There are many benefits to having a foot firmly entrenched in the military working dog (MWD) world, as I do now. One is that when I have a story that calls for expertise in the topic, I have some incredible people I can contact. When news broke last week that North Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper Charles L. Jones would likely be getting his job back with $200k in back pay after being fired in 2007 for systematically stringing up and kicking the crap out of his police dog (for the “crime” of not giving up his reward â€” a piece of fire hose), readers all over the world were irate.
The trooper and at least one other from the department had said the kicking was standard treatment. But because of all the research I did for my upcoming book, Soldier Dogs, I knew this was nowhere near anything the military would condone. I wanted to get some insight, so I turned to three top MWD leaders for their opinions.
(I’m not going to embed the video which helped convince then-Governor Mike Easley to fire Jones. It will be too disturbing for many of my regular readers. It’s really hard for me to watch, and I’ve seen a lot of bad things happen to dogs via my Dogster news editor position. Click on this link to it only if you can stomach this sort of thing.)
Marine Captain John “Brandon” Bowe, school director of the Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 Course in Yuma, Ariz., was very unhappy about what he saw:
“I was appalled by this video,” he says. “Concerning the officer in the video, I cannot make a decision on whether he should’ve been fired or not, or if he should be rehired and collect back pay. I do not have enough situational context [or] access to his performance reviews, and have no idea if this was a one-time incident. However, I can tell you, had I been witness to the situation, I would’ve stopped it IMMEDIATELY and reprimanded the officer. If he had a history of this type of behavior, yes, he would be fired. This is cruelty and torture, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
He continues, “I can also get VERY personal to this situation because I own a former military Working Dog who had to be separated for this EXACT reason; she would not ‘out’ the reward (or paycheck) when she completed a task. I love my dog â€” she still doesn’t ‘out’ unless she wants to and she makes a great pet and companion. But as a manager of those who train dogs, this type of behavior would not be tolerated. Dogs are not people and they do need different and firm forms of correction.”
Boy, did I ask the right guy, as far as the “out” problem! That hit very close to home.
Marine Gunnery Sergeant Kristopher Knight, a longtime MWD handler and trainer who now runs the Yuma course, is no stranger to manhandling a dog who is completely out of control. Military working dogs â€” especially those who do patrol work â€” can be forces to be reckoned with. Sometimes they go off on handlers or other dogs, and it can be extremely dangerous. The handlers do what’s necessary to stop the action. But the vast majority of the time, training is rewards-based.
Case in point: I was at the Yuma course in August last year when a dog took off running during an exercise. He bolted from his handler and galloped past Gunny Knight and a bunch of other dog school leaders. He ran and ran and ran in 115-degree heat, most likely seeking some shade. When Gunny Knight finally caught up with the dog (we drove after him for a while then Gunny ran after him), he called him over gently, asked the dog if he was okay, handed his leash to the handler who’d just caught up, and told him to immediately get the dog water, check his temperature, and put him in the semi-air-conditioned trailer.
There was no chastising the dog, much less stringing him up and kicking him. He was tended to and cared for gently, and no one’s temper flared, despite the heat. I would probably not have been this patient if my dog Jake had run off and I had to chase him in the blazing heat.
Anyway, Gunny Knight was a little hesitant to get into the judge’s chair on this, since he said he didn’t have all the facts such as interview with the handler, kennel supervisor, and trainer, but here’s what he said based on watching the video:
“Hands down, the actions he took to resolve the possible ‘OUT’ issue were incorrect and overboard. Not knowing everything about the man or the dog, I’m sure he could’ve taken a better approach to fix the problem. In my 17 years, I’ve never used this technique to fix an ‘out’ problem.”
Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Antonio “Arod” Rodriguez, who is in charge of advising more than 100 working dog teams assigned to 12 Air Force bases, also did not want to do any armchair quarterbacking. But he made some interesting observations, and believes that Jones has probably used this technique before, and seems to think he’s doing the right thing, because he is methodical and unemotional in the video.
Arod thinks Jones was probably taught this way. “Helookspretty comfortable with what he is doing, so that leads me to believe that someonetaught him that this was a productive method of correcting a dog,” he says. “Which, in fact, zero learning is occurring here because this dog may be so driven for the reward that any amount of forcing is just increasing his tolerance and pain threshold.” He said that training methods in some civilian police dog departments are quite old-school, and need updating. Did he think this punishment was effective? Not at all.
These men are on the cutting edge of military dog training, and Arod has a consultancy, Olive Branch K9, which helps get military and civilian police dog handlers up to speed on the latest and most effective techniques. Seems like the NC Highway Patrol dog handlers could use a good dose of what he has to offer. (To be fair, though, that was 2007, and I can only hope that they have learned a lesson and are embracing rewards-based training.)