Welcome to the NWK9 Reading Room. Here we present the second in a series of Tim's "Handler Lessons" where he shares his early police dog training experiences that provided the opportunities to learn from his mistakes. In this installment, he illustrates the importance of psychologically preparing the dog for the track with a starting ritual.

Handler Lessons Unit Two: Mind Games by Tim Tieken

Police K9 Odin and I were patrolling the north end of Seattle when we heard a Queen Anne area patrol unit broadcast he was chasing a stolen car. I was a long distance away but was the only K9 unit available. I had to drive hard with emergency lights and siren to get into a position to help. Try as I might, we were still a short distance away when they dumped the vehicle in a park and ran on foot. The patrol officers did not give direct foot pursuit, knowing a K9 unit was on the way; rather they chose to cordon off the area to contain the running thieves.

On the way Odinís excitement mounted. He knew this kind of driving and the siren led to an application for him and he was ready to go. He left no doubt in my mind that he knew what was going on by coming half way into the front of the car while whining and looking to and fro for the escaping bad guys.

When I arrived on the scene of the dumped stolen car, I got Odin out of the patrol car and took him to the stolen car. I placed him on the spot where the patrol officers had last seen the running thieves and commanded him to track. At that point I observed him running around the area "head high" -- obviously using his eyes to search for the suspects. I recalled him, thinking that the patrol officers were mistaken and that Odin never had a scent to follow. This time I took him to the stolen car and placed him on the ground just outside the driverís door and again commanded him to track. And again he ran around head high visually searching for the suspects. At this time I pushed him across the park hoping that he would pick up the scent and settle into his usual job of methodical and excellent tracking. It did not happen. I was embarrassed and frustrated and wanted to imbed my boot into Odinís hind end. The patrol officers had refrained from searching on their own and set up containment. Now their eyes were burning holes through Odin and me. We were getting nowhere. My embarrassment and frustration grew as the officers watched us flounder. Odin had a good reputation for making difficult cases, and now we could not make an easy fresh track where ideal tracking conditions existed.

Odin did not seem to know why he was there, although he was actively and energetically searching. Then it dawned on me: there was a hole in our training and experience. The pursuit driving almost always ended with a direct pursuit of a running man. Odin had been primed to look for the running man. Odin had not forgotten how to track but I had inadvertently told him to look for a running man. Odin was in the wrong frame of mind.

I returned to my patrol vehicle and Odin and I went for a short and calm drive and then returned to the scene of the stolen car. Then I took Odin from the car and put his tracking harness on and walked him to the stolen vehicle. I put Odin down on the front seat, giving him an opportunity to suck up some of the suspectís scent. Then I commanded him to track. This time he went nose down and meticulously worked his way through the park and into a paved alley that led away from the park through a residential area. Near the end of the two-block long alley, Odin went onto the back porch of a home and indicated strongly on the rear door. At that time there was no one in the house, but later investigation revealed that the thieves had entered the home and obtained a ride from the area. Had we tracked correctly the first time and not twenty minutes later, we may have made the arrest.

After this incident I began to follow a distinct pattern of events just prior to tracking. I have come to call it a starting ritual. Its purpose is to better place the dog into the correct frame of mind for the behavior I want him to practice. It was designed as a helpful aid -- a way to get the right juices flowing at the right time.

Many handlers scoffed at the idea and refused to practice the starting ritual. In their day-to-day application of their dogs, they did not see a need to take the extra time. And I will freely concede that in most instances it will not make a difference. The average experienced dog will know what to do most every time. The starting ritual is designed to prevent those few instances where the dog will miss a cue and fail where he may have succeeded. At the end of a year it may only mean one or two additional finds, but those are finds that otherwise would not exist.

This was my starting ritual: If I knew I was nearing a tracking situation I would start prior to arriving at the crime scene to ask the dog if he wanted to seek -- this being my command to track. This would be done in a calm manner so as to excite the dog without making him so hectic as to cause trouble. Once at the scene and having determined the necessary facts, I would make a distinct point of putting the dogís tracking harness on him. Not only does the harness prompt the dog into tracking behaviors (correct frame of mind) as we approach the track, it continues to remind the dog what he is doing while he tracks. It also lessens the effect of external and internal distractions. Next, at the starting place, I place the dog in a down position facing the direction the witness(es) tell me the track will go. This sets up the dog for success, and makes the start of the track go more smoothly. I believe a major element of a successful track is getting off to a good start. The next element is to start the dog on-lead, whether or not I intend to track off-lead, and restrain him from mistakes borne of over-exuberance. If I intend to track off-lead, I wait to remove the lead until the dog settles into the track. In the beginning this may frustrate a dog who is oriented toward trailing. However, with experience, he will learn to tolerate the restraint and be better for it.

This brings us to another closely related subject that I would like to briefly discuss. Ultimately, in all but rural areas, I prefer an off-lead trailing dog as the most efficient for catching crooks who have fled the scene. However, I believe the trailing dog only reaches maximum efficiency if he has been taught to track footstep to footstep. This lays a foundation upon which to bolster his training and upon which he can rely when the trailing evidence becomes scarce.

Like the starting ritual, it may only make the difference occasionally -- but it does make a difference. These are two different edges you can add to your repertoire.

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