Victoria Stilwell Bitten? – Can Police Dogs be trained with Positive Methods?

What We Think….. “Dog Bites Hurt”…..”I’ve used compulsive methods”

Ok, firstly let’s apply some common sense here. Dog bites hurt! If you work a patrol dog, train a patrol dog or hang around patrol dogs long enough you’re going to get bitten at some stage. I’m sure Victoria was well aware of that and was prepared for it. However from one that’s been bitten a few times I can vouch that it generally catches you unawares, so from a non-judgemental point of view we wish her a speedy recovery.

Can Police dogs be trained using positive re-enforcement?

Basic GPD Course Jan 2010

Now. What is really significant about all this are the comments being posted dismissing positive training as a method for training police dogs. Yes of course they can.

I was inspired a few years ago by an article I read in the American magazine ‘K9’ where the author wrote when talking about trainers.

“The moment a trainer thinks they know all they need to know about dog training is the moment they have stopped learning and should stop training”

Very true words and I among many began to look at different ways to train police dogs. Let’s clarify here, we are not talking about rehabilitating red zone, rescue cases. We are talking about police dogs and here in the UK where the use of E-collars and pinch collars are not permitted other methods were needed.


I have used compulsive methods, I’d be lying if I said otherwise, and did they work? Sometimes. Did I like using them? No. Did I find them effective? Well that depends on Basic GPD Course Jan 2010what you call effective. If you define being able to impose a specific behaviour on a dog, against the dog’s desired behaviour in response to command, re-enforced with a punishment, then he answer is yes (sometimes). But trained this way I found dogs were always on the edge of going into error requiring further and stronger corrections in order to maintain a status quo.

I am not a fluffy trainer and I was proud when my patrol dog bite a bad guy which he did on many occasions. He was a police dog that’s his job. But, we were also charged with protecting the public and when my dog came close to biting the public in inappropriate circumstances it was time to review our training.

Had my dog learnt anything? Well he’d learnt if he didn’t obey my every command he would be punished. Some would say that’s enough for a police dog. My control was excellent but I needed eyes in the back of my head to prevent an accidental bite on the very people I had taken an oath to protect. It simply wasn’t good enough. I wanted a balanced dog, a strong street dog with a reliable bite that would protect me but wouldn’t be a liability. But was I being misguided?

Enter the statement in the K9 magazine. I had stopped learning much to my shame. And enter the positive movement. Like so many service dog handlers my ‘true’ reaction was ‘how can this fluffy good natured nicely, nicely dog training ever be applicable to my world?’

Damned easy and very effectively is the short answer. The challenge was using imagination and being brave enough to experiment. I am only an average trainer but other better trainers than me here in the UK and on the continent are using it with brilliant results. High drive dogs, good quality strong patrol dogs are being effectively trained and the results attained are more reliable.

Basic GPD Course Jan 2010This debate is polarising, those who have only ever used compulsive methods will always defend their corner as will those at other end of the spectrum who are advocate never say no to your dog, though that is a misconception. Unsurprisingly the reality is somewhere in the middle.

It is possible to produce strong police dogs from ‘high drive’ stock which are both effective and safe. Trained using a method which positively rewards the desired behaviours and does not rely on capping behaviours by imposing what are sometimes brutal consequences for an error. It is clear that some are using Victoria’s bite as an opportunity for a personal attack on her and that’s up to them. But I and many like me will defend the use of positive training because we have seen it work and we haven’t stopped learning.

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