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Canine Trauma


A. Brice Cavanaugh

“Records?  We don’t need no stinkin’ Records!” - Anonymous

One would think that the reason for keeping records would be a relatively simple concept, yet, the reasons seem to vary as do the individual K9 programs. A recent visit to a well known Federal K9 section inspired me to put more emphasis on this subject than I had originally planned. These Handlers had the luxury of a federally funded effort to digitize all of the K9 records, and had the programmers sitting in the kennels bouncing ideas back and forth. It quickly became apparent that the motives behind these handlers' record keeping was to adhere to standards and show their dogs' were 'certified', rather than use the records for their original and true document strengths and weaknesses of the dogs, to facilitate training a true team.

The driving force behind my K9 programs was to prepare teams for effective deployment, not to settle for the standards dictated. The minute you are trading real life scenarios for "gotta get the numbers up" training, your program is beginning a downward spiral. Here is an example: Many police K9 units receive a dog that has a SchH title, and employ that dog as a bon a fide patrol dog. Rather than expose that dog to scenario training, they stick to the tasks that the dog already knows, that being sporting in nature. Then they wonder why the dog reacts "adversely" to an actual situation. The same goes for detection training. The dogs do not get better by running the same types of training problems all the time, they get better by building on the successes of the dogs' past performance and challenging the dog, making sure to incorporate self discovery, as this is the most powerful training concept to employ.

So, back to the original issue.the driving force behind these handlers was to make sure that their dogs maintained a 95% accuracy rating. This was most evident when one of these Handlers made an observation that was neither well thought out or articulated to the point of acceptance. The programmers for the records asked how it was documented when a K9 Team approaches a training scenario for a building, that also had an open area leading up to and surrounding the building. The answer given? "There is no separate annotation, the team is responding to a bomb threat at the building, therefore the search goes down as a building search".

I choked out loud, and then queried "why not document the open area search up to and around the building, as this is assuredly a different type of search for dog and handler, specifically due to utilization of wind?"

The answer."Well, no matter where you start a search around a building, you will hit all sides of the building, therefore wind makes no difference."

While there is some truth in that statement, the fact is that wind always makes a difference, the presence, absence, direction, speed, etc. Properly documenting these variables, can explain why your dog does or does not find a training aid. The purpose of record keeping is to find the limits of the dog, and build from that point to minimize those limitations, and to keep those limitations in the forefront of the Handler's mind so that in the actual deployment, the search is effectively conducted. Of course "Real World" would dictate pattern if tactics and officer safety were an issue, but in the beginning phases of training, we want to learn the dog's capabilities, and we can always add the tactical side later. This holds true for when we want to challenge the dog as well. If we approach a potentially difficult area where the wind may be redirected due to barriers, yet, had I come the other way, had better successes, which would be right? How would I know this? Understanding my dog, detection theories and accurate record keeping.

So, with record keeping so important, how do we go about it? I utilize two categories of records, those that are day to day, and those that are monthly. They may sound one in the same, but there is a difference. Monthly records are usually what is in the Probable Cause Folder, while the day to day records contain the minute details. With proper record keeping, there can actually be enough information to inundate the reviewing official. That is why I keep them separate, but make them both equally accessible. Daily records are sometimes handwritten, and should also include thoughts, theories and methods tried in problem solving. Monthly records are impeccably presentable, making fact finding easy for even the novice reader. Liken it to a recipe: If you are the type to make new recipes and experiment, then you should likely keep copious notes en route to your next creation. But, the final result is the recipe, which should be easy for others to read and understand, more often than not by people that haven't the in depth knowledge that you may have. K9 Handlers should be duty experts, and document their work accordingly. Should any reason come up to where records are subpoenaed, the fact that every move made is carefully thought out and documented, should benefit the honest handler.

So, for daily detection training, I like to utilize a Validity Sheet, which documents almost all of the pertinent information for me to go back when I am in a problem solving mode. Without detailed records, the reasons for why my dog walked an odor may never come to light, and it may get chalked up as the dog having a bad day, or a "bad hide". Having a list of facts about the problem can help to lead to finding the common denominators in problems, as well as strengths. Taking just a few moments to properly document your training will undoubtedly save you much more time in the future. My Validity Sheets have just about everything on them, so I know to fill out all of the blocks, minimizing guessing later on. An example of an adequate Validity Sheet can be obtained from me privately.

What items should be documented on a daily basis for detection training? I will list out several, many of which may seem petty or irrelevant. But, in time, these will all make sense.

Wind direction and speed. Is your dog searching from the downwind flank? Is the scent cone wide and dispersed, or thin and concentrated? Are there places where the air could be swirling due to barriers in the path of the wind? Are there places where the wind of one extreme temperature collides with another extreme (heat from indoors vs. cold from outdoors)?

Temperature. Air molecules expand and contract due to temperature. The "size" and concentration of target air molecules can make a huge difference. This also can affect the physiology of the dog. If it gets too hot, the dog loses stamina. Temperature can also play in to the way the Handler works.

Humidity. Similar to temperature, but water molecules can actually trap and suppress odor molecules. Too much humidity can actually dilute and wash away residual odor.

Hide Type. Are you training with real explosives or simulates? Residual odors or actuals? Do you train on specific odors or one of the families of odors? All of these make a difference, especially if you are mixing methods.

Hide Size/Weight. I think we are all in agreement that size does matter, when laying out hides. Work your way up to smaller or larger amounts than are typically trained with, in accordance with the mission of your department. If your dog is used to training on large hides, than he would almost assuredly have to have his nose right on a hide much smaller, like a 10 round magazine of ammunition, to give a final response.

Hide Height and Depth. We generally start our dogs out at or below head level, and progress to higher and deeper hides. Only change one variable at a time, to be able to pinpoint the source of any discrepancy.

Distracter Odors. The types of distracters are just as important as the hide itself. If it is food, and the dog is interested, make note. Then compare training times to feeding times, and see if your dog acts differently on a full stomach versus empty. Are you extincting food odors during your training? NOTE: When referencing working a dog on a full stomach, I am NOT one to work a dog within an hour or two after feeding if it can be helped. Bloat is a real concern that can be directly attributed to feeding and exercise schedules.

Training Site Location. Are you searching dwellings, offices, vehicles, aircraft, watercraft, open areas, warehouses bleachers, etc? All of these have different approaches and built in distracters. Because your dog is 100% on TNT in buildings, yet only 25% in dwellings, are the indigenous odors of particular interest to your dog?

Hide Set Time/Training Start/Stop Time. Does your dog need a lot of set time before being proficient at locating a hide? Was he the first dog to run the problem, or the last? If there are multiple hides in a problem, are you documenting the time each were found? This can be so helpful to pinpoint an endurance or false response problem. Time is one of the most important variables in training.

Dog Response. Did he give a slow or adequate response? Did he need an assist? Did he walk the hide? Note the Change of Behavior traits.

Notes. Did the dog bracket prior to responding? Bracket and no response? Did the handler know the hide locations? Did the dog look uninterested, the handler agitated? This is a perfect place to praise or critique the team, and can be invaluable in problem solving.

Trainer's Name, Handler's Name and Dog Name. Yes, it has happened where the wrong dog got the wrong sheet, and baffled a handler or two. When running multiple teams, it is important to document as you go, and label everything!

Date. Nothing like trying to wait until the end of the month, and ask everyone else when the training was conducted. If training was documented daily, this would not be an issue, but there are circumstances where there is a need to go back to finish records.

Depending on how in depth your trainers go, there are other things that can be documented. The sheet begins to get crowded, but the Validity Sheets should be tailored around your mission. You may belong to a unit that never works watercraft, therefore you make no mention of the same. Regardless, create a sheet that is informative, easy to use and accessible. The more information you have on the training, the easier it is to pinpoint areas of consideration.

Record keeping should not be the reason you train, as seems to be the case in many places. Yes, it is important to meet whatever standards you are obligated to follow, but go beyond that. I see so many people that are slaves to the numbers, rather than looking at the dog, the team and the mission and tailoring the first two to meet the last. Record keeping should not be something to dread, but looked at as exciting, when you realize that a lot of answers could be laying right there, in your own handwriting!

Brice Cavanaugh is professional explosives detection trainer and handler. Among his accomplishments was starting the K9 Section of HMX-One (The Presidential Helicopter Squadron) as well as working many missions for the Secret Service, US Marshals, IRS CID, DEA, and FBI. Full details about Brice can be found at

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