It May Surprise You

Nothing is so commonplace as the desire to be remarkable.  But to be truly remarkable requires more than desire.

Most of the K-9 handlers we have ever had the opportunity to meet have desired to be an above average handler.  But desiring and attaining are not the same.

Excelling in the field of K-9 work requires many things, but not necessarily what you might think.

First and foremost, it requires a deep-down, gut-wrenching, all-consuming longing to handle a dog.  Ask just about any K-9 handler what he or she went through to finally get a dog and they’ll regale you with stories about how they took a cut in pay, spent the rent to build a dog kennel and agreed to sleep outside.  Without that level of commitment, chances are, you won’t make it in K-9 work. 

This remarkable K-9 handler is very dog oriented and seeks to understand all facets of dog behavior.  Their determination to learn their dog’s body language, mastering the tonal inflections used in effective communication with it, as well as basic dog psychology actually make them a student of their dog.  These handlers understand that their well-timed moments of establishing themselves as Alpha of the pack are only a small portion of the whole picture of motivating the working dog.  It takes an astute and clever handler to effectively motivate his or her dog to perform consistently, confidently and with a lot of style.

Another trait found in a remarkable handler is their commitment to train regularly. And by training regularly, we are not referring to the obligatory 2 or 3 times per month of paid training days allotted to the handler by the department.  We are talking about a serious, dedicated commitment to improvement, week after week, month after month, and year after year.  Many young handlers come out of the academy, full of juice and ready to rack up some dope finds, track down some bad guys and bask in the residual glory.  But as the daily grind becomes well, … daily, many handlers become complacent about training.  A remarkable handler can’t afford NOT to train.

Another facet of the committed K-9 handler is their willingness to obtain training for themselves and their dog, even if they must foot the bill for it themselves.  We have seen many; many handlers express a desire to become a more proficiently trained team, but will secure that training only if someone else will pay the bill.  In contrast, a serious handler, while mindful of cost, cares more about excelling in their field through becoming and remaining highly trained than by engaging in a Mexican standoff over who should pay the bill. It has been said, “It’s no use saying ‘we’re doing our best…’ We must succeed at doing what is necessary!”  Standing around waiting for their department to pay the tab for training wastes precious training time and opportunities.  Remarkable K-9 handlers take the initiative to stand up and do what is necessary to be the best in their field.

Another sign of a diligent, dedicated handler is their refusal to accept training direction and information from anyone other than legitimate, reputable trainers.  Many handlers are content with the initial training they received in the academy and the ideas passed along from handler to handler on training days.  But true advancement is achieved by learning from the masters whose years of experience in the field make them invaluable resources to the teachable handler.

Which brings to light another trait of a remarkable K-9 handler: the teachable spirit.   We have met plenty of men and women who come to us claiming to seek to improvement in their dog/handler team’s skills, but proceed to spend the rest of their time trying to impress us with how much they already know.  The old adage that an empty barrel makes more noise than a full one sums it up quite well.  In contrast, when we were in England instructing at the Essex Police Dog Section, we were blown away by the number of experienced K-9 handlers (some of whom had worked dogs for decades) who sat in attentive silence so as not to miss anything that they could learn from the “American trainers”.  These men and women didn’t bother with empty statements which, in essence say “I know I have a lot to learn, but…” Instead they took voracious notes, asked intelligent questions and then established a training plan to more effectively reach their goals.  The areas they discovered were in need of improvement were readily addressed without any excuses.  A remarkable K-9 handler doesn’t just SAY they have a lot to learn.  They just go about learning it. 

Becoming a remarkable K-9 handler is accomplished most effectively by looking within than it is by looking without.  By looking ‘without’ we see the picture of a dog handler who is more concerned with passing their certifications tests and looking good in front of the crowd than they are about improving their on-the-street skill as a dog handler team.  And one does not guarantee the other.  The anticipation of an upcoming test might provoke a rash of training to secure their licensing requirement for another year, but once accomplished, the training days dramatically reduce.

Conversely, looking ‘within’ reveals a handler who is vastly more concerned with being extraordinarily good at what they do than they are about certification exams. This is because these handlers do not seek to learn the tricks of the trade – they learn the trade. Love of the job impels the remarkable handler to get out and train when a lesser handler’s ego brags about how good they already are and comfort summons them to stay in out of the rain.

A remarkable dog handler insists on maintaining a high level of physical fitness.  We have seen many earnest, would-be handlers who have a great desire to work a dog, but are unable to follow their dogs for any length of time due to poor physical conditioning.  Working a dog will, at some point in time, become a test of the physical fitness.  A good handler is physically up to the task to work their dog – and then some.

Two critical traits of the remarkable dog handler are patience and willpower. Both are essential if the dog/handler team is to excel. The handler must have the patience to train their dog progressively, understanding that the dog is not a robot that merely responds to commands. These handlers understand that consistency and repetition are the keys to success and they must be patient enough to provide it. Good handlers have the willpower to allow their dogs to learn according to the dog’s own learning style rather than by what makes sense them as the trainer. Not all dogs learn things in the same way and a good handler will discover what style makes learning easier for their dogs.

A superior handler learns to “read” their dog under a wide variety of conditions.  They understand the importance of knowing with certainty what their dogs’ signals mean and how to appropriately respond.  They recognize that accurate communication with their working dog is a skill that will either make or break them as a handler. Excellent handlers will settle for nothing less because they know that their ability to read their dog will some day mean the difference between life and death in a critical, tactical situation. 

To say that becoming a remarkable K-9 handler is a multi-faceted endeavor is an understatement indeed!  But it is, indeed possible.  All that is needed is an overwhelming love and understanding of dogs, possession of a humble, teachable, motivational spirit, a willingness to make the necessary personal, financial and social sacrifices to excel, and the gameness to look without blinking at your own personal shortcomings and then improve them.  Come to think of it, these are precisely the same attributes found in the great leaders of history.  Seems like the only thing better than possessing the attributes of some of the world’s greatest leaders is to have the great privilege of working a remarkable K-9 too.

 By Jack R. Shuler & Behesha H. Doan

Copyright © 1998 by Jack R. Shuler & Behesha H. Doan. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. 

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