The same  process occurs in firearms training. We train using repetitive actions  in order to learn how to do things quickly and without thinking. The  purpose behind this is so that we will react instantly to a threat  without having to go through a conscious thought process. Virtually  anyone reading this book will have heard the term   €  muscle memory  € as it  refers to firearms training.

In reality, it  is not our muscles that has retained that memory, but a series of brain  cells that have been exercised through conscious repetition so many  times that the action becomes autonomic.

How does this  occur? Simply stated, cells interact with each other using a chemical to close the connection and communicate, referred to as a chemical  synapse. Think of each connection as a   €  bridge  € between two cells. This    €  bridge  € is called an axon and is coated with a myelin chemical sheath.  Each time those two cells communicate to perform a function a chemical  is deposited on that   €  bridge  €, continually building up the amount of  chemical between the communicating cells. Thus, the frequency in which  those cells are used increases the amount of chemical that is bridging  that synapse. The thicker the chemical connection, the less conscious  thought is required to accomplish the task, thus creating an automatic  response without conscious thought. Each task we learn requires billions of these connections to repeatedly occur before the resulting response  becomes automatic and without conscious thought.

In scientific  terms, a chemical synapse coats the myelin sheath, which over time  builds a coating on the axon so responses are autonomic and without  conscious thought.

If we stop  training for an extended period of time, our skills become substandard  because the chemical synapse on the applicable axons begins to break  down. Without constant updated training, we lose our skills, as the  chemical coatings are not being renewed. However, skills that are well  ingrained where the myelin sheath is extensively coated may take longer  to lose and may be easier to recover with limited repetition.

This learning  process continues through our lifetime and our skill levels are entirely dependent upon the amount of time and repetitions we are willing to  perform in order to achieve those levels.

Applying the Learning Concepts to Training

Understanding  how the brain functions for the learning process to develop makes it  much easier to understand how the dog learns. Take away the human  ability of cognitive reasoning and apply the neural learning concepts as stated to the limitations of the canine species and it helps us to  comprehend not only our training limitations but also our training  potential.

Consider the following rules when preparing your individual training goals:

    • Patience is paramount above all else.
    • Timing is everything. Any  corrections given, as well as praise and reward must be perfectly timed, appropriate, and sufficient to deal with the circumstances.
    • Consistency is another primary  ingredient to success. Do not change style or technique just because  your first attempt fails. A dog learns best from consistent technique.
    • If compulsion or electrical  stimulation is used to teach a concept, it is vitally important that the dog be verbally praised or otherwise immediately rewarded for proper  behavior.
    • If a correction is given for  inappropriate behavior, it must be sufficient to suppress that behavior  once and for all. To do only a minimum correction and continue having to correct the dog for the same inappropriate behavior is in and of itself abusive. Better a single definitively unforgiving correction given only once, than a less forgiving correction given numerous times, or on a  continual basis.
    • You must work on the level of  the dogs learning aptitude. The dog must understand what is expected of  him. Do not expect him to understand human reasoning.
    • Before doing any training  exercise, ensure you have defined the outcome you desire, then design  the exercise to ensure that outcome is reached. The exercise must be run in a manner that ensures success each and every time.
    • Never allow the dog to make a  mistake. If a mistake occurs and the dog wins his own objective, he has  learned that he can achieve results using his own means.
    • Repetition is fundamental to proper learning development.
    • Keep exercises brief and upbeat. Exercises of repetition teach the dog proper behavior. Exercises that  are short and repetitive will teach the skill.
    • Extended exercises should only  be attempted once repetitions have taught the skills flawlessly. Longer  duration exercises are designed to build stamina.
    • Use positive motivation whenever and wherever possible.
    • Keep the use of compulsion or the use of electrical stimulation to a minimum.
    • Use compulsion and/or electrical stimulation very judiciously followed with abundant praise when the  task is completed properly.
    • Break training profiles down  into small stages; teach each stage slowly, gaining fluidity with the  routine as the dog becomes familiar with each stage.
    • Once each stage is flawless, put them together to complete that profile from start to finish.
    • Combine the profiles to complete dynamic training exercises by training at speed. (Live scenario training)