Learning from our K-9 counterparts

  • Published
  • By Col. Ken O'Neil
  • 341st Security Forces Group Commander
It's a bad guy's worst nightmare. An 85-pound "blur of black and gray fur" running after him at 35 mph and closing fast. When the bad guy looks back, he sees two big green eyes fixated on him and only him, and then notices the sharp teeth extending from black lips to take a bite out of the slowest part of his body.

Knowing that if he keeps running a big chunk will be taken from his backside, he puts his hands in the air, stops running and surrenders to hear the loud voice of the dog's handler yelling a command that turns the tight bundle of hair and teeth off. Phew.

In the security forces career field, I've had the pleasure of being around military working dogs. They are an awesome weapon system and are referred to as the "bullets you can call back" for good reason. Amazing as these dogs are, they also offer premium lessons on the leader-follower relationship to the would-be observer.

The first lesson we can learn from these wonderful animals is all about praise. Our dogs do not work to get promoted, do not care about money and certainly don't care about material rewards -- unless it's food. These dogs perform better every day by simple praise. I've witnessed the great interaction between dogs and their handlers. To watch a dog and handler find an explosive training aid, and to watch the celebration between them after that event is truly amazing.

The same philosophy can be applied to our enlisted and junior officer corps. If you have seen the expression on a young troop's face after simply telling them, "Hey, great job on handling that situation," or "That was an awesome score you got on your end-of-course exam, keep up the great work," you know what I'm talking about. Although our military working dogs work for praise as the sole motivator in their world, praise is very important to people too, and it should be distributed liberally at every opportunity to keep them motivated. A job well done should never go unrecognized.

Another leader-follower relationship observation that can be useful from our dog teams is the training relationship between the dogs and their handlers. Although the handlers train their dogs on precise patrolling and detection techniques, not all dogs learn these behaviors in the same manner. Dogs, much like humans, all have different personalities. Some are lazy, some are aggressive, and some are brown-nosers (literally).

But, the parallel to leader-follower training here is to know what type of person you're training before you begin. Prior to any K-9 training with a new handler, there's a period of adjustment called "rapport building," where the new military working dog team gets to know each other. This is an important step in building trust in the relationship, to learn faults and strengths, and to create a solid foundation for training.

Similarly, leaders must know their people in order to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Knowing your people means knowing what's important to them, what bothers them or what motivates them. Rapport building between leader and follower builds trust. Trust builds confidence in one another, and confidence encourages more meaningful training. It enables the "team" to exploit and celebrate strengths, while simultaneously working together to improve the weaknesses. By knowing your people, you too can build a relationship centered on trust, and this will facilitate improved and continuous learning.

One final parallel of the K-9 and his handler that can be applied to the leader-follower relationship is what handlers call, "changes in behavior." When a dog is doing his job sniffing for a bomb, the handler keeps a keen eye to observe any changes in the dog's demeanor or attitude. If the dog starts acting more aggressive, it's a cue to the handler that something isn't right, and the probability of a bomb present in that room just rose.

Similarly, if after a long day of detection work, the dog may be panting heavily, it is a sign of fatigue. This too is an important signal for the handler to recognize, because the dog may be too tired and may not have the same reliability as when the team started their search. If the handler isn't paying attention to his partner, serious negative consequences usually follow. Intervention by the handler is necessary in maintaining the mission readiness and health of the dog.

Leaders can learn from this dynamic with their own troops and watch for changes in behavior and intervene. It's also very important to investigate and address the cause of the change.

The Department of Defense puts a price tag of almost $35,000 on an explosive detection dog once it is fully trained. However, we could never try to quantify in cost our Airmen, as they and their contributions to the mission are far too invaluable.

The military working dog handler and his K-9 are a great example of the "Wingman Concept" in its most pure and simplest form. That colloquialism about "old dogs" is wrong - we can all stand to learn some new tricks.