Don’t go to extremes when helping your detector dog with distractions


October 19, 2018

Latimer 411

Here, the author, David Latimer, trains three police K9s. PHOTO: David Latimer

(Editor’s note: This is part two of a four-part series on detector dogs and distractions. Read part one, “What distractions mean for detector dogs“)

Last time we talked a lot about the dog and how they treat new things or “distractions,” especially those things that cause anxiety. This time, I want to focus more on the handler end of the leash and what we can do to help our dog.

Dogs react as they do based on sensory input and past experience. A part of the dog’s sensory input and experience comes from us, so how we react to a distraction and to the dog’s behavior, is vital. For example, if a dog was hurt or even just scared by some loud noise while investigating a certain stuffed toy, it is likely to view similar toys with suspicion in the future. The next time the dog encounters a similar item the evaluation process and the dog’s level of interest will be more intense and may require more patience from the handler. If the handler reacts negatively toward the dog, the dog’s wariness and anxiety will intensify when the object is encountered again. If the experience with the toy was pleasant, the dog will also likely want to spend more time sniffing and investigating, trying to replicate the pleasant event. Consider giving your dog a few extra moments to satisfy his curiosity or determine that he is safe from some new thing in his world.

I’ve noticed over the years that what I call “extreme” handlers, those who are over bearing and tend to quickly resort to physical punishment to solve a problem, tend to have dogs that are more highly reactive and easily distracted. I’ve also found that handlers that are overly timid, unassertive and whose commands aren’t immediately complied with tend to also have dogs that are highly reactive. There is a proper, achievable balance between the two extremes. It is possible for a handler to be assertive and in charge without being over bearing or abusive. It is also possible for a handler to be understanding and encouraging without being overly permissive and weak.

When an overly reactive dog encounters a potential or known threat, it is likely to react in one of two ways; it may become suddenly aggressive or conversely, it may shut down, tucking its tail and slinking around trying to hide. Some reactive dogs are treated as human children rather than dogs, which is very confusing and in my opinion, detrimental to the dog’s state of being. If rather than taking charge and providing encouragement and leadership and exuding confidence, the human treats the dog like a disobedient, spoiled child the dog won’t know how to react. Anthropomorphization does a terrible dis-service to dogs and represents, in my opinion, a form of emotional abuse.

So how do we help our dogs.? First of all, by realizing that dogs that are well trained (including basic obedience) are typically well adjusted and tend to have self-confidence and a strong, trusting relationship with their handler, they know what to expect and their world is balanced. Well trained and handled dogs will acclimate more quickly to the presence of something new because they have confidence in themselves and in the handler. This strong, mutually trusting relationship is an indispensable component of a top performing working team’s relationship. The handler must earn such a relationship with the dog; the trainer cannot do it for you, but you’ll find that it is well worth the effort.

Next time, we’ll discuss identifying what the basis is for the distraction or determining what the “trigger” for the dog’s reaction is.

David Latimer is founder of the World Detector Dog Organization, online at He can be reached at


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