What's Best for My Partner

By Certified Trainer Sgt. Adam Slater

What’s best for my canine partner?

How many of us ask this question? More importantly how many of us say to ourselves, “My dog better find that guy, the narcotics, explosives, human remains, etc.”? Are you doing what’s best for your canine partner, for them to be successful in the latter statement?

Most of us ask what is best for my children, spouse, personal pets, etc. Why would we not ask what is best for our canine partner?  I have a patrol-tracking dog and if I did not ask this question, and provide the answer, I would be putting his life, my life, and my cover officers life on the line every time we deploy.

Inherently, every time we go out danger and risks are associated with every capture. However, knowing what is best for my canine and taking action upon that, whether it be adhering to an approved training plan, bonding time, or days off (when needed) will greatly increase the chances for success and safety for all who are involved with canine deployments. 

I truly enjoy training my canine and spending time with him. We have enjoyed some great success as a team due to this attitude. I enjoy learning from whoever is willing to teach, share, and include us in their training. 

Often times I see handlers get to the stage where they feel they have “enough” knowledge or simply don’t want to work with others. This is a huge mistake. Canines are like children in many ways. How many parents have you known who have said, “Wow raising my kids was easy, they were completely the same and I never had any issues with them.”  Yeah, me either. The same is true with canines.  I am always looking ahead to my next, issue, or area requiring problem-solving.  If you truly believe you have, “enough” knowledge and feel you cannot learn from your peers, you may want to conduct a true self-evaluation and further conduct a canine team-evaluation.

With my first canine, I was very frustrated. It seemed like my first year of being a patrol dog handler was ALL PROBLEM-SOLVING. I have to admit, I was not patient, my trainer was, however, and through his diligent work and patience with me and my partner, we became very successful. I cannot stress how much these training sessions, phone calls, and lengthy texts messages played into what was best for not only my canine but for me. 

I use the phrase, “Never stop seeking knowledge,” frequently.  This is important because as the canine team summits one mountain another will always present itself.  Your partner will never get tired of climbing if you are willing to climb with them.  You should always have your eyes set on the horizon, looking for the next mountain to concur.

There is a reason the canine and handler are certified as a team. One cannot successfully do the job without the other. My wife, Lisa, currently takes horse cutting lessons and her instructor always tells her, “You have to know what your job is, and let the horse do its job.” This is also true in canine training and doing what’s best for your partnership.

Early in my canine experience, I would always give my dog all the credit for our success, but never truly embraced or understood it takes a partnership to become extremely successful.  I had to learn what my job was. I found when I learned and perfected my role in the relationship my canine could save some of the energy he was expending trying to cover for the both of us.  If you are willing to put in the time to learn what your job is, and what the canine expects from you, you could have an entire array of improvements to look forward to. 

What I have found over the past few years is the majority of canine teams, whether it be detection or patrol, seem to have a “training day.”  This is true no matter the current service time of each individual canine team. This is normally a single day of the week, often on the canine team’s Monday or Friday. I have frequently asked these handlers, “Why do you only train one day a week?” The answer I am almost always given is, “We are just too busy”. 

How many times have you heard this simple statement? How many times have you caught yourself using this statement to get around - or out of - doing things you know should be done? Most dog handlers attend a basic canine school with high motivation, decent, if not exceptional, work ethic, and excitement about what the future holds for their canine team.

The reality is, once a handler becomes a certified canine team and returns home, this is when the real work should begin.  Often times, the canine team immediately performs a few demonstrations for the media, administration, or friends and family.  Excitement is high and expectations lofty.

Then a few weeks pass. No live deployments have presented themselves, the weather begins to deteriorate (rain, cold, extreme heat), and the handler finds him or herself consistently coming up with reasons to “train tomorrow”. This is when the canine handler begins to deviate from the proposed training plan, causing significate gaps in finishing the new canine partner’s training and live call preparation.

What do I mean by “finishing?”  To use a horse analogy, when a handler is first paired with a canine at school it would be considered as a “green” dog. A green dog would be described as a canine which lacks experience.  The canine has initial training and is imprinted. However, you, the handler, need to spend significant time with the canine, training, and bonding, so you and the canine can map out and complete a successful training path.  Successfully completing the above will provide a “finished” dog. A dog (Team) that has received, and perfected, all the training necessary to exemplary complete the desired action. In horses to “finish” a horse takes about two years, on average.

The problem with this is when the newness of being K-9 wears off. How much are you going to train? Is your canine “finished?” How do you know? Will your canine be ready when called upon? Is this fair to your partner?

In another article, I spoke about the value which needs to be added to the tracking or detection work for a canine to not only remain in high prey drive but to choose to complete the desired action.  I have a simple rule in my training. Each day the canine comes to work, he gets to play the game. The game may - and should - be played at different times and locations, under different weather conditions, and other factors, as they arise.  With the main idea and plan always focused tightly on continuing training and advancing the canine team with the plan of “finishing” always the end goal.

Understanding how canines value the game and the need to play the game is to also understand what is best for your partner.  You do certain things every day you work, like getting a cup of coffee. Some of us could not be dealt with if we didn’t get our coffee. Following this same thought, why does your partner not deserve his coffee? Simply because it’s inconvenient?

Most of us work “Shift Work.” Some of us 12-hour days, some 10-hour days and other 8-hour days.  Imagine not really doing anything all week or even for three days out of your work week.  Imagine just sitting in the office waiting for a call to come in so you have something to do.  Does that sound like your normal work week? Probably not, what do you do when nothing is going on? You become proactive and look to deter would-be criminals.  Your canine partner is no different.  They do not want to, “lay by their dish,” all week with the occasional potty break.  They want to play (work), give them that chance as that should be your dedication to the partnership. 

I have had days when I have truly been busy. I have found myself not wanting to train in the rain or extreme heat. I have found myself trying to make excuses.  I then look at my partner and ask myself, what is best for him? After asking this question, I always find myself ready to do the right thing. Train. Then, I steer towards a training venue and do my darndest to hopefully, someday, “finish” my canine. 

 Then again, to reach perfection means I would be done, and I’ll never be done doing what’s best for my partner.