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What every good working dog should know

by L. Maugh Vail
"This extraordinarily tough and often hard dog has a brilliant career as a working dog behind him. This has somewhat fallen into oblivion" from Der neue Weg der Hundeausbildung, by Urs Ochsenbien

The above quote from Urs Ochsenbein, founder of the modern Swiss Disaster Dog Association and a leading trainer in all types of dog sports, characterizes the Airedale. It throws out a challenge to us all, to bring back the lost reputation of the Airedale as a working dog.

1. Introduction: dog sports as a training pool from which to draw service dog training candidates.
Many people who would like to train their dogs for serious purposes fail to realize that all specialized training requires a foundation. I have seen people train search and rescue whose dogs were so scattered that they would run off aimlessly with the handler running helplessly after them. I have seen police service dogs that are either cowards or aimless aggressive, dangers to civilians and handlers alike. Such problems occur because people have failed to think through what they want.

Over the years, people involved in training service dogs devised tests to determine the potential of the dog for the more demanding, specialized service work. These tests came to be something fun for trainers and their dogs and evolved into the dog sports we know today.

The dog sport of Schutzhund has its origins as a pool from which to draw service dogs for tracking and general police work. In Germany many of the leading police trainers with international reputations for their insight into tracking, obedience and protection are also Schutzhund judges. In Switzerland, in addition to Schutzhund, there are sports for dogs related to search and rescue, which serve the same purpose. There are trails there for "medic dogs" where they have to demonstrate obedience, agility and find missing articles and wounded people. The dogs are judged on their attitude towards their work, their efficiency and their alerts. There are similar trails for potential disaster dogs and avalanche dogs, all with their prescribed rules. The Swiss emergency services are of the opinion that these sport-trained dogs again form a valuable pool from which to draw service dogs.

In fact, many of the more knowledgeable search and rescue dog trainers like to see a candidate dog have some previous training. Helpful are some obedience commands with emphasis on a directed retrieve and also tracking. The directed retrieve provides the foundation for sending a dog out to search a pattern whereas tracking teaches a dog to focus on a task over a period of time. The better the foundation, the better the dog will learn. We have found that dogs with little or no foundational training seldom make intense, focused search dogs.

This leads to the question, what sort of foundation should a working dog have, and why have people in various countries looked to dogs who have been titled in these sports rather that training their own dogs from scratch? Why do the best rescue Dogs and even police dogs seem to come from abroad, where this close connection between dog sports and service work has been a longstanding tradition?

II. The Dog's Natural Aptitudes: what makes a dog potentially valuable for service
What makes a dog valuable for service to us is certain abilities he has. One obvious ability is his scenting ability. The dog is able to follow tracks, find evidence, clues, air scent for missing/injured/buried victims.

The dog is also able to go places we cannot. Far example a dog can enter a collapsed structure and balance himself on precarious surfaces where we would fall through. The dog can penetrate small opening where we cannot. The dog goes easily in and out of ravines, across streams, into terrain where we cannot venture. Finally, the dog can strike quickly and powerfully against an adversary.

Yes, a dog can do all these things. But most important of all, a dog can be trained to do these things under the direction of a handler. This is perhaps his most important asset of all - his OBEDIENCE TO MAN! Without this quality, there is no guarantee that a dog would use his nose or his mobility and agility in a way that would be of value to us. It is the dog's ability to be a team player that makes his talents accessible to us. Nowhere else do such close relationships exists as between a service dog and his handler.

III. Factors Common to the Major Dog Sports
The major dog sports such as Schutzhund, ring sport, and the Swiss search and rescue trials have in common that they show off the basic working qualities of the dog. They all have some form of obedience exercises - all very similar - and they all then go into abilities involving the ability of the dog to use his nose, his ability to do a specialized form of work such as apprehend a criminal or find an injured person. They show off a dog that can focus high in drive on his work.

Thus these sports are multi-dimensional - they are not just obedience or just tracking or just agility or just protection but rather involve a combination of these. This is so that the dog will have a balance in his training - something like the foundation we would expect to see in a high school graduate.

The other thing to notice about these sports is that they do not have the dog doing everything. The routines are well-prescribed so that the dog builds a solid foundation. He masters a few skills but really masters them, rather than spreading himself to thin.

IV. Don't dabble; have performance goals in mind
We should take our cue for the foundation working dog skills from these sports. Get the rules that describe these various sports. Even though I may have no intention of training a dog to pass a special test, e.g. field dog trials, I find the rules for such trials most instructive. Rules describe tests which have been thought useful to determine the proficiency level of a dog's performance. They also give us an idea of what sorts of variety these skills may or even should posses.

It has been demonstrated in Schutzhund for example that a dog can achieve a level of proficiency in tracking, obedience, and protection. The Swiss search dog trials have demonstrated that a dog can achieve a level in obedience, obstacle work and air scenting. The Swiss prefer search candidates however which have passed the SchH I, because this test weeds out dogs that shut down in the presence of noise, threats, or pain.

Books on these dog sports contain valuable information about the potential dogs can attain as well as training tips. Explore and read. Then put together a training plan and stick to it. It is helpful to join a group who is receptive to this line of thought.

V. So, what should a working dog know?
First a working dog should know how to concentrate on a task. For example, tracking is an excellent way to focus a dog. It teaches a dog top become engrossed in his work over a prolonged period. Tracking is like algebra. It is quiet, intense, and focused work. It teaches concentration. A dog who can track usually shows his ability to concentrate elsewhere. This is clearly a useful, transferable skill. Tracking is especially beneficial to dogs who will be trained later for scent work it is vital that the dog remember what he is doing.

Secondly, a working dog should be a team player. To the uninitiated, the dog obedience exercises look like some bizarre ritual we make the dog go through. But the dog is a creature of motion. We combine his natural desire to be in movement with his desire to please, and the result is a fluid movement which makes a team. This builds mutual trust and confidence in the team as they learn to work together closely. When people complain to me that obedience exercises are like mechanical rituals. I counter with, "How come we don't ridicule the calisthenics of football team players or dancers?" Obedience is dancing with the dogs. Nowhere does the true relationship between dog and handler show itself so clearly as in obedience work.

Thirdly, a working dog should show drive. It is important to give the dog some kind of task that is instinctive yet simulates a real situation, e.g. chasing and apprehending a criminal, searching and finding an injured person, retrieving a lost article. These activities are of course only pantomimed in training, but they provide great release for the dog. Or they can be perfected as a sport for trial competition.

In conclusion then, there are generic skills which a dog can learn which transfer easily over to other situations, We could list some of these which are really at the heart of the major dog sports:

concentrate on a track
basic obedience
respond to directional signals while searching
directed/selective retrieve
negotiate obstacles and different surfaces
retrieve over a jump
climb a wall
barking alert / hold and bark
indicate finding of an article
engage a stranger - e.g. the courage test

These are skills that transfer to a wide variety of situations. They are also within the realm of possibility to master. But remember, they must be approached in terms of what they represent and demonstrate. A successful working dog must be able to focus on a task, act with drive and self-directed energy, and be a team player.