The following article previously appeared in the November, 1993 issue of Fresh Tracks, the journal of the Washington State Police Canine Association. Officer Steve White is a trainer with the Seattle Police K-9 Unit.
You're good and so is your dog. You two have the skills to find the baddest of the bad. Maybe, they can hide and you won't see them. Maybe, they can be quiet and you won't hear them. But, they can't stop producing scent. The harder they try, the more stress they induce, and the more scent they pump out. Better yet, that scent is more likely to contain the pungent apocrine sweat -- frequently described by K-9 handlers as "enhanced scent."
All in all, this a formula for an easy track, right? Maybe so, but it doesn't always work out that way. We have all had slumps. We know they are just part of the ebb and flow of life. Knowing all this does nothing to ease the frustration. As with any endeavor, frustration adds to the problem by generating performance anxiety. The downward spiral accelerates.
The causes for slumps fall into two categories -- dog/handler problems and/or patrol procedure problems. The source of most problems might surprise you. Before you can pull yourself out of your slump, you have to accept the likely cause and cure, no matter how ego-deflating that realization might be.
First Define the Problem-
First, we must define what a slump actually is. Slumps are when an experienced and usually productive dog team has a marked drop in productivity on K-9 cases. Novice teams do not fall into this category; they are in a state of transition roughly equivalent to the move from apprentice to journeyman. Although competent to perform the job, they need experience to maximize their potential. In Seattle, we have found that it is the exceptional team that has higher than average productivity before their second year on the street.
Next, let's look at dog/handler problems and their effects. The first thing you must do is examine the dog's performance in the controlled conditions offered by training. Is he lackluster, slow, or stiff? If so, check his health. We have found that all sorts of things which seem to have nothing to do with scent work can impair the dogs willingness and ability to work. Parasites, panosteitis (even in dogs as old as 3 years), viral infections, toothaches, and ear infections are just a few of the medical impediments to scent work.
Think about it . How would you like to run full tilt on track while ill? With his already sore head filling with blood because it is lower than his body, your dog is not going to want to keep his nose down where the scent is. Similarly, body aches tend to just make the dog feel blasé. This dog needs to see a vet. You'd be amazed at the improvement a little aspirin or antibiotic can make.
If he seems to be trying his best to track, but can't seem to smell the scent, look for a medical problem first. Minor sinus infections, earaches, toothaches, and even inhaled grass seeds can impair the dog's ability before he has other symptoms profound enough for you notice.
Help Your Dog Focus
Often problems show up in the dog, but stem from something the handler has been doing: I know whereof I speak, because I've made all these mistakes myself. The following list gives concepts and tips which proved to be effective slump solvers:
Focus on the means, not the end. Is a dog that used to be a focused, methodical worker now starting to go too fast? Often this problem is the result of emotions from the handler over exciting the dog. Often handlers realize that their dog is not performing properly and try to compensate with motivational training. Frequently this exacerbates the problem, by over-emotionalizing the dog when he needs to work calmly and methodically. Jazzing the veteran dog up en route to the track, and heavy man work at the end, tend to make the dog focus on the end (dealing with the bad guy) rather than the means (tracking). It helps the dog focus on the track when you have a calm, yet enthusiastic starting ritual, and a less confrontational end.
Time for a reality check. Is the dog performing well in training, but can't seem to find a real bad guy? This usually stems from one or two things. First, we must accept that no matter how we try to simulate reality, dogs know the difference between training and real applications. All training lacks the emotional components (yours and the other participants') that are present in real applications. Also, training usually has some sort of equipment associated with it. These are cues to the dog. Cues that tell him whether or not it is worth his while to put forth his best effort.
Think of it from his perspective. He is 100 percent successful in training, so he "knows" it is worth focusing there. However, in real applications he is lucky to be successful 30 or 40 percent of the time. Once he realizes this, he may be less motivated to work on something that isn't as likely to produce good results. Often this problem is compounded by well-intentioned handlers who put the dog out on every possible application, even the very low probability ones. This, in essence, de-trains the dog, by teaching him that his odds of success are very low (less than 15 or 20 percent) on real applications.
The cure? Respectfully decline low probability applications, and strive to eliminate equipment association in training. Try sleeveless tracks with a high quarry, dropping the sleeve off at the end, and muzzled tracks (use this only if your are religious about working your dog in the muzzle in non-man work and non-scent situations).
Copyright 1993 by Steve White. Reprinted with permission of the author.