Combining Obedience & Aggression Phases
Stephen Mackenzie PhD.
Sometimes when we are forced to deal with a large number of details, we
lose track of the overall concepts which govern them. I believe this may
be happening to many of us in the obedience and aggression phases of K-9
training. In basic training, the two phases are often separated so that
learning will occur faster. Many people continue this separation after
basic school, probably out of habit. It is not unusual for training days
to be split up into tracking (early in the morning), then obedience
later, followed by aggression and control still later. While this may a
useful method during initial training, it certainly sends mixed signals
to experienced dogs. It teaches the concept that obedience and
aggression are separate items, which do not have to be performed
together. This may suffice for some sport dogs, but as we all know, this
is not reality for street dogs. On the street, there is no separation
between phases - obedience and aggression must be performed at the same
time. Unfortunately, the way we teach and maintain these phases
encourages the dog to think that they are different skills with little
connection to each other. It is simple to find dogs which will perform
certification level obedience when they receive signals indicating that
this is the "obedience phase", and yet cannot perform the same maneuvers
correctly when they receive signals indicating that this is the
"aggression phase". Many of these signals come from the handlers, some
of which have different expectations of the dog depending upon which
phase they are in. This separation of phases and the different
expectations create confusion in the dog's mind and are clearly not the
best we can do for them.
What is needed are training techniques and patterns which teach the
concept that obedience and aggression are never separate skills, but
always performed together. In other words, obedience is never out of
session. That way the dog will always be responsive to obedience
commands, but we can choose not to use them at times when we want the
dog to focus on something other than the handler.
A good start is to have a decoy present during obedience training. If
the handler continues to have the same expectations of the dog, this
teaches it not to be a raving lunatic simply because a potential
aggressor is present. This is better than nothing, but does not combine
the two phases since no aggression is required during the sequence.
Other units incorporate tactical obedience into their aggression phases.
This is also a good start, but tactical obedience often does not reflect
the entire spectrum of obedience. This again insinuates to the dog that
only a portion of obedience is required in difficult situations. Hence
the two phases are not completely merged.
A better approach would be to keep tactical obedience and also devise a
set of routines where every maneuver in regular obedience is present in
some combination with every maneuver in aggression. The two phases would
have to be performed in the same set of routines. Training for such a
combination would teach the dog that no separation exists between the
two phases. This may be difficult to accomplish, but it encourages the
type of thinking the dog needs on the street. Good obedience should not
interfere with a good dog's focus on the suspect. If it does, you may
want to check on the quality of your obedience training.
Combining the phases of obedience and aggression should lead to three
things. 1) You should have much less trouble with aggression control, 2)
your training should become more realistic, and 3) better voice control
should allow you to stay under cover in bad situations. It's worth a
A. Mackenzie, Ph.D., is a professor of animal science at the State
University of New York and a canine trainer for the Schoharie County
(N.Y.) Sheriff's Department.