Decoy School ben geurts writes

August 27, 2016

The Wild West

K9 Solutions Australia's Director and Trainer Ben Geurts pens their recent experience with the Western Australia Police Canine Unit in Perth.

The business of training dogs is exciting, interesting and something we at K9 Solutions Australia [K9SA] are extremely passionate about. However, it has been said that the dog world can be a fickle one, “the only thing two dog handlers will agree on is that the third is wrong”.

So when I received a call from Glenn Potter, the head of the Western Australia Police [WAPOL] Equine and Canine Units asking if we could supply their canine handlers with some decoy training, I was both excited and nervous at the same time. Excited at the proposition of sharing our knowledge with other professional dog handlers and nervous at how our methods might be received given they differ considerably from conventional methods. I quickly learnt that my initial nervousness was unwarranted.

Participants at the K9 Solutions Australia's Decoy Training Course held at Mt Lawley, Perth.

The K9SA team prepared as per normal and headed into the first day of two courses with confidence [WAPOL exclusively booked our services to cover the entire dog squad] . During the introductions it was immediately evident that the WAPOL handlers were extremely open to new techniques. A very brave approach that involves admitting you don’t know everything, something dog handlers are not exactly renowned for [all honest dog handlers will be grinning with acknowledgement upon reading this].

"Our dogs have improved significantly since the training and there has been an increase in offenders being caught." - Glenn Potter, WAPOL.

Our direct approach was well received as we moved into the Civil Agitation phase [teaching a dog to engage a target without the use of bite training equipment]. This is an area that is often avoided by canine trainers as it can be difficult to explain, demonstrate and practice. However, it is the foundation of our training......if a dog is going to falter, it will be here.

This time round it was my turn to give the classroom lesson, an often turning point at our courses as our approach contradicts numerous world famous dog trainers and generally accepted techniques [refer to the "what two dog handlers agree on" statement above]. Our early introduction and utilisation of the civil picture as a foundation for our training, coupled with our use of bite equipment as PPE only, often initially confuses handlers. 'Oh shit' I thought, I’m losing them…but again it was nothing to worry about, just some handlers trying to process what they had just heard. We had only begun the rethinking process.

The Western Australia Police Canine Section was formed in 1993 with the initial intake of two police officers and two German shepherd dogs.

Training was conducted in Trentham, New Zealand, as this was the best available training facility. At the completion of training, the section had one general purpose dog and one narcotics detection dog.

Even in the early stages, it was found that the dogs were of great assistance to police on the streets and it quickly became apparent that an increase in staff was needed.

Since that time the section has steadily grown to 3 Sergeants and 4 training officers. There are also 22 general purpose dog teams including 3 in regional WA, 9 narcotic detector teams, 4 Passive Alert detection teams and 3 explosive detection dog teams.

The Canine section also conducts joint training and operations with other government agencies such as the Australian Customs Service, Australian Federal Police, and Department of the Attorney General, Special Air Services and the Australian Defence Force.

Next, we moved into the practical phase. The first step involves assessing their dog’s reaction to a civil picture [no bite equipment]. Let’s not understate what a risky venture this is for outside trainers. Civilian trainers visiting a professional organisation and assessing the dogs who are employed real time for their ability to engage a target without equipment. Risky, but essential.

Some dogs will falter during these exercises and things don’t always go as planned. However, we strongly believe that if your dog is not ready to engage a real target, then you best find out during training instead of on the job when the consequences could be dire. Thankfully the WAPOL canine team agreed and this phase was very well received. In fact, we could visually see the handlers putting the pieces together with regards to the theory behind what we do.

WAPOL K9 completes the 'inside' bite with ease at the K9 Solutions Australia's Decoy Course.

As per most dog handlers, the WAPOL crew really stepped up when the practical phase began. Jase often states that dog handlers are visual learners [one of the rare times I’ll actually agree with him] and WAPOL were no exception. They were eager to bring their dogs out [a fairly standard practice] but also eager to perform the role of a decoy [typically not so popular].

"I learnt more in the last week than I have done in the previous five years" - Jake Carr, WAPOL dog handler.

As a result, their decoy skills improved at a rapid pace, as did their dogs. They readily accepted our philosophy once they saw it in action. We exposed them to foundation training and where possible gave an introduction into more advanced exposures. On both courses the handler's interest and commitment to the training were second to none. But their commitment was to be tested during the Bite Suit phase.

"Having been fortunate to experience some training exercises with the guys from K9SA in their previous lives, I was very excited to participate in the Decoy Course they delivered to the West Australian Police Canine Unit." - Damien Thompson, WAPOL dog handler.

Targeting is an essential element of a well-trained, safe, and capable service dog. Poor targeting can end in excessive use of force, or injuries to dog’s and/or handlers. The bite suit phase covers this aspect. Instructing this phase is often fought over by the K9SA team as we all enjoy suit work [we’re weird like that]. Grant won this time around and ran the phase for WAPOL. The teams started with smiles a plenty but these quickly changed into grimaces as the dry drills, although essential, can be quite difficult.

"I didn't think I was going to pick up as much as I did from K9 Solutions Australia, great instructions coupled with proven experience." - Francois Becker, WAPOL dog handler.

Grant and I [much to Jase's annoyance....you’ll get your turn next course mate] rotated through the assessment of the dog's bite on the suit looking at intent levels and targeting. Then the handlers were given their first bites. As always there were varying levels of ability in absorbing and applying the dry drills the decoys had been taught, however, the commitment and effort was, what became the norm with the WAPOL canine team throughout the courses, unquestionable.

K9 Solutions Australia's Decoy Training Course held at Mt Lawley, Perth, June 2016.

Jase then ran with the muzzle phase. We outsourced some dogs to demonstrate muzzle fighting as this was not currently part of the WAPOL program [they have since adopted it as a result of the course]. There were some bruised bodies and egos by the end of this phase and some very happy dogs. WAPOL really embraced the idea of utilising muzzle fighting as the cornerstone of a functional service dog.

"Their experience and knowledge is first class and our dogs and handlers are better off for it" - Dave Bathurst, WAPOL dog handler.

As requested, we tailored the course to include some instruction on assessing canine candidates for police work and modern obedience techniques. Again, this information was well received and the practical application immediately evident by the WAPOL attendees.

Director and Trainer Ben Geurts gives advice at K9 Solutions Australia's Decoy Training Course.

The decoy course was brought to a close with a bullring activity. This brought together everything that had been covered in a high tempo exercise that focused on the individual elements while educating the dog on how to function within a team of police officers. This style of training, as per numerous aspects of the course, was foreign to most of the WAPOL handlers. However, their approach remained consistent and they adapted well.

"The skills we learnt have been immediately added to our ongoing training regimen. K9SA stayed true to their company motto "Non Vactro"." - Damien Thompson, WAPOL dog handler.

The nervousness experienced at the start of the course quickly disappeared once we started training, however the excitement remains. K9SA are excited by the results of the course, by the response of the handlers and the dogs, and by the feedback received.

Civilian organisations provide training for canine units world-wide, however this attitude is foreign within Australia. Until recently government canine units have predominantly sourced their training internally. With the constant evolution of techniques, this "closed shop" system often results in modern training practices not being adopted.

"The information was provided in exactly the right mix of theory and practical. With all students and their individual dogs involved." - WAPOL dog handler.

The internet has provided visual insight into the existence of these new techniques and intuitive handlers are eager to learn more. K9SA are excited to play a role in the introduction and implementation of modern training techniques within Australia.

K9SA would like to thank WAPOL for taking a risk on us by providing the opportunity to share our skills and techniques, some that differ considerably from conventional methods, with hard working, committed, professional people. The Western Australia Police should be proud. Enjoy your training and stay safe!

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