Tool or Pet

By Certified Trainer Sgt. Adam Slater


Several times I have heard this phrase.  “A working dog is a tool.”  I have always had difficulty with this phrase as I treated both of my canines like another child.  What I have found this to mean, however, is a working canine cannot be treated as a pet (house dog) and still expected to be maintained in high prey drive and be successful in the performance of work-related duties.  Now am I saying this is true 100 percent of the time? No, however, it is much more likely to have a successful working canine if it is maintained as a working dog should be. 

When a new handler attends basic class they have instructed to kennel the canine when not on duty.  It is the handler who decides to integrate the canine with the family and ultimately turn it into a (family dog).  I fully agree with introducing the canine to the family and even have some brief interaction as there will inevitably be times your family will have to assist by feeding the canine if you are out of town at training and such.  Outside of these interactions, it is my belief, further family or friend interactions should be limited or avoided.   Understandably the canine will have some interaction in a non-working capacity with co-workers but this should also be limited. 

What is the reason I seem to be so strict about my thoughts on this issue?  It’s simple, if you want to have a successful working dog, set yourself and your canine up for success in everything you do.  Cpl. Kevin Kinard clearly addresses this idea in his article, A Few Points of Concern for New Handlers.  He says, “If the dog comes home with you and finds that he likes sleeping on the couch or chasing birds in the back yard more than he likes coming to work, then you are going to have problems.  You and the work should be the alpha and omega in the dog’s life.” 

Think about the reward system as it pertains to a canine when thinking about keeping a canine kenneled when not working.  Why do dogs work for us? For the reward (Payday) right.  So if a dog has been kenneled over your weekend it has not had a reward/payday for those two or three days.  Relate this to a dog who lives inside.  Are you feeding treats, playing ball with him/her, playing tug, or another kind of interaction which could be perceived as a reward/payday to the canine?  Keep in mind what is a reward in relation to canine work?  Anything the dog can find/see (Primary reward) and possess (Secondary reward).  So, just because you don’t see throwing a piece of popcorn at your canine while you are watching a movie as a reward you would be wrong.  Especially if you are asking the canine to perform some kind of obedience when providing the reward/popcorn.  Now think about what you are doing during this type of interaction.  You are giving the canine multiple rewards for minimal behavior adding high value to the enjoyment of being inside and with the family while at the same time extremely devaluing the emphasis which was previously placed on detection work or tracking and apprehension.   

If you allow your canine to live inside with the family or simply have lots of family interaction with your canine I challenge you to do an experiment.  For one week (Including a weekend) keep your canine kenned when not working.  Now you, as the handler, continue to have contact with the canine when off duty but limited to feeding and some physical attention limited to 5 minutes or so a couple of times a day.  When you take your canine to work put 100 percent effort into training and have maximum motivation.  I bet you will see a whole new drive and determination out of your canine.  Why? Because they have not had a reward/payday until they earned it.  This will greatly enhance the canines prey drive and keep him/her focused on their discipline of work (Detection or tracking/apprehension).   Just give it a try, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!

Even though I refuse to call my dog a, “Tool.”  I do understand the concept of keeping a working dog maintained in high prey drive and not becoming the reason my canine partner becomes complacent or content while at home.  Love your partner, be one with your partner but don’t set your partner and yourself up for failure. Your life might depend on it!