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Search and Rescue Dogs; Punishment, Reinforcement, and Obedience.

December 20, 2011

Alexander, M. Friend, T. and Haug, L. (2011) Obedience training effects on search dog performance.  Applied Animal Behavior Science. (132)152-159.

Information on Micheal Alexander could not be readily located, making me think that he was probably a student of Ted Friend, PhD.  Information on Dr. Friend can be found here.


Conventional wisdom surrounding search and rescue (SAR) dog training says that less is more.  Some trainers believe that too much obedience training leads to a lack of independence from the SAR dog.  This is problematic because a good SAR dog should stay on the scent of a lost person even if their owner calls them back.  On the other hand, SAR dogs are expected to be obedient for safety, and publicity, reasons.  This study evaluated the training methods and the performance of 177 SAR dogs using a questionnaire completed by their handlers.  Handlers were solicited through the National Search Dog Association, and could answer the questionnaire even If their dog was not nationally certified.  The authors were interested in two things 1) Does waiting to obedience, and agility, train SAR dogs until their older and larger mean that they are punished more and 2) Do training methods, in fact, have an influence on how successful SAR dogs are at their work?

Handlers were asked about their background, their training methods, and the equipment they used.  Training methods were divided into positive reinforcement techniques, or compulsory techniques.  Examples of positive reinforcement techniques are clicker training, toy rewards, treats, and luring a dog into preforming the correct behavior rather than forcing it.    Compulsory techniques include physically forcing the dog to perform the correct behavior and physical discomfort, typically pain, caused by specialized collars or the handler.    Equipment used by handlers was classified as active or passive.  Active equipment was defined as any item that caused discomfort to the dog via mechanical action; prong collars, choke collars, shock collars, and head halters.  Passive equipment included items that caused little discomfort and were limited in the types of forces they could exert on the dog; collars, harnesses, verbal commands, or leashes.  It is my personal interpretation that the active equipment is designed to cause discomfort while passive equipment may only accidentally cause discomfort.

Based on the survey results, the authors found that most of the handlers that responded to the survey were women (68%), and that women preferred positive reinforcement techniques over men.  Almost 50% of the SAR dogs were either German Shepherds or Labrador Retrievers.  Only 14% of handlers using equipment on puppies (dogs less than 4 months old) preferred active, or punishing, types of equipment.  This number jumped to 37% of trainers when the dog is between 4 months-1 year old. 49% of trainers using equipment used active equipment if the dog was over 1 year old.  The authors speculated that dogs trained when they were older would be more likely to be subject to compulsory techniques, and their data supported that.  Luckily, most trainers began obedience training their dogs before they were 12 weeks (3 months) old.

95 of the handlers surveyed indicated that their dog was nationally certified, and 72% of them preferred positive reinforcement techniques. 80% of nationally certified handlers and dogs reported spending more than 4 hours per week training their dogs, while only 49% of non-certified dogs did.  This lends support to the second question the authors wanted to answer: are positive reinforcement techniques better?  While they didn’t find definitive proof, they did show that the most successful trainers prefer to use positive reinforcement techniques, and they like to train more hours.

The authors concluded that there was some evidence for both of their hypotheses.  They made particular mention of the use of punishment on SAR dogs.  As previously stated, SAR dogs need to disobey their handlers if they are on a good scent.  Punishment of disobedience in SAR dogs probably makes them less likely to stay on a scent when they are given an opposing command such as, “come here” by their handler.  Positive reinforcement techniques use rewards to keep dogs on scent.  During obedience training appropriate behaviors are reinforced and inappropriate behaviors are ignored or gently corrected.  A dog that chooses to stay on a scent when it is called does not fear punishment.  The study could not answer, however, the question of obedience training in general interfering with SAR performance.  The authors went out of their way to mention that this is an important topic for future study.

What Becky Thinks…

I was more interested in the questions this study couldn’t answer than the questions it could.  Does more obedience training negatively impact SAR dog performance?  It is popular wisdom that the more obedience training a SAR dog has, they less independent it is while searching.  It seems to me, that if finding lost people is more reinforcing than following obedience commands, the dog should tend to ignore the handler the closer it is to the lost person.  Meaning that playing with their favorite toy should be more motivating than coming back to their handler for a pat on the head and a trip home.  This would only work, as the authors point out, if the dog is not punished for disobedient behavior.

I didn’t mention it before, but the author’s mentioned that military and police dogs tend to be trained by men while volunteer SAR handlers tend to be women.  On top of that, they found that women were more likely to report positive reinforcement training techniques.  I don’t have any good hypothesis about why this is.  Anecdotally, I think women are better at reinforcing their dogs using their voices.  Not too many macho men want to bend down to their dog and squeal in a high pitch voice every time it sits, “Oh what a gooooooooood boy you are! What a smart puppy, yessssssss.  Goooooood dog!”  Not to say men are bad dog positive reinforcement trainers; there are lots of great ones!  Perhaps the men that train SAR dogs tend to be cops or veterans.  If they learn to train dogs in the military or police force, they might simply have had different teachers than you average SAR woman handler. Who knows?

All in all, cool paper.  It would be nice to see more experimental evidence rather than a questionnaire.  Even so, it is refreshing to see some interest in these kinds of practical training topics.


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