Left to Peak by Dr. Miles Arakaki
Robbie was a 5 year old German Shepard Dog trained in narcotics detection. He was coming down to Georgia with his handler, Officer “S”, for his annual certification test to qualify the team to continue to work the road. Head trainer, Buck, had given me a heads-up the day before that Robbie was having problems with vehicle searches, and to come up with a fix. On the first day I asked the handler to give me a description of the problem; Robbie worked well in detecting narcotics in all environments except on the side of the interstate. He seemed to scare off task when traffic blew by. I had no idea what the cause of the problem could be, but I figured the first step was to do a basic vehicle search without the distraction of traffic and work our way forward.
We had a group of old cars parked in a row in an open field, and I placed a training odor in the door of one of the vehicles. Officer “S” brought Robbie forward on a 6-foot leather leash and placed him into a SIT at about 6 o’clock to the rear. There was a moment of quiet calm, like an Olympic gymnast settling before going into a routine. I used the pause to go blank in my head; I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to recognize the issue, but there was no sense in trying to anticipate it, just get on with it and take it all in.
Officer “S” gave a sharp “Find It!” command, and Robbie surged forward to the designated vehicle. Officer “S” tried to buoy up Robbie’s enthusiasm with a stream of verbal encouragements like “Good boy”, “Keep looking”, “Good find it”, etc. The first thing that stood out to me was that the dog’s search pattern became erratic. We like to see the dog work a vehicle in a controlled manner; counter clockwise or clockwise, from low hide sites to high then back to low. This way, the dog covers the entire search area, and the chances of him overlooking something are minimized. What I saw was a dog bouncing back and forth in an excited, almost out of control fashion, panting with his mouth open (a panting dog is not actively searching), and the behaviors seemed to increase in response to the handler’s vocal stimulation. It appeared that Robbie was being overstimulated by his handler.
We humans primarily focus on verbal communication, so much to the point that we tend to overlook the rest. Research has shown that dogs get much more information from nonverbal stimulus, such as body language and olfactory signals, and that their responses to auditory stimulus do not correspond to an understanding of spoken language. A dog will respond correctly to BIT, ZIT, or KIT spoken in the same tone and inflection as SIT. The dog learns to associate the specific sound and other non-verbal cues to the desired response in order to get his reward. By assuming that a dog understands the meaning of words, and by neglecting the effects of nonverbal signals, it is easy to set conditions of inadvertent miscommunication. Over- communication can lead to mixed signals, increased stimulation, and performance deficits in training.
In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John D. Dodson studied the relationship between arousal and performance which became known as the Yerkes Dodson Law. The two surmised that increased arousal led to increased performance up to a point, after which performance declined. The concept is visualized with a bell-shaped curve, the peak of which represents optimal performance. With increased stimulation and excitement, the performance declines to the right. An analogy is of that Olympic gymnast psyching herself up just the right amount to give the performance of a lifetime, but too much excitement/anxiety/emotion causing her to “choke” on the mat. In Robbie’s case, Officer “S” was overstimulating the dog with his commands, causing his performance to drift further right from optimal. Part of the art of dog handling/training is reading the energy level of the dog, and modulating the input in order to bring the dog closer to the top of the performance curve.
I reported my observations to Buck, who agreed with my assessment, and we spent an afternoon working with Officer “S” and Robbie on vehicle searches. The first thing we did was to get Officer “S” to tone back his voice commands; “Find It” was THE command to search; everything else was muddying the waters. Keeping quiet when Robbie was actively searching allowed him to focus on a job he already knew how to do, and verbal reinforcement was only administered when his behavior patterns indicated he needed it. We also had the handler enforce a consistent search pattern around the car; counterclockwise in Robbie’s case, and ensure that he checked all high and low search zones before moving on to the next section of the vehicle body. By throttling back on the stimulation and being consistent in his handling, we found that Robbie had no problems detecting on cars in the training field.
The next step was to gradually introduce distractions to a level the team would face in the field and reassess the dog’s performance. We set up a traffic stop on the side of a quiet rural road with minimal activity. Once again, Robbie had no problems detecting. We moved to another road with a slightly higher amount of traffic, and Robbie was flawless. We finally went to the side of the interstate, and Robbie showed no distraction to the adjacent traffic flow as he continued to perform near the top of the curve. There was nothing wrong with the dog. There was miscommunication between the dog and his handler. After another day of fine-tuning handler techniques, Officer “S” and Robbie went on to pass their certification and returned to their department ready to get back on the road.