Need To Know

By Professor Tom Brownlee

I was discussing an idea for an article, via email, and Dr. Chris Aycock wrote, “How about an article about dedication. I mean here you are working full time, old as dirt ( my dirt is only 10 years older than his) researching, learning, going to classes, teaching classes, training etc. Why do it? What drives you to do all that? What do you have that is missing in a lot of trainers? And what can handlers do to follow that growth?”

As always, Chris is a master at positive reinforcement, and as always, he makes me think. So I sat down and jotted down some notes on this whole concept. The words that kept appearing in my random thoughts were - “To learn…” and “Need to Know.” Then, for the umpteenth time, I reviewed SMI Ron Ashie’s articles elsewhere on the web page. “ The X Factor” and “ Cloudy Dreams; I want to be a K9 Trainer”. Truer words were never spoken (or written ).

So I did a quick checklist on what he had to say.

*You’ll spend more on training in the first five years than you will earn from it. Affirmative. Check.

* Dog training is dirty work ….I’ve been peed on, crapped on, barfed on and bitten… ( sometimes even by dogs…) Check.

* It is 80% dealing with people. I haven’t been able to get it under about 90% Check plus.

* You’ll use vacation time and personal funds to attend training schools….Check.

* Dog training is a vicious business, and slander….I’ve had other trainers who have never met me, or seen my work say nasty things indeed. Check Plus. So far so good.

There are a number of reasons I do it, a couple of big ones, and a number of small ones, I’ll get to later. First and foremost we all get started in this because of a love of dogs, add to that, in my case, a deep seated belief that we do not expect nearly enough of dogs. They are capable of a great deal more than we are capable of seeking out of them. If we understood more about them, we could maximize their potential. That’s where ASCT comes in, by taking the information taught in advanced level classes on olfaction, chemistry and neuroscience and extrapolating on those concepts, a whole new world opens up to the trainer or handler who is paying attention.

The truly exciting part is that we have just scratched the proverbial surface of these concepts. This brings me to another big motivator, at least for me; taking this information, plus anything I can glean from independent research, and applying it to actual training situations is something I find intellectually stimulating. I have a passion for learning something that is actually usable in the real world, and properly done, can be a benefit to all parties concerned.

The entire spectrum of dog training is fraught with anecdotal evidence, and it simply isn’t good enough. I have a passion to know why, exactly, something takes place. ASCT Technical training in advanced schools put forth information that provides verifiable evidence of why a dog does what he does, and how to shape that information into useful training. Combine the way my mind works, these schools and the information provided and you have a stimulated, motivated individual.

I don’t want to simply know that dogs with a lot of white in their coats are often born deaf. I want to know why. ( Its called pleiotropy.. Check it out.) I know that Border Collies often require a different anesthetic protocol for surgery because of a low body fat ratio. Does the same thing apply to a Malinois? ( It does…it has to do with fat soluble compounds) And so forth. I don’t mind spending hours wading through a Doctoral Dissertation on Spectral Tomography in a dog’s brain, all 93 pages of it, to get two useful paragraphs of information. Or some 20 odd pages of the 2004 Freeman Scholar Lecture on Fluid Dynamics and the Department of Homeland Security to get quite a bit of VERY useful information on olfaction…

When I utilize this information to understand a dog and get through to him and I see him respond I learn something from it. When I see “ the light go on” in his head I learn something from it. I found out early that when I learn something, something that will shape and change the way I train in the future, regardless of how trivial it seems to the casual observer, I find myself pumped up by it for the remainder of the day. Being the product of well educated ( and educator) Type A parents, the learning is it’s own reward for me.

When I use this information to analyze a dog by watching what he is doing in a given situation and I am able to connect the dots from the classroom or the computer to the dog, I learn something else, and it pumps me up. Those of you who have had the fortune ( good or bad, you be the judge) of having me peer over your shoulder or walk you through narcotics searches have no doubt gotten sick of hearing me say, “Watch the Dog!”

When I get to work with a new (to me) handler, I learn something. I approach the exercise thinking to myself, - What can I learn from this person? And, I have little doubt the handler is thinking the same thing. Every handler, regardless of length of experience, has noticed something that I have not. It may be unique to his or her dog but its all grist for my mill as a trainer.

When I get to work with a dog that I’ve not met before, I think, - What can I learn from this dog? They are all different, like humans, and the difference may be subtle, but it is there, and they never disappoint. I caught myself telling my assistant, during a narcotics search with my own dog, “I learn something from this dog every time I put her into a vehicle.” That about says it all. And again, when I learn something I can use, I am cranked up all day. Tiny little things learned make a huge difference in my attitude.

Attitude seems to be another thing that differentiates people in dog training/handling. My attitude has always been first and foremost, that I can learn something from any facet of dog training. Secondly, it is “ Why can’t this be done?” instead of factoring in all the negatives. ASCT enters here again. Why can’t I get some professional guidance in training Service Dogs for the disabled? Well, with ASCT it turns out I can. “Why can’t I, as a civilian learn to train Narcotics Detection dogs for LE ?” Well, with ASCT it turns out I can. “Why can’t I get more out of this dog/ handler, and how will I do it?” Another area that I find attitude plays a huge role in training is something I seem to be good at… making mistakes.

Learning takes a quantum leap when we factor in our mistakes. Far, too many handlers and trainers on all levels refuse to profit from their mistakes. They beat themselves up for a mistake, or worse yet blame their dogs. My attitude says it is never the dog’s fault. It is tough to admit a lot of errors, especially when they happen “in front of the guys”. At the risk of sounding preachy - mistakes are learning opportunities, to not take advantage of them is folly. It’s right there in front of you, it’s free, it’s probably more graphic than you’d like, let it stick in your mind and not your craw. “The guys” will be home two hours later, forgot all about it and be back to worrying about their mortgage or why their young daughter threw up in second grade class.

I recognize mistakes when I see them, because I have personally made them all ( I think…probably wrong again…) and when I point them out to a handler, I promise it is the voice of experience speaking.

Another reason I train is the leap from learning to the Need to Know. I Need to Know how to make this dog perform for his handler. We are all training dogs whose consistent performance can be a lot more important than a pet doing a parlor trick. I Need to Know how things work with that dog, so I can know how to take advantage of his abilities and his brain to get to the necessary level of performance. I Need to Know the dog will perform reliably every time it is deployed. Besides narcotics I train Service Dogs for the Disabled. I Need to Know this dog is going to pick up the oxygen hose for her handler every time it is accidentally unhooked. It is a little thing for the dog to do, if not done, it turns into a big thing…quickly. I Need to Know the dog trained to track a child with Autism can do his job at midnight and 20 below zero and do it in a hurry, otherwise you wouldn’t see my “old as dirt,” butt running behind a dog in the dark, on a January night, in Montana.

Above and beyond it all I Need to Know the technical information that makes it all come to fruition. Enter again, ASCT. When the information and the experience come together to produce the performance results, there is an undeniable satisfaction attached to it…..Dog training is something for the highly self-motivated, rewards are few, far between, and mostly intangible, if you need reassurance or a constant flow of positive reinforcement for yourself, this is the wrong business. I noticed right away on that (and many other) cold January nights there was no one out there running behind me telling me how good I was doing.

Some would say being “driven” to do something involves a passion for it. I have a passion for dog training, and as I analyzed it, I found it has something in common with my other passions, big game hunting and fly fishing. All involve taking a great deal of accumulated knowledge and information, and concentrating on applying it all. This concentration requires that one becomes detached from whatever else is on one’s mind. (The reason people find fly fishing “relaxing“) All involve “coming to the table, ready to play”. Training Dogma states 98% of what you are feeling goes down that leash. If you come to a session with anything else on your mind, there will be a decrease in performance. Anything that gives me that kind of focus I find rewarding in and of itself.

I have encountered other rewards in K9, unexpected rewards, from seeing a handler or another trainer do well. From working with people of like minds. From being privileged to work with some truly high caliber handlers in ASCT. I had the good fortune of running a handler through ten vehicle hides in a school last fall. He had only been a handler for a year. He was flawless, and in my old brain with very selective memory I was seeing a lot of myself in him, so after about six hides I stopped him and asked him who was training him. His departmental trainer had given him the basics, and the technical information, and turned him loose (realizing with this guy’s motivation, that was no doubt the best way) He had learned it pretty much on his own, much the same way I had, and it showed. He was also the only handler I have been with in a school that insisted we stop in the middle of these ten vehicles and run the dog around a “clean” car. Ten in a row is an unrealistic scenario, and regardless of what his instructor thought, or wanted to do, he wanted to do what was best for his dog. This is the kind of little thing that separates excellent from good . I notice it, and I love to see it.

I also had the pleasure of working with another handler in another school, a young woman who, unlike “the guys” just naturally found herself crawling around on all fours, sticking her head into every nook and cranny, and virtually squealing verbal encouragement to her dog as they did room searches for narcotics. This is the type motivation that cranks a dog up and again separates excellent performance from good. It is another little thing, but what exactly is your dog going to do if you are on the floor sticking your head in a cabinet? Right. He’s going to stick his head in too. I love seeing this stuff, and working with this caliber of personnel. Little things, and I learn some of them from every handler and trainer I come in contact with.

Another thing I have found that keeps me going in dogs is the professionalism I have encountered. In the work-a-day world, or indeed in K9 outside of ASCT I have not found this. SMI Chris Aycock is the most professional individual I have ever encountered in any venue. He sets an example by dealing with me, and every other Trainer and Handler in a straightforward professional manner. You cannot help but presume that he and the others would prefer to be dealt with in the same fashion. Sure enough, when you reciprocate, you get results. I am driven to reciprocate, and deal with clients, handlers and trainers in the same equitable and professional manner. Conversely speaking those I have seen taking shortcuts or not totally immersing themselves in K9 are usually conspicuous by their absence soon enough.

Besides the rewards of dealing with good handlers and other trainers, we come back full circle to the dogs. With luck they all show us something exceptional. I love working with what I call “performance” dogs , intelligent, thinking beings who like to be challenged. Special Dogs. There was the ranch dog, who had figured out WAY too much without training. There was the little passive alert Border Collie who would pinpoint narcotics by very quickly touching the source of the odor with her nose, if you blinked you would miss it. There was the Shepherd I decoyed for in suspect apprehension who would rip the molding from around a closed door trying to get through….and so on. We all have that “one” dog who was probably most instrumental in getting us involved. Another reason we do this, hoping in the back of our minds to encounter and help along another special dog. Mine was a GSD who took care of me during an extended recuperation after an accident, showed me what a dog was capable of, and more than once, without hesitation, threw herself between me and impending or even perceived danger… in some small way what I do is recompense for a debt I can never repay….