This blog article was written by Matt McKeown, a K9 Trainer and Instructor with Highland Canine Training, LLC. Originally from Australia, Matt is regarded as an expert in trailing dogs.
In this article, Matt explores new possibilities for K9 Handlers who may be struggling to source new track layers to keep their dog’s training at an optimum level.
Society’s foundation as we know it has been orchestrated due to mankind’s unique ability to fashion and employ the use of tools. Depending on the texts you consume the origins of humanity can be controversial – however it is undebatable that we would not be where we are today, waving our flag at the top of the food chain, without the use of sturdy, reliable tools.
Benjamin Franklin said it best, and his quote on the subject in my opinion is both layered and multi-dimensional. Historical statements are oftentimes open for interpretation with its message being as broad as the audience’s own imagination. Benjamin Franklin does not only speak of investing in tools for one’s own trade; he also talks of obtaining high quality tools and investing time and resources into the maintenance of one’s own tools.
As a Law Enforcement Officer, maintenance is no doubt a part of your daily routine and has evolved to dictate and manipulate much of your life. Uniforms must be kept clean and presentable, vehicles need to be washed and inspected regularly, firearms must be kept up to the highest standard – to list just a few examples.
As you have found yourself reading an article on a Police Dog Training website, it is safe to assume that you have already predicted my impending point that a highly trained K9 unit is a tool well worth investing in.
If we remember Mr. Franklin’s quote, the word investment made more than one point. This article will be pointing a finger at only one of these with its siblings to be analyzed in future articles. Of course, investing in a K9 can be a priceless asset to all departments and investing in the highest-quality K9 available is the foundation to all future success. Now, we reach this article’s focus point, because success will be short lived if we do not invest ample time and resources into the maintenance training of our K9s.
A responsible investment of time leads to better results
Most Departments have a minimum training requirement for every given month of the year. Training is structured differently from department to department, however it is common that most units meet a mandatory minimum of 16 hours training per month. All too often, the only reasonable way to manage the logistics of this requirement is to hold a couple of lump sum training sessions lasting an entire working shift (or two).
It is an observation of mine that when training is structured in this way – with significant breaks between sessions – K9 units are simply working to maintain the lowest of standards. Complacency is maintained, yet skills are never developed and improved upon. Some skill sets often even disintegrate completely and cannot be regained until there is a responsible investment of training resources and time.
Often one of the most neglected tools, covered with spider webs and rust, is the tracking/trailing. To an extent, this discipline is a perishable skill and when training takes place only once or twice a month the neglect can become obvious fairly quickly. To put it simply, if you do not use it you lose it – and if you lose it, what was the point of your initial investment in the first place?
Trailing differs from a skill like detection. Detection can be easy to train for and is often not neglected like the tracking/trailing, as it does not have to be terribly time-consuming and does not require the support and manpower of the tracking/trailing.
The same can be said for the training of patrol functions, with sessions not needing significant time to set up and complete. Sessions can take place easily on shift so that they fall neatly into routine.
As K9s become more advanced with their tracking/trailing, the time it takes to organize and complete training sessions is significantly greater than that of other disciplines and more often than not why it can become neglected. Everybody serves a purpose and it can be difficult for some to pause that purpose and obtain the freedom to work their tracking K9 appropriately during a shift.
Dedicating more time in trailing is vital
If training a dog in your off time sounds undesirable, then this could be for a few different reasons. Perhaps you do not genuinely enjoy a K9 handler’s position. Maybe you enjoy the work during regular hours, but do not possess the motivation and drive to truly excel at the position. Either way, if you are not beyond enthusiastic to wake up every day of the year to train, then it is for certain that the position of K9 handler is not for you and it would be ethical to remove yourself so that somebody more suitable secures the best job in law enforcement.
However, you have found yourself on a Police Dog Training website reading blogs in your spare time, so the person in the previous paragraph is almost certainly not you. You possess as much drive as your K9 partner and are willing to invest whatever it takes to keep your blades sharp and hack away at any training discrepancies.
One frustration I find myself hearing all too often is that your enthusiasm is not matched by your peers and support staff. I am willing to bet that you have one or two people in your department as addicted to the K9 chaos as you are that will lay tracks regardless of weather, terrain or number on the calendar – however you cannot secure any more assistance than that. I know for a fact you have other associates that refuse to get their feet wet, let alone break a sweat for the sake of your K9 training.
Finding a mix of track layers
Dog training philosophies vary from trainer to trainer, however, we all agree that having an unpredictable mix of people to lay your tracks is crucial to an unstoppable tracking dog. Your two mates are fantastic, and my gratitude for their assistance immeasurable. I hope one day they secure a handler’s position of their own. But to truly test your dog’s tracking capabilities, we need more track layers with a healthy mixture of age, race, gender, diet and addictions. Everyone’s odor is different, and we want your K9 to become proficient at finding anybody – not just Gary and Kevin.
So how exactly do you find such a mixture of people? For anybody who is willing to protect their department’s investment by investing their own time yet cannot find the resources, here is a list of possible solutions for you to facilitate the training you need. We must think outside the box and start searching the very same world our K9’s are to be working in for resourceful track layers.
Option 1 - Family, Friends and Neighbors
The first possibility is likely to be the easiest to organize for a number of reasons. These are the people that you are closest to in this world of ours. You have an easy and open line of communication, there is no paperwork to be completed or searching through the calendar to set appointment times. It is likely that you share a number of interests with your friends and family, so the prospect of laying tracks for you might truly excite them but perhaps they never thought that it was a possibility.
It is a fantastic opportunity to strengthen relationships, bond and build memories to endure a lifetime. Your children have no problems getting dirty and your friends have no problem really testing your abilities and laying challenging tracks. Thinking outside the box even further, you could help the new neighbors unload the moving truck if they promise to lay tracks for you next Saturday. If your mother-in-law is a source of grief and frustration in your life, then for all your wife knows when she is scheduled to visit this coming Sunday, you need to go and run some tracks with your cousin because the Sheriff has insisted that you must train and he needs to see the training records on his desk come Monday morning.
I do not know your family and your relationships, but if you start thinking outside of the box, a mixture of friends and loved ones can skyrocket your K9s tracking ability.
Option 2 - Social Media/Craigslist
We operate and run a successful School for Dog Trainers, which has hosted alumni from over 30 different countries worldwide. It is a luxury that we possess the opportunities for our dogs to hunt for people from so many varied walks of life, and is a huge contributing factor to why our Police K9s see such success in real world deployments. Our program is structured to include a well-rounded mixture of hands-on practical training and classroom time for theory work and to discuss training philosophies.
When students are in the classroom, it is not unheard of that we advertize for volunteers to aid us in the track laying of our working K9s. Applicants are in contact with us almost immediately and it has proven a reliable way to obtain people to lay tracks for our working dogs. Often times it has led to the building of relationships within our local community, and permissions have been granted for us to train dogs in locations we never would have thought to be possible.
Sometimes when we spend enough time in a position, we can forget how gifted we are to be in that position to begin with. The view from our back window does not seem as romantic as when we first moved in, yet new visitors to the house fall in love with its charm immediately. It is important to remember that K9 handler is the best job in Law Enforcement and the position holds a lot of respect and intrigue to the general public. What can be day-to-day for you is beyond comprehension to them. If you advertize for volunteers, I guarantee the quantity of potential applicants will get so large you might have to turn some away.
Option 3 - Clubs/Sports and Social Groups
This is where thinking outside the box will bring you the most variety in your trail layers. Tool is an American rock band from Los Angeles, and one lyric that really stands out in my mind is “boredom is not a burden anyone should bare.” People despise the feeling of boredom, and as a result, we find hobbies to occupy our spare time. Many of these hobbies are spent outdoors and with a little charm and manners it could be organized that you combine your passion with another’s.
Think about the Boy Scouts, for example. Not a single one of those kids is going to deny a request from his new hero (the K9 handler of the local Sheriff’s department) to lay tracks for his dogs. You could liaise with the local Scout group on their next camping trip, and spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days working your K9, building relationships with the local community, accessing training areas you could never use in the past and inspiring the next generation of leaders to navigate through life with a strong moral compass. You could even organize for them to receive a K9 scout patch for their uniforms.
My uncle’s hobby is that of an amateur historian with a particular interest in the history of the city he grew up in. He hosts guided walking tours around the city where he educates tourists of times past. If his audience agrees, somebody could leave a scent article and a period of time after the tour has left the designated start point you and your K9 partner could track them down. At night time most communities have people doing something similar and offering ghost tours, so now you potentially have assistance training at night time too.
Recently, myself and my coworkers found ourselves working a trailing dog through a Frisbee golf course. While I was the one actually laying the trail and we were not in need of help, it was clear to me from the positive reaction of the public that anyone there would have been eager to go about their game with a reward for our dogs when we eventually catch up to them.
I developed an interest and a curiosity with the sport of falconry a few years back. I was lucky to spend time with the local falconer’s guild and participate in some hunts. These sportsman spend hours in the woods hunting with their birds, and many socialize these birds with dogs to assist in flushing out game. Strike up a relationship with a local falconer’s guild and you might just find yourself tracking down somebody who has been wandering through the woods for hours.
The list could go on and on – mountain bike clubs, geocaching, hikers, marathon runners – the only thing limiting you from finding an abundance of track layers is your imagination. Get out there and combine your passion with somebody else’s!
Option 4 - Track the Locals
Perhaps you just witnessed one of the local drunks stumble out of the pub and make the responsible decision to walk home instead of drive. If he has a friendly and outgoing reputation, you could easily approach and ask to track him down on his way home. If he does not have such a reputation you could not ask and just track him down on his way home anyway. When you catch up to him, you can be the one to reward your dog for a successful track.
The local homeless gentleman you saw walking down the road 30 minutes ago will likely not be upset that you tracked him down with your K9 if you have a few dollars or a sandwich to offer him when you eventually find him.
Your department has made an investment and purchased a K9. You have been chosen as the handler.
Ideally, you possess as much natural drive as your dog does, and you are willing to go above and beyond the bare minimum standard of training.
When you begin to think outside of the box and source a variety of trail layers, you and your K9 are going to be unstoppable. These are just a few ideas to hopefully spark some creativity and problem solving.
Remember, the community is invested in your success – they might just be able to help you make it happen.