If you’ve ever wondered how Military Working Dogs or their handlers are trained, the following is a glimpse of what we did in training at the Scout Dog Handler School on Fort Benning in Georgia. These k9s were already trained, so what we did aside from learning ourselves how to be good handlers, we also worked at re-training our partners. The process is continuous.
From my memoirs:
6. Ft Benning and the Scout Dog Handler Training School
As far as I was concerned dogs were pets. No cats lived in our house ever. According to local folklore from my neighborhoods; birds, squirrels, rats, raccoons and sometimes cats were pests you slung rocks or shot B-Bs at. I didn’t buy into to any of that but that had been my education about animals until the day I got to Scout Dog Handler School. After indoctrination in the Day Room, we marched down to the kennels and the noise was incredible. These animals hadn’t had handlers in over a month and they were just crazy for attention. Some were huge and scary some were small and sweet. Some were awesome specimens of breeding; others were mutts of every size, shape and color.
There was one, Rebel, who weighed in at over 130 pounds, was solid black with longish hair and kind of looked like a Sheppard on steroids (turned out to be a Newfie mix). He had canines as long as my baby finger. No one got in on this dog except an older SSGT who was shorter and slighter than I was. Rebel fair swooned when SSGT Dixon showed up. Rebel hadn’t had a student handler for three cycles. That trend didn’t end with this group of newbies either, though several of us tried, including me. I loved a challenge. My very first experience with skid marked chonies occurred when Rebel cornered me in his kennel after letting me in with his food dish. The SOB set me up. I threw the bowl at him and scrambled over the fence to get out.
Training us was one thing but learning how they had trained and are constantly re-training the K9s was an education in itself. The system was referred to as “Repetition, Praise and Reward”. Basically, after performing the proper behavior for the task at hand, the K9 got a treat and a lot of glad-handing. Then the task was repeated often to reinforce the proper behavior. Eventually the K9 would perform the behavior for a pat on the head only and be quite thrilled with that.
In general, dogs are very personable and love the attention of their handlers more than anything. The term loyal is an understatement when referring to these marvelous creatures. Devoted is closer to the truth along with adoring, noble, fearlessly protective and loving. Aside from learning to control this creatures talents, we first had to learn how to “bond” with our partners. This was far more important than what size, breed or color your partner was.
With this in mind we spent 8 or more hours of everyday with our partners. We fed, groomed, trained, re-trained, hung out with and basically lived with our partners as if they were family and we were the parent. In two weeks I was spending more time with my partner Lady, than I was with my platoon mates. I once fell asleep in Lady’s kennel on a Saturday morning. I woke to the kennel master spraying me down along with the kennel.
Back to training; at some point in the history of using MWDs it was decided that a sort of prompt was needed to “inform” the k9 that he was working as opposed to just being an obedient dog. They all wore choke chains all the time. Basic obedience training was done with the choke chain only. When the team was switching to “work” mode, the handler put a leather-working” collar or a harness on his partner. Retraining was a constant, especially when these k9s would sit for a month or so without working in between training cycles.
The way these MWDs (Military Working Dogs) were taught or retaught to perform their intended function as a Scout, Sentry, Drug, Patrol or Mine and Tunnel Dog was exactly the same method as they used to teach them the basics, sit, stay, down, come, heel, crawl etc., via “Repetition, Praise and Reward”. A target of some sort (usually a very small amount of explosives or ammo or medical supplies or ever food, like rice) would be set along a trail and the K9 team would advance slowly past it. If the K9 showed interest in the target right away, “praise and reward” happened immediately and the course was run again until the animal had that behavior down. They would actually associate finding the thing that “smelled like that” with a reward and after so many repetitions a behavior is implanted. Then they would hide the device under some leaves or grass or whatever, and repeat the process. Then the device would be buried (like an IED or a cache of supplies etc.). If the MWD happened to skip on past the device without noticing it, the handler would stay him, perhaps “show” device to the animal, let him smell it, mouth it if appropriate and then the device would be replaced and the MWD worked past it again until he or she did show interest invoking praise and reward from the handler. A target would not be buried for a particular animal until he “alerted” on the device while above ground and then just slightly buried. Repeat, repeat and repeat again. Some animals took no more than a rep or two to catch on, some took more effort.
The behavior the dogs perform when they “find” a target or person is called an “alert”. This is the cue for the handler to stay his partner and investigate the alert. When the k9 finds a device he sits in front of it. For personnel and other scent related alerts his nose would point into the scent cone or he’d tilt an ear towards a sound or move his head if he saw movement.
Over time they learn to “look” for these things as soon as the handler puts his “working” collar or harness on. They use all of their senses to locate anything. K9 senses are exponentially more acute than a human’s. Their sight and hearing are hundreds of times more sensitive than ours, but their sense of smell is perhaps the most sensitive of all. It is difficult for a human to understand the difference without examples. A drug dog we watched demonstrate his talents found a pinch of marijuana in a small plastic bag inside a dirty sock and hidden inside the gasoline fill spout of a 2.5 ton truck. He in fact tried to pull off the fill cap. I once had my dog in Nam, Prince, scent-alerting on personnel at just over 200 meters with a steady breeze blowing our way. When a MWD “finds” a trip wire it may have used all 3 senses. He may hear the trip wire vibrating with tension, he may see the vibration or he could smell the explosives or the person who set the trap for up to 3 days after he left if it hasn’t rained too much in the meantime.
Human scent lingers for far longer than 3 days really, hence the ability to “track” someone via a day’s old trail of scent left behind. It is important to remember though, that as a Scouting team you’re working an MWD along a trail under great pressure to find everything. The scent left by a person that is more than a few days old may not trigger the response you want from your partner because there is so much more going on that is far fresher than the days old human scent. Just as it is essential that you train your partner to use all his senses when walking point, it is also essential that you zone in on your partner’s every move. Some alerts are so fleeting your partner might get a whiff for just a moment and then the wind shifts or something with a stronger scent assails his olfactory nerves. If you were looking at something else, like where you were walking, instead of at your partner, you could easily miss that alert and walk yourself into trouble unless he alerted again.
Walking a patrol with an MWD is an exercise in self-control. Your base instincts tell you to look where you’re walking so you don’t step on something you don’t want to step on or fall into. That is wrong. Watching where you’re going is the MWD’s job. As a handler your job is to watch your partner for alerts all the time, keep a sense of wind direction all the time. Only after your partner alerts should you use other cues to help you discover actual wind direction and therefore the “true” direction the “scent” came from. For instance, scent can swirl around in the forest or in high dense brush. If you want to be sure of wind direction, after you stay your partner and alert everyone with you to take cover, look to the tops of the trees where the wind is unfettered and you can get a true wind direction from watching which way the top limbs and leaves are blowing.
If you thought you may have caught one of those subtle alerts from your partner but are not sure what kind of alert it was, hold up the folks your leading, call your partner back to you and re-prosecute that same terrain again and again if you have to until you’re satisfied with the results.
To continue with the training after you and your partner were up to speed with the basics you moved on to personnel. This was a whole new ballgame. With a fresh personnel scent to follow an MWD could get really excited. Since the idea of scouting was to be as quiet as possible so you didn’t alert the bad guys to your presence and also so you didn’t stumble into something bad because you were in too much of a hurry, you had to work your partner deliberately and pay attention to everything he did. Some alerts were so subtle you could miss them if you blinked at the wrong time. As I said, a stale scent might just barely attract your partner’s attention if there were any other distraction(s) around. You could easily miss that sudden heartbeat-long flick of an ear or a tending of the nose to swing left or right into a scent cone for a millisecond.
To compound the problem further, in the rain scent falls to the ground so your partner’s tendency is always to follow his nose, his head will drop to the ground as long as you allow him to do so. In that case you must keep at him constantly to keep his head up, with a little jiggle on the leash or hissing through your teeth or even using the dog whistle. With his head down, his sight is wasted and he sees movement 10 times faster than a human. You learn to keep his head up if you want to live. K9s may not see with crystal clarity or in color, but they see movement very well.
Every MWD has his or her own way of displaying an alert depending on what kind of alert it was. For instance, Prince had his own way of alerting to incoming or outgoing ordinance. His ears would flatten out to the sides and he would crouch. My guess is he “learned” this from experience. Over time he’d heard a number of artillery pieces firing or mortar rounds dropping into a tube and eventually related those noises to what happened after that: big noise, bright flash and everyone running to cover. He became conditioned to take cover, thus the crouch. The flattened ears were just a normal reaction for that particular k9. Others I saw would alert heavily on people but hardly noticeably on things. Some would be just the opposite and some would throw a barely recognizable alert for everything but never miss anything. So you learned to “learn” your partner’s ways in a hurry, again if you wanted to live.
Personnel alerts were the coolest I always thought. Their noses would almost dance into the scent cone. Some would get really animated while others would simply freeze (point). When Prince got a real strong scent alert (meaning either that the target was close or the wind was strong and steady) he would stand on his hind legs and rotate into the cone. Lady, on the other hand (my training partner in Ft Benning) would bob her nose into the direction of the wind. Other dogs might just toss their heads this way or that and you had to catch it or lose it. Knowing your partner was the rule.
We had a behavioral scientist teach us about how K9s function and how repetition and praise was the best method of training. He claimed that you could teach a bright k9 anything you could teach a 3-year-old child, except for some dexterity talents and how to talk. For my money I thought that last bit was debatable. I know Lady and Prince both communicated with me via tail wagging, pointing, licking, whining, barking, mouthing and nudging. Is that not talking by another name?
There was a Staff Sergeant at Ft Benning, SSGT Dixon, who’d been around MWDs since he joined the Army, a natural dog whisperer he would he called today. He saw so many in-a-hurry newbies miss alerts over the years that he took it as a personal challenge to not let those folks get through the course until he’d corrected that tendency. He spent some extra time with the struggling handlers who once they got out in the field had their brains turn to mush and they’d miss more alerts than they’d catch. He would work with the team, taking over the role of handler and showing us how to really “see” our partner’s actions. SSGT Dixon without a doubt “talked “to these animals and they subsequently “talked” to us, if we were willing to “listen”.