420 hours of training seems like a long time— but these dogs don’t mind because that’s how long it takes to become part of the Washington State Patrol.
Over the span of 12 weeks, hopeful K9s and their handlers are put through rigorous training for a total of, you guessed it, 420 hours. Master Trainer Steve Gardner explains the first part of a K9’s training is to build both discipline and confidence.
He says this is typically done through a variety of exercises such as having the K9s walk on different surfaces- like metal crates or see-through floorboards. This introduces them to the different types of foreign ground they will encounter during their career; and it also gives the trainers a chance to assess the dog’s ability to adapt in unfamiliar circumstances.
Another important exercise takes place inside the K9 training facility at the Washington State Patrol Academy in Shelton. Small holes cover the entirety of one room inside the center. Trainers will put a K9’s toy (or “odor”) in a simple pipe, which is then placed in one of the holes. The handler will lead the dog around the room and have him/her check every hole. Although the handler knows exactly where the toy is located, the exercise teaches two things: The first is the dog must be extremely direct in their scent detection. The second is it teaches the handlers how to move systematically throughout a designated area without exerting all the K9’s energy.
When K9s do locate their toy, they are taught what Gardner calls “passive detection style.” Meaning no barking or jumping; instead the Patrol trains K9s to simply lie down when they find something. But when handlers and their K9 partner become familiar with one another, laying down may not even be necessary. “Most people can see simple changes in a dog’s body stature but if the room is quiet enough and the handlers and K9s are in sync, a Trooper can detect when their K9 is on to a scent just by listening to the change in their dog’s breath” Gardner says, adding “it’s all about trust and being able to read your partner.”
After eight weeks of training, K9s and their handlers took part in “unknown searches.” Meaning this was the very first time neither the K9 nor the handler knew where the toy was hidden. Inside a Washington Department of Transportation facility in Mullinex the teams moved through multiple rooms looking for their odor or toy. Master Trainers watched closely to evaluate how a handler reads his dogs, the K9s confidence level, and odor recognition capability.
When a dog correctly located his toy, the handler praised his four-legged partner and rewarded him with some well-deserved play time. Trainer Bill Henkel explained a dog sees his toy as a “pay check” and his/her handler as a “pay master.” The celebratory time together not only forms a bond between the handler and K9 but it also teaches the dog to associate work with fun. This lesson is intensively emphasized during the dog’s first year on the job. Handlers are under a very strict “hands-off” policy with their K9 for an entire year; this trains the dog to think of work and fun as the same- that way he/she is happy and stays focused the entire time they are on a detection mission.
The training at the Mullinex facility proved a little different than anything the dogs have experienced before. The dogs weren’t able to locate a scent a majority of the time. That was no accident. Trainers want K9s to become use to the idea of coming up empty handed. Garnder says “this can be an extremely frustrating training period for a K9 since they want to find their toy so they can interact with their trainer. However they must realize in the real-world, they aren’t going to find something 99% of the time.”
Gardner explains the main goal is to teach the K9s how to channel their energy into a concentrated task focus. If they can do that, then the Patrol will gain another valuable K9.
There is more coming up in our “Canine Tales” series including partner relationships and of course their graduation. Stay tuned for more!