Danger Will Robinson... really long post LOL
I have dealt with several detection dogs that developed fearful reactions and avoidance due to noises. They were refusing to work under certain conditions.
I will discuss one particular dog, as we worked out of the same location and I conducted most of the training with him. I will leave out non-pertinent information to protect my brothers working in bad places, so please have patience with any lack of specifics about the situation.
This dog is of solid nerves, and very environmentally sound. He regularly experiences gunfire and mortar round explosions. He rides in aircraft. He confronts all situations with a smile and wag of his tale. He is confident in all he does. I had spent 7 months around this dog before the following incident.
The area the dog was working was very familiar to him, as he worked in that location 3 to 4 times a week for a period of several months before the following incident took place. He was frightened by a loud noise while searching a particular object. He went into avoidance of the object, returned to his handler, tucked his tail, began panting and licking his lips. After a short break and removal from the immediate area, the dog refused to work, and failed to respond to a drop aid that was placed so as to be sure the dog was in the scent cone. He shut down.
Upon returning to the FOB, the dog would not work or leave the handler.
The following day, a training venue was set up in a location the dog was very familiar with to see if he would work at all. One of the objects the dog was exhibiting fear around was placed at the end of the training venue to gauge his reaction. The dog responded successfully during the training exercise, except at the end when the fear object was present. At this time he avoided the object , seeking reassurance from the handler. The dog's reaction was not as fearful as during the initial incident, but he still ignored odor and went into avoidance.
We used a program of desensitization through successive approximation and avoided flooding to keep from pushing the dog into a deeper fearful state.
A fear object was placed in a large open area. The dog was walked into the same area as the object and the distance at which the dog began to exhibit the smallest amount of fear response was noted. This distance was 60 meters. A flag was placed in the ground here for reference. An arc of 5 flags was placed at this distance from the fear object to create a reaction line. Flags were also placed at 10m intervals closer to the object for successive reference points. Picture a dart board with the fear object being the bulls-eye.
The dog was run through OB exercises, and allowed to roam freely outside his reactive zone. Every time he looked at the fear object he was rewarded. It is important to state that the dog must be working outside the range at which he exhibits fear. We were rewarding the lack of fear response. The dog was worked on leash and never allowed inside the reactive arc. The idea was to not allow the dog to experience fear.
The dog was trained in this manner for 4-5 minute sessions, 15 times a day. Concurrent odor training was taking place at another familiar location, where his reward frequency was lowered while the find frequency was raised. He went to 1 in 8 fixed reward schedule in hopes to raise his frustration enough to drive him into the fear object when the time came. Concurrent gunfire training was taking place at the range.
The following day, the dog was tested at the 50m flags to ensure there was no fear response. The outer flags were removed and the training moved 10m closer to the fear object. This same procedure was followed every day until the arc was removed.
Once the arc was removed, games of hide and seek were played with the reward as the hidden object. At no time did the dog exhibit fear towards anything. The rewards were initially placed away from the fear object, with subsequent games moving closer, and finally in contact with the fear object.
Once the dog was successfully operating around and on the fear object without demonstrating avoidance, odor was placed in the same manner as the rewards, moving successively closer, and finally in contact with the fear object.
After the initial desensitization to the object was complete, training moved to the fearful location. The dog was allowed to relax in the environment without any stress added by handler commands to perform any OB or search behaviors. The dog played 2 ball and tug games in the fear location for a full day and then returned home. Slowly, loud noises were included into the training. The following day, simple training exercises were conducted on odor, with a high find frequency and 1 in 8 reward schedule to help build drive.
After 2 days operating in the fear location without seeing any fearful reactions, training venues were set up in the fear location with the fear object in proximity to the training. Hides were moved successively closer to the fear object, until the dog was responding to odor placed directly on the fear object.
The team was then run on several blind training venues at the fear location which included the fear objects. When the team proved it would work in this location with no distraction caused by the location, loud noises in the location, or close contact with the fear object, they returned to duty.
10 days training were spent on the dog before it was returned to duty. Every step of the training was based on the reaction of the dog, not a schedule written on paper.
I do believe the training could have occurred at a faster pace, but chose to take things slowly to avoid any handler issues or set-backs in training.
It is easier to handle situations like this when you are a handler, and it is your sole responsibility to train and operate with your dog. If the dog is not mission capable, you have 24 hours a day to work on the situation until it is fully mission capable. The dog is your life.
When a dog saves the life of a man, it becomes clear that partnership knows no bounds.
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