MAN VS. EQUIPMENT TRAINING
NOT JUST A STUFFED SHIRT! BY GEORGE DANIOLOS, DIRECTOR OF TRAINING FOR K-9 DEFENSE LLC
They say a suit makes the man. A great quote for you fashion conscious folks, but it has no place in our bitework. We want our dogs to see the man in the suit and to bite hard and deep in search of the man inside. The bite suit is a very important tool in dog training, but like any tool, it can be misunderstood and misused. In this article, we will review fine components that will help you make sure your K-9 partner’s focus is on the bad guy (or girl) and not on the equipment.
There seems to be a trend in training right now toward muzzle and civil work. This is fine for proofing but not tools that should be used for building the bite and fight in our dog. As with any behavior, the stronger the foundation, the less proofing will be required.
So, don’t hang your bite suit in the closet just yet. Let’s look at how we can get a man oriented dog with the correct use of a properly fitted bite suit. This requires the knowledge to elicit behavior from the dog and proper reward timing form the decoy and the suit itself.
START WITH BEHAVIOR
During the learning phase, the reward schedule is constant to reinforce new behavior. When the desired behavior becomes consistent, you start to proof it and alter the reward schedule going forward. Let’s start with the “out” command. You begin by using a firm reward toy that is less stimulating to the dog. When the dog is consistently outing this toy, you move on to a more stimulating toy reward. From toy to bite sleeve to suit, the stimulation level increases as the dog shows consistence in the “out” command.
So how does this formula apply to creating a man oriented dog? In the early stages of bitework, we use prey guarding of an object to build man orientation. The dog is back tied and a civil decoy moves in. When the dog shows aggression to the man, he gets rewarded with an appropriate reaction from the decoy. An appropriate action would be anything from a quick movement, changing from a frontal to side position, to something as simple as eye contact, to name just a few. This sends a consistent message to the dog that aggression towards man is rewarded. We are just starting to show the picture of man aggression.
A proper fitting bite suit is a must for building man orientation. The suit should keep the shape of a human being; not create a Michelin man. The arms, legs and waist should be tapered to create a human outline. There should not be any need for extra equipment, such as head gear and hand covers. This type of equipment distorts the shape of the man and changes the picture for the dog. If you feel the need for this equipment, then more work is required on the decoy skills to build confidence in your abilities. A skilled decoy knows how to place and work the dog on his terms. A semi-competition or competition level suit should be worn for bite training. If extra padding is needed a neoprene sleeve or arm wrap is acceptable under the suit, as it will not take away from the overall shape of the man.
NO BIG, PUFFY, ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL SUIT!
“But wait,” you say. “We have hard biting dogs!” Well, decoying hurts. And it should. It’s extremely rewarding to the dog to get realtime, physical and verbal reaction to the bite. Most decoys are not good enough actors to sell a real pain action. A new decoy is forced to react to the dog’s power when it truly hurts. Also, I cannot emphasize enough the timing of reactions to behavior. If timing is off while building any behavior, you lose clarity in the actual task.
A proper fitting suit with less protection allows for more natural movement. The ability to move will give a decoy more confidence. The inability to move in a big, puffy suit often causes stress as the decoy feels trapped or stiff.
I know that K-9 unit budgets can be small and the cost of a custom suit can be expensive. If you are using a big, puffy suit because it can be used by multiple decoys, then I would suggest developing one or two skilled decoys and rely on them. One skilled decoy in a properly fitted suit will bring your bitework to the next level.
FOUNDATION SUIT SKILLS
With this in mind, I do not wear just a portion of the suit but always a full bite suit or no suit (civil). The dog should not see the suit as target locations, meaning that he targets high because you are only wearing a jacket or low because you are only wearing pants. The decoy teaches the dog where to bite based on presentation, not equipment. I do not want my dog to target areas of equipment when exposed legs or upper body are available. That is sending the wrong message. Having said that, I know there are dogs out there that will bite despite having seen this picture, but I am trying to set you up with best training practices. When using no suit, it is acceptable to utilize “invisible” protection, such as a hidden sleeve like the one pictured above under the decoy’s sweater.
We must remember that with any green dog we select, someone has done some foundational bitework already. Regardless of genetics, without foundational skills, the dog will fail when faced with a serious fight. We wouldn’t expect the offspring of a professional fighter to be able to fight without training. They would fail miserably if they relied only on their genetics and entered a ring or octagon without training. This concept is true for our dogs as well. Hence, when we select a dog, the first part of our bite training is strengthening foundational bitework skills.
There is very little transition from a suit to the man if we have selected a dog with the correct genetics for police work and made proper use of the suit. Now we need to pay close attention to what we are rewarding in the fight. The decoy can miss the moment to reward or worse, reinforce the wrong moment, losing that “teachable moment” and preventing the dog from learning how to fight properly. Rewarding a dog that is already stressed on the bite at the wrong moment can send the wrong message. The skilled decoy should be able to recognize what is happening both internally and externally for the dog in order to reinforce the right moments.
AVOIDING EQUIPMENT DEPENDENCE
I am always confused when I see a dog that is doing civil agitation work being allowed to release that frustration into a piece of equipment. With good civil agitation and the dog showing good aggression to the man, we do not want to release that frustration into an object, such as a visible bite sleeve. You want to keep that frustration and aggression because that deprivation will build more drive to bite the man next time the dog comes out of the car. This concept of bite starvation was covered in a previous article.
Oftentimes, sport dog, personal protection, military and law enforcement trainers will default to muzzle fighting to build man orientation. You must understand, if not properly conditioned, the muzzle is just another piece of equipment. The muzzle can change the dog’s mindset. If your dog’s behavior changes when you put the muzzle on, then the muzzle loses its value as a proofing tool because you are triggering a new state of mind. That state of mind might be excitement or aggression but regardless, the dog should remain completely neutral when the muzzle first goes on to get the most value as a proofing tool.
Many dogs, while muzzle fighting, have learned that just chaotically pushing the decoy around is rewarding. Dogs that do not target in muzzle or are not even biting inside the muzzle have been poorly conditioned to it. I have had numerous experiences when a handler brings his dog to me, saying that the dog is great in a muzzle but had a failure to bite on the street. Often, the dog has learned to muzzle fight or muzzle punch, which is not actually trying to bite while in the muzzle. For example, while being presented with a suited decoy, the dog chooses to muzzle punch instead of bite. The dog has learned to muzzle punch, not bite.
I am not condemning the muzzle, the bite sleeve, or any one tool; but all tools can be misused. To get a properly trained dog, we need to use all the tools in the right way and in the right combination. As a trainer, I do not want to rely on any one tool for my training but have an understanding of how to use all of my available tools. I do not want to form a dependence on any one tool to build behavior or solve problems.
This is also true for the dog. The dog should not be dependent on equipment to trigger a behavior. The dog should not be searching for a suited decoy when the bite command is given or need stimulation from an e-collar to elicit obedience. The dog should understand the bite command to bite anything available and obedience should be given without any equipment, e.g., e-collar, pinch collar, etc. The overall theme I am trying to convey is that I am always working toward phasing out equipment.
BUILDING MAN ORIENTATION
An exercise that I use for man orientation is quite simple. First, you build a context for aggression. I prefer using a tie out in the same area or an elevated table since these areas will provide that context for aggression. A decoy in a full bite suit stands still until your aggression cue is given. Once the cue is given, the decoy moves in and works the dog in a manner to create spatial pressure and induce stress. He then respond accordingly to the dog’s aggression. The dog should be pushing in and looking for the man in the suit. As decoys, we are looking to build a conditioned response to stress; STRESS = BITE HARDER. After a brief bite session, the dog is put away for a break.
The dog is then brought back to the table or area and there is no visible equipment anywhere in the area. A decoy with no equipment stands still until the dog is given the aggression cue. The decoy frustrates the dog in civil work and you look for proper orientation and targeting of the man. You should hear teeth clacking and the decoy should be providing the dog with near misses. The dog has to believe that he has a real opportunity to bite. The fight can end with the dog chasing the decoy out of the area or the dog can be pulled away from the area while the decoy laughs at the dog.
As the man aggression becomes stronger, we begin to add equipment to the area to make sure the dog stays focused on the man. It is very common to have bite sleeves, suits, and other “dead” prey objects in the search area to make sure that the dog is searching for the man. That behavior starts with this exercise. This exercise is one of many that are used to build man orientation.
If timing is off while building any behavior, you lose clarity in the actual task.
In summary, building a man oriented dog requires multiple pieces of equipment. The properly fitted bite suit is a necessity. When you avoid the big, puffy bite suit, you are providing the right picture of a man for the dog. A skilled decoy with a proper understanding of timing and reward is another important piece of the puzzle. But, above all else, the most essential piece of equipment is the trainer’s, handler’s and/or decoy’s understanding of the equipment and how to appropriately apply each to the training objective.