In classic New Yorker style, correspondent Burkhard Bilger, reports on the canine units in Manhattan keeping the city safe from terrorists. It is a great article; lengthy and detailed, giving the background of the rise of the detection dog.
The article quotes some of the great trainers working today such as Karen Pryor and Ken Ramirez who have taken the basics of operant conditioning, discovered by BJ Skinner in the 1940s, and spread it through aquariums and zoos and are now seeing its use trickle down into dog training.
“Thirty years ago, if a lion needed a flu shot, it had to be tranquillised. These days, it will walk up to its trainer and proffer its paw. “I could give you examples all day,” Ken Ramirez, the vice president of animal training at the Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago, told me. “We have sharks that will swim from tank to tank, and a beluga whale that will present its belly for an ultrasound. Our sea otters hold their eyes open to get drops, and I have a diabetic baboon submit to regular insulin injections.” Not long ago, when a camel broke its jaw at the nearby Brookefield Zoo, it walked up to a table and laid its head on a lead plate for an X-ray. “It makes managing animals so much easier,” Ramirez said. “They do things as part of a game you’ve taught them.”
And I guess this is the message that good dog trainers are now trying to get across to the public at large. “Like so much in the dog world, the change mirrors a trend in child rearing – and provokes the same heated debate.(“The only thing two dog trainers can agree about is that the third dog trainer is wrong,”)
Guide dog training in the US has also switched to positive reinforcement with great results. In the past about 50% of dogs completed training and went on to become working Guide dogs and now it is closer to 75%.
In the training of detection dogs the dogs used to start out living with regular families, as do Guide dogs, but despite this some dogs still had phobias in some surroundings, e.g. scared of slippery floors. Now the Canine Detection Research Institute sends its puppies to prisons in Georgia and Florida to begin their lives under the care of inmates. Not only does this pairing help the prisoners but it also results in adult dogs more accustomed to noise, crowds, stairs, slippery floors, grates etc. The less fearful a dog is of new things the better. They have found 80% of the prison raised dogs will go on and complete the program and become successful detection dogs. General dog owners can benefit from this news; expose your new puppy to many varied surroundings as it grows up to teach it not to be fearful in later life. Socialisation is everything.
Watch a video here; NYC police dogs