Build and Educate Your Team

By Certified Trainer Sgt. Adam Slater


We all attend a canine basic school or an annual conference with the goal of becoming a certified or re-certified canine team.  Most of us refer to the team as the canine and the handler.  Sometimes handlers may also include their trainer’s involvement and guidance as part of their team.  In actuality, the TEAM is everyone you interact within the course of your canine duties.


Who are we talking about as potential team members? We are talking about our training decoys, cover officers, perimeter units, fellow canine officers, and administration staff, just to name a few.  Below I will discuss how to empower these individuals. Empowering your team ultimately promotes their desire to rally behind you and your canine program.  Never put a limit on the number of individuals who can form your team.  The bigger the team and the more enabled they are = the more success you will have! Furthermore, it is your responsibility to provide the knowledge each team member will need, and not only allow, but encourage their investment and the success of the team.


Training Decoys

A good training decoy is an exceptionally valuable team member! My training decoys are extremely motivated, placing tracks through areas where no man, or dog for that matter, should be expected to go! This allows Odin and I to experience live style tracking applications frequently on unknown training tracks.  It pushes me to read my dog and not just say, “The decoy didn’t go through that.”  Although giving your decoy the freedom to experiment drives you and your canine to improve, keep in mind, it is important to also offer guidance on what you are trying to accomplish for your training on that particular day.


In the beginning I worked diligently, adding to my team, and persuading officers I work with to invest in my canine program. I would actively seek out members of my department to decoy, especially those who had poor experiences with canines in the past.  Even though these officers were not what one would call “pro dog”, I would simply ensure them that Neeko, or Odin, was ready for a good unknown track.  I would give the decoy a determined location and some basic instructions, but leave the ultimate route and specific hiding place up to them.  Make certain your canine is, in fact, prepared for this track prior to enlisting the assistance of these individuals to insure success. This approach has worked to change these officers attitudes to “pro dog” one hundred percent of the time! 


As of today, several of these officers are some of Odin and my biggest supporters.  The same officers who did not hold perimeter and would not call for a canine, if their life depended on it, now have been known to contact me during vehicle pursuits prior to the suspect even fleeing from the location on foot.  The reason is, they have developed confidence in the canine team.  In turn, they have become part of the team themselves, which further enhances the team’s potential success.


Thank your decoys and debrief the track with them. For other members to invest in your team they need to feel like a part of it.  When you have helpers, tell them you appreciate what they did.  Then, find out where they went.  Tell them where you went.  Explain to them why the dog may be tracking several feet off the track, such as when there is heavy wind, or why the canine may have used air scent at the end of the track.  You may think this is unimportant, however, in my experience, the things I have discussed with my decoys have almost always come up again in live tracking situations.  If you discuss, ahead of time, how scent travels, becomes displaced, where it rests, etc. It will supply your team the understanding of where and when to search when acting as a cover officer.


Cover Officer

Cover Officers are the lifeline for canines and their handlers.  Talk to your cover officers before you begin tracks. Tell them where you would like them, in reference to you and the dog.  Don’t leave things unsaid.  Be clear, take the time to answer any questions, as many officers have never worked with a canine team before.  How many of us have had a cover officer say, “Is your dog even on track?” I know it is inconvenient at times, but if you are able and willing to educate the cover officer, even briefly, it will stimulate their interest in the tracking process.  If they are interested, they are invested and alert.  We don’t want our cover officer to mentally check out when we need them to be alert. 


An example of this when my canine suddenly gave a negative, spun violently, and began tracking hard in another direction, and I told my cover officer, “Did you see that negative?  We are on!”  That’s all it takes folks!  Keep your cover officers engaged in the same way you would keep your canine engaged.  It’s okay to talk to them.  Make them part of your team, because they are.  In addition, when possible, use cover officers on your training tracks.  Not only does this allow for added success of the canine team, it provides consistency and good practice when training potential cover officers with what you expect from them. 



Perimeter Units

How many of us have been on perimeter while a canine track was occurring and said, “I wonder what’s going on?”  I know I have.  The best way to make your perimeter units’ part of your team is KEEP THEM UPDATED.  This may not always be possible for the canine handler himself.   You can, however, use the brief at the beginning of the track to assign one of your cover officers (or “the” cover officer) the duty of updating the canine team’s location and possible re-assignment of locations for perimeter units.  Its okay, and recommended, to let the perimeter units know if the canine is “on track” or “casting.”  Be honest, if you think you lost the track, let them know where.  Notify them if clothing or items are located and have them adjust perimeter when the direction of the track is known. 


This may sound similar to above, but contact your perimeter units after the track is complete, no matter the outcome and thank them for their assistance.  Answer any questions they have about the track.  If it’s a capture, share the story with them.  Embrace them as part of the team, making sure they know your success could not be possible without them.  It is a proven fact, when on a criminal track, the better the perimeter, the higher the chance of a capture.  Your perimeter members are some good folks to have on your team!


Fellow Canine Officers

It’s awesome to have fellow canine officers on your team.  They can assist you with training and live situations.  They are great to debrief incidents with and trouble shoot potential issues.  All canines are different, but it is beneficial to learn what works for other canine officers and add helpful suggestions (that fit your style) to your tool box. 


Administration Staff

It may seem odd to you to add Administration Staff to your team, but these are some of your biggest supporters.  Keep them informed about your success and failures, both training and live.  If your administration supports your team the sky is the limit.  Trust me, they want to know when the canine succeeds every bit as much as you want to tell them.  This is important because they have the ability to fight for the financial issues of your canine program and want to be invested in its success also. 


Thank Your Team Members

I personally believe it is very important to give credit where credit is due.  Thank all of your team members.  Understand, without my entire team, Neeko / Odin and I would not have achieved near the success we have had.  We have a trainer who makes himself available at any time for questions, and concerns. We have decoys who prepare us for some of the most difficult tracks.  From going through water, into sticker bushes, over walls, and into canyons.  We have had cover officers save us from being stabbed, pulled us out of holes, and engage multiple suspects prior to the canine locating them.  We have had perimeter units catch suspects we have pushed into them, adjust perimeter to effectively catch suspects, and lock areas down where the suspect otherwise would not have been located.  We have worked with other canine units on major crime deployments, and shared important information ultimately leading to captures.  We have the complete support and trust of our administration and always keep them advised of any information pertaining to the canine team, good or bad. 


Don’t be afraid to add members to your team! The bigger, more educated, and invested your team is, the more success you will have! GO TEAM!