Re-printed with permission by Kevin Hanrahan in Dog Advocate,
Beads of warm perspiration rolled from the underarms of United States Army Specialist Marc Whittaker, disappearing somewhere in his multiple layers of clothing. His breath, thick and cloud like, disappeared quickly into the murky sky behind him.
Good, thought the seasoned military dog handler. He liked it when the breeze was blowing towards him. That meant the scent was also blowing his way. This was a good way to start his second certification with his new dog, Military Working Dog Dark.
His best pal, Military Working Dog Anax, was still up in Heidelberg. They were waiting for the adoption paperwork to go through so Marc could adopt the medically retired dog.
He brought his thoughts back to Dark. He had failed in his first certification with Dark. And that was the first certification he had failed in his K9 career. But that was in the past. Today, in Grafenwoehr, Germany, he would write a new chapter in his dog career. He was going to certify with Dark.
Dark had tested Marc’s patience and rocked his confidence, but he veteran dog handler from Livingston, Texas wasn’t defeated. His kennel back in Heidelberg had rallied around Marc and assisted him in fixing Dark’s fringing (giving a final response as soon as he got in the odor cone, before he had worked the odor to its source) and false sitting problems (sitting somewhere other than on the source of the odor).
Staff Sergeant Dick “Alson” Lee particularly took an interest in “righting” Dark. Staff Sergeant Lee was a mentor and close friend of Marc’s. Lee was training with his own dog, MWD Fibi, for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. Marc and Lee spent countless hours training together.
Lee was an experienced dog handler and a respected leader within the unit. With him on Team Marc and Dark, there would be no stopping them during this second certification.
Mark leaned over, released Dark from his leash, and commanded, “Seek.”
Dark surged forward. His tail wagged slowly, his nose was about eight inches from the ground, and he searched the road in a tight pattern.
Minutes later Marc watched as Dark’s forward movement halted suddenly.
Marc smiled and a shiver of excitement went up his spine. He knew Dark was in the odor cone and now just needed to take the odor to source.
Dark’s tail wagged slightly, his headed swiveled left and right as his nostrils flared quickly as he traced the source of the airborne scent of narcotics.
Dark stopped, stared at a spot on the ground, and stood like a statue.
Marc looked over at the certifying official, Sergeant First Class Hillis, who nodded.
Yes, he is on it. Finally. Marc was beside himself as he dug in his pocket, feeling for his black rubber Kong to reward Dark.
“Why isn’t your dog sitting, Whittaker?”
Sit? Dark always stopped and stared. He never sat. This was just how he responded. Marc stared back at Hillis and shrugged his shoulders, not sure how to respond. His dog was on odor. What was the issue?
“He always stops and stares, even though his record says SIT. We didn’t want to undo everything that we had fixed by making him sit because he leaves odor in a heartbeat.”
If this was an issue why hadn’t his chain of command recognized it?
Why hadn’t Hillis mentioned it in the last certification? Dark had stopped and stared there as well.
It didn’t matter, though, because he couldn’t fix everything with Dark in such a short period of time. The most important part was Dark was on odor. Who cares if he sat, laid down, or stood—Dark found the narcotics!
Marc had a bad feeling that, now Hillis was focusing on the sitting issue, he was in trouble.
He was right.
Marc and Dark lasted about half way through the certification before he and Dark were officially failed and booted from certification.
He had just failed his second certification. Was there any hope?
“Listen, Whittaker. You know what you are doing, but we need to get your dog online. I want you to spend the rest of the week with Staff Sergeant Ellis. He is trained in Clear Signal Training and can help you get Dark corrected.”
He had heard of Clear Signal Training, but when he went through dog school at Lackland Airbase, they trained on compulsion training. Compulsion training is based on positive punishment. Maybe Dark wasn’t such a knucklehead. Maybe he just spoke a different dog training language.
More training was good with Marc. He didn’t want to go back to his unit at Heidelberg as a failure. But more importantly he wanted to understand why he had failed and how he could fix it.
Marc spent two days with Ellis training on clear signal training meaning dogs don’t always get a physical reward. And the timing of that physical reward isn’t so critical. The verbal reward becomes as effective for the dog as a tangible reward.
These were two of the most informative dog training days hMarc had ever had and his hopes soared. Ellis gave Marc the tools and knowledge to be successful.
Marc left Grafenwoehr disappointed that he failed but determined to take what he learned, focus his training over the next month, and rock the next certification. He was down, but he wasn’t out.
Every day for the next month Marc spent hours upon hours of training with Dark. He wasn’t just ready for the upcoming certification. No, Marc was excited for the event.
Marc was excited until the unthinkable happened.
What happened next would rock him to his core and change the course of his life forever.
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