Problems are Good

By Certified Trainer Sgt. Adam Slater

My instructor, and those who know me, like to refer to me as “EMOTIONAL”.  Trust me, during my first two years as a handler this emotional tag was pushed to its limits.  Working with my first patrol canine, Neeko, it seemed like all I had were problems; tracking problems, training problems, apprehension and bite work problems.  I even had problems with my canine’s skeletal and nerve health.  In saying this, it is my hope this article helps you understand, we never really have “problems” with our canines.  We have “situations to learn and gain knowledge from”.  Of course it didn’t feel like learning opportunities at the time, but the knowledge I gained from all the “problems” Neeko and I faced in that short period of time built my knowledge.  I believe much of my success I have had with Odin is correlated directly to what I learned from my past with Neeko.  Let me walk you through some of the “problems” we faced together and how I am better because of them.

Situation #1

When I first received Neeko he was extremely strong willed.  He had no problem coming back up the leash if he had taken insult to a correction I had given him.  I was a new handler, my timing was hideous, commands were too loud / yelling, and my movements were clumsy.  I looked very much like that “flag chasing behind the dog”.  Neeko, being the very smart dog he was, took full advantage of my mistakes and put me in my place whenever he got the chance.  Needless to say I got bit / nipped a lot.  Most of this was because my timing was so horrible. 


I became exceedingly frustrated and emotional about Neeko continually biting and nipping at me.  This was the first situation I encountered from which I could learn from.  My trainer was an awesome resource and assisted me in every step of my interaction and training with Neeko.  I clearly explained to him any issues I was having and he gave me a series of potential fixes.  My trainer explained to me things like: not moving too slowly, timing corrections appropriately when the dog does not give a negative, how to give multiple motivational rewards along a track to keep the dog motivated and focused less on my timing issues and more on the track.  He also worked with me on line handling and how to not give inadvertent corrections to the canine, which I had previously been doing. 

I had to work at these tasks for a long time before I perfected them.  However, once I understood them I could see an immediate improvement in our tracking efficiency.  I was butting heads less with Neeko and succeeding more on tracks, both live and in training. 

Situation #2

My second situation to learn from involved training decoys.  I didn’t realize, at first, that when you ask someone new to decoy, and even tell them exactly what you want them to do, they almost always still decide to do their own thing.  As my department had rotating shifts for the first few months Neeko was home, it seemed I did not get to use the same decoy twice. This caused my decoys to be unfamiliar with my expectations and added to their astray decisions.  I solved this by training at locations where the terrain dictated the exact route I wanted the decoy to take.  This method quickly established who listened and followed my instructions and who wanted to “see if the dog could find them” and go a route they choose.  The latter frustrated me, as I wanted training to be a success.  Once I developed the skill of not getting upset about other officers testing us and just staying consistent with Neeko, our training rose to a whole new level.   Unknown training tracks, even those over a mile, became no issue.  What I had perceived as a “problem” at first, became our advantage.    

Situation #3

About a year into our partnership, Neeko and I got into a vehicle pursuit.  Two suspects had just committed a burglary where weapons and other items were stolen.  Both subjects were considered armed and dangerous.  I chased the vehicle until it crashed and they both fled on foot.  After stopping my vehicle, I immediately sent Neeko “off leash” after the suspects for apprehension.  I ran behind on foot.  Once Neeko had reached the driver of the vehicle, he just ran beside him.  I nearly lost my mind! We had trained for this exact scenario, for over a year.   I have a defective dog, I thought!  Needless to say both suspects got away and I was very frustrated.  

I contacted my trainer and explained the situation.  The trainer simply asked, “Did the suspect try to engage or fight with Neeko?”  I thought for a second and the answer was, no.  My trainer then asked me, “How many times have you trained a decoy running away from Neeko with no engagement of some sort?”  Of course I replied with, “Never”.  Guess what I did the next day?  You guessed it! Set up training with a similar circumstance. 

My trainer also advised me to start working with a hidden sleeve during this process as the canine could possibly be becoming equipment focused.  I did not even think of these things but I knew who to call to change this from a problem to a fix.  And guess what, I gained knowledge for future training.  Because of this situation, I have used a hidden sleeve with Odin and have already conducted this type of training with him as to not have this situation in the future. 

Creating or having a situation to learn from should be just that. LEARN FROM IT.  FIX IT.  GAIN KNOWLEDGE.  With the ultimate goal of not having the same situation again.

Situation #4

Although Neeko and I have numerous situations we learned from, I will conclude with this last one.  After I had Neeko for about eighteen months I noticed he was hurting when he re-entered my patrol vehicle.  It appeared to be his back or tail area.  I immediately called my trainer who advised to take him to the vet and request and x-ray.  

I took him to the first vet and requested an x-ray.  I was met with arrogance and the statement, “I am the vet.”  The vet then told me he was fine and sent me home with some mild pain meds for Neeko.

The second vet I visited charged me over $400 and told me it was his back that was hurting.  Yep that’s it.  No x-ray or any work done.  This vet advised for the canine to take four weeks off then come in for re-evaluation.  I waited the four weeks in which I did not see any improvement.  I came back to the office and they released Neeko for duty.  I walked him out to the parking lot (at the vet’s office) attempted to put him in my patrol vehicle and again he yelped loudly in pain.  I walked him back inside and explained to the vet, it did not appear Neeko was any better.  The vet then told me his tail might be sprained but he should be good to go for full duty. 

I called my trainer very upset, to which he advised go to another vet and demand an x-ray.  I then went to vet three and simply said I need an x-ray of my canine’s back.  The vet was extremely understanding and took the x-ray revealing a serious problem in Neeko’s back.  This vet immediately referred Neeko to a specialist in Eugene about 120 miles away.  

After another two months of Neeko being in pain, not working and several consultations it was determined he would have back surgery to correct the problem and eventually return to full duty.  The date for the surgery came and it was completed.  I learned from the doctor after it was complete there was a complication with the surgery and a nerve had been accidently cut. 

Another two months of waiting and watching Neeko be in pain.  He now had no sensation in his genitals and had no control over his urination or bowel movements.  This caused him to self-mutilate himself and ultimately created the need for another surgery to repair the damage Neeko had done to himself.  After this surgery it was another month watching Neeko be in a cone and in pain until the decision was finally made to end his suffering. 

At the time, I believed this all was classified as a problem, and it was absolutely horrible.  I did not want to gain anything from this, knowledge or otherwise, as it ripped my heart out.  I could not figure out why this was happing to me and what could be gained from this. 

It took me some time but I have learned several things.  Neeko led me to Odin.  I now have a vet who listens to me and respects my requests when dealing with my canine.  I keep close watch on my canine at all times and report anything suspicious to my trainer or vet immediately.  If anything like this occurs again I will further investigate the doctor performing the surgery.   Ultimately, this situation has allowed me to gain patience, become less emotional and stay focused on the future.  This is something I hope none of you ever have to experience but has made me a better person, canine handler, and dog owner because I chose to learn from it. 


It is important for you to understand, we all come to a point, where we have to decide from two options:

Option #1 “I am going to let this control the outcome of what I do and who we are as a team.”  

Option #2 “I am going to control the outcome of what we do and who we are as a team.” 

If you want to continually progress in your knowledge and abilities, it is imperative you choose the second option.  You do not have to do this by yourself! Call for help.  Ask your trainer, a different trainer, or another handler for help.  Put all your tools in your tool bag and build your style.  Someone has experienced the same situation you are having, they have learned from it and now possess the knowledge.  Most of them would love to pass their knowledge on to you! Remember, “Problems are situations to learn and gain knowledge from”, but it is your responsibility to do so.