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Canine Trauma

Raising a puppy for narcotics, search-and-rescue,
cadaver, or patrol work

Yvette Piantadosi-Ward

I believe that how a puppy is handled from birth to 16 weeks is critical to their ultimate certification for their intended use.. I am going to give you an outline of how I test my litters and evaluate the puppies. These techniques have worked for me --only 2 of my puppies thus far washed out of any program to which they were targeted. Puppies develop quickly, so each week you must look for something new, thus my initial guidelines are organized by puppy age. By continually offering challenges and tests, at 7 weeks you should know enough about each puppy's suitabilities. At this point early training can begin, with separate sections for puppies selected for patrol versus narcotics and tracking and search/rescue work.

Whelping: Let's start with whelping. My puppies are raised in my bedroom from the day they are born, and handled not only by me but my children of various ages. Doing so helps me start to assess the puppies' temperament right from birth. The puppies are stressed daily for the first 3 weeks. Each person who handles the puppy will hold them differently and you can see which puppy is secure, who is agitated, who is nervous, and who can adjust to different hands. This provides my first indication of which puppies will have the correct nerves to work with the public ,and which puppy can accommodate new situations.

Three weeks: At 3 weeks puppies are given the option to eat some food, usually liver or kidneys as this has a very inciting smell to it. I will put out two dishes and watch to see which puppy uses its nose to find a dish and eat. This simple test shows me who is using their nose and how they use their other senses. Watch to see if they air scent or track the scent closer to the ground. Puppies remember these first impressions, and those who search for their food early on tend to continue with this behavior. By the week's end I am putting only one dish in for the puppies but hiding it under boxes, towels, or newspapers, so I can continually assess how the puppies tackle each new situation. It is also interesting to separate the puppies and set up a maze in which the puppy has to find it's way to the food bowl. The puppy who does this with consistence usually has a great aptitude to use his/her nose and also shows the use of intelligence and problem solving skills.

Four weeks: By the fourth week their hearing has developed sufficiently so I can introduce additional noises to the puppies: dishwasher, vacuum, power washer, vibrations from the dryer. For each experience their mother is available for comfort and to help them with the new experience. Doing so allows the puppies learn to explore new areas but always have a comfort zone to go to. The fourth week is a good time to introduce electronic toys to the puppies--ones that make whirling noises with bright lights flashing on and off are particularly good. I also put in toys that pop up so I can watch how the puppies react to sudden, unexpected changes.

Five weeks: This is when I start to watch the puppies' body language, it is the best time to gauge how they will behave later on in life. We shoot the air guns and watch the tails of the puppies, they can transmit a lot of what the dog is feeling. Is it wagging, stiff, tucked, upright, curly over the back? These are all important indicators of future temperament. A wagging tail shows me a puppy who is curious and willing to take a chance and listen to human directions. A stiff tail held over their back show me a dominant puppy who I would watch for patrol work. A stiff tail semi- tucked is a puppy who works with flight rather then fight drive.

At this time I also put new footing into the puppies' play area, such as cardboard boxes, plastic milk crates, wooden planks, carpeting, linoleum. The different footings help the puppy learn how to adjust its balance, to maneuver its feet and shift its weight. Beginning in the fifth week I also start to weed out my puppies. Puppies who are willing to explore, have good recovery time, and maintain eye contact will be kept. We do puppy agility with the balance beam and low jumps to see how the puppy maneuvers through these obstacles.

Six weeks: At this age we start to assess which puppy has the intensity for narcotics work. To later succeed in such work, the puppies must show they have the endurance needed to work without quitting and the intensity to search until they find the object of their desire. I start by throwing several tennis balls into the puppy pen and watching who picks it up, chases it, or hides it. The next day I use wooden dowels, then PVC piping, then metal spoons--you need a puppy who is curious and willing to pick up different objects. You want a puppy who is willing to play and does not give up, you have to take the object away for them to stop playing. A puppy who is possessive of their object is also an assest for the narcotics program. A inate desire to retrieve and find is what we are looking for at this stage. You might think this is young but a properly breed puppy will shows these drives, they might only surface at the times you are testing but that is enough. I do not leave these objects in with the puppies. I want there playtime to be associated with me only.

Seven weeks: At seven weeks I separate puppies into individual runs. This assures that they do not become pack oriented. This is also when we can start their training. At this point I have tested for and picked the puppy who has had the natural desire to retrieve items thrown for him, who would show possessiveness when he retrieved the items, had good eye contact and showed a willingness to work with his handler. Additionally the puppy should have shown signs it is intelligent and able to think through problems. A dog with tons of ball drive but who cannot think is of no use, he will burn out quickly and not have the stamina to continue. I also do not want the most dominant dog, but rather one in the middle. Lastly, I want a puppy who does not fold under corrections but rather learns and continues to work without holding a grudge. This all might sound like a lot to assess but by seven weeks all this is present in the puppy.

Tracking and search: Now the serious training starts, 10 minutes twice a day. I start to increase the ball drive of the puppy. He must be relentless in his desire to achieve that ball. I will tease him and then place the ball under my foot to see if he digs for it. While he is digging I start to teach the scratch command. Once he digs I will give him the ball as his reward.

Pup in tunnel

Pup on metal stairs

Searching pine needles

Swaying Bridge

I use his drive in different situations to be sure that he is comfortable, using the tunnel for example (first photo). Next we teach the puppies to go up and down open and closed stairs to search for their ball (second photo). We also use natural and artificial barriers for the puppy to work through. The third photo shows the puppies searching for a ball through pine needles. The puppies are then taught to find the ball over the swaying bridge (fourth photo), note the open holes and the noise the metal makes when they walk on it.

Finding Scent

Once the puppy is comfortable with all these obstacles and is willing to search for his ball without giving up we start to teach him to search for a specific drug scent. We start with pseudo- marijuana, which can be obtained from Sigma, and various drug bags, which we get from We sprinkle the scent on top of the ball and put it in one of the boxes (fifth photo). When the dog finds his ball he will scratch, but what he is actually starting to do is associate that scent with his prize, the ball. We then go to hiding the ball with the scent in the sand and the puppy will actively search until he smells his toy, then he must scratch to receive his reward.

With this simple but strong imprinting the puppies will have no problem completing a certification program by the time they reach their first birthday. We now build on this, hiding the scent in PVC pipes, in lockers, cars, or wood piles. By the time the puppy is 16 weeks old we will take him to a friend's kennel and hide his pseudo-drugs in that environment to make sure he can work through distractions, new scents, and noises. One of our best training areas is near the local train station. Trust me, a train is a great distraction. A fully trained dog shows extreme, our one male is so determined to find the drugs and get his reward that he will work past a female in standing heat!

Patrol: For puppies destined for patrol work we look for somewhat different criteria-- a puppy who is more independent, one who enjoys the ball but is not driven to continually play ball. I want a puppy who has shown alpha tendencies (dominance) and is willing to engage in a fight. I test the puppies at seven weeks for their natural bite quality and desire to engage in a fight. When I say natural bite quality I am looking for the willingness to engage and bite any place on the person. The willingness to bite a rag even while he is held with his feet slightly above the ground. I want a puppy who watches me not closing their eyes wincing. You need a puppy who is willing to fight when startled and not flee. We test them with burlap and towels, looking for a puppy who enjoys biting and is willing to readjust naturally to obtain a better grip. We also will spray a light mist of water at them while biting, plus thrown pop bottles at them, and make them bite while walking over the swaying planks. All of these situations helps to exposure the puppy prior to the end of the socialization period and to assure success when they go into other programs. A puppy needs to learns success with each situation, so that you can build their confidence.

I do not do any bite work with puppies until 5 months of age. I think for a patrol dog it is more important to socialize them and to start them on basic obedience. This control work does not take away from the bite of the dog but rather gives you and your dog a better working relationship.

At five months I start the puppies on bite work using leg and arm sleeves. We introduce different textures and equipment at this point but make sure it is always a win-win situation for the puppy. I use Ken Moyer in Virginia for bite training work along with my husband, Mike Ward. By having two different agitators the puppy starts to learn how to read a person and their behaviors. Ken has two different facilities in Virginia in which the dog can be worked, each offering different locations, footings and buildings, the variety strengthens their training.


All these exercises build up confidence in a young dog and help to imprint the proper learning experiences. By limiting a puppy's training to 10-15 minutes twice a day, we make sure the puppy is not overloaded and also pays attention to us during that training time.

The regimen I have described challenges puppies with new experiences timed to fit with their own developing capabilities. By carefully watching how they respond you can judge their own innate abilities, and determine which puppies are most suited to the tasks you need. These diverse experiences also lay the groundwork for later success. The combination of careful screening and early training can ensure successful certification down the road..

Biography: Yvette Piantadosi has raised German Shepard Dogs for the last 20 years, and Belgian Malinois for the last 12 years. She has participated in Ring Sport, Schutzhund, agility, obedience and tracking, assessed and whelped over 267 litters mostly for other breeders, and set up a protocol for treating puppies who come down with parvo. Over 37 dogs from her breeding program have been certified and are currently working in all avenues within the US. We currently have a website with additional information, or

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