The Training Triad. Part 1: Wading In.

This the first in a three-part series on how to raise your training to the power of three with the Training Triad. Check back soon for Part 2: Raising the Bar, and Part 3: The Model.

Recognizing the number, I gladly answered the phone, “Hey, Lindsay! What’s shakin’?”. I always enjoyed working with Lindsay Schmidt, an officer for a neighboring agency. She was one of my favorite up-and-coming K9 officers. She was a hard-charging bad-guy hunter who had a knack for getting a lot out of her dogs. It would be fair to say that she was not a natural. Her dog skills were hard-earned as her tough-as-nails first patrol dog was nearing the end of his career. They had been at war with each other early on, but he had been a great teacher for her and now they were firing on all cylinders.

“Hey, Sarge. I’m trying to help out one of our bomb guys. He’s got a new dog that will be great some day but is too spun up right now to do herself any good. We’ve been working on a scent wheel¹, but she just charges the thing rather than working around it. Jeff struggled with it a bit early today and asked me to help. To be honest I don’t know if I’m doing it more harm than good. If you’ve got a moment we’d really love to have you take a look at her.

Later that day I met with Jeff and Lindsay. They explained Jeff’s new dog, Sally, was just too obstreperous for her own good. That’s not a good thing for bomb dogs. Lindsay went on to explain that working on the detail-level scent wheel, Sally would just charge across the thing rather than working around to locate the can containing the explosive odor. I said, “Let’s get a baseline first. Why don’t you two set up the same exercise so we can all see what Sally’s doing?” Lindsay took charge and told Jeff, “Set up one rep just like the one we just finished.”

Lindsay set up the scent wheel while Jeff got Sally. The yellow lab strained against the leash as she came into the training area. She saw the scent wheel and instantly was digging to get to it. Jeff cued Sally, “Find it!”, and let her drag him to the scent apparatus. Having a few years in K9, Lindsay had some ideas about how to fix Sally’s over-exuberance. “Don’t let her run up to the wheel. Hold her back with your left hand and point to each can you want her to check.” Jeff tried to comply but Sally just spun up even more as she pulled against the restraint. As the eager dog spun and bounced, Lindsay coached Jeff, “Keep that left hand back, block her with your body and keep moving as you point to each can!” As the leash tangled in his hands, Jeff wheezed, “I’m trying!”. Sally sniffed the first can on the side of the wheel closest to her, then she just climbed over the cans to the opposite side and pinpointed the hot can with her nose. When Sally tried to report that she had found the source odor she was unable to sit because the cans from the opposite side of the wheel were beneath her belly. Eventually she wobbled around until she assumed a partial sit and briefly stared at the can containing the gun powder. Knowing Jeff would be the one tossing her ball as a reinforcer, Sally glanced back and forth between the can and him until he threw the ball her way.

At my request, Jeff put Sally up so we could debrief the exercise without her trying to get this trio of hairless primates to pay her some more. “Tell me what just happened?”, I asked.

“Well, that pretty much sucked.” said Jeff. He added that it was typical of her performance of late.

Lindsay chimed in, “Jeff, you need to get these mechanics down. Otherwise she’s going to run further off the rails.”

Jeff shot back, “Hey! I’m doing the best I can. As I recall Ronin had your number for a few years early on.”

Before Lindsay could let loose her retort, I chimed in with, “We’re here about Sally. Right?” They both settled down with a combined, “Yeah.”

I continued, “I’m going to show you a way to address this issue by leveraging the power we three have as a team. Three is a magic number when it comes to training. Years ago, Bob Bailey, a trainer I greatly respect, taught me about using two-person Coach-and-Trainer teams to improve training. That advice really helped, but eventually I came to realize that sometimes the interaction between the Trainer and Coach unintentionally interfered with the training. The solution was to add a third person as an Observer whose three-part role was limited to reporting on Trainer-Coach interaction, areas lacking clarity, and safety issues. Are you two game to get a little out of your comfort zones and give the Training Triad² a try?”

They both agreed, and since Jeff’s dog was the one at issue, the Trainer role naturally fell to him. I then explained “The Coach’s role is to help the Trainer meet his training goals by first defining those goals and then helping design exercises that meet both the dog and Trainer at their level. This means establishing the team’s true baseline skill level for that discrete set of behaviors. . . not where they think they are . . . not where they wish they were . . . but where they actually are. Usually, baseline exercises consist of one repetition of the goal behavior without a warm-up.”

“Whoa! One rep cold? That sounds harsh.”, exclaimed Lindsay.

I replied, “Not nearly as harsh as missing a bomb or accidentally tripping one. Right?” I went on to clarify, “By no warm-up I mean no warm-up of that specific behavior. Since, as a conscientious K9 handler, you should keep your dog ready to go throughout the shift you can warm up with other behaviors just as you would on the street. Just avoid the target behavior until it’s time to demonstrate it with that one rep baseline exercise.”

“That makes sense.”, Lindsay replied as Jeff nodded in agreement.

“Okay, Lindsay, you want to start out as the Coach or as the Observer?” I asked.

“I might as well jump into the deep end. I’ll start as the Coach.”, said Lindsay.

“I’m glad you said ‘start’, Lindsay. Because this whole model is built around rotating through all three roles. While you’re the Coach this time you’ll be the Observer next and then the Trainer. There are a few good reasons for rotating roles. First, during a long training day it gives dogs rest in between their sessions. Second, it gives everybody a chance to experience the process from all three roles, which is an excellent way to develop your training skills at both ends of the leash. Third, it’s about getting rid of existing hierarchical roles and replacing them with functional ones for the duration of the training exercise. That third aspect is a great leveler when it comes to imbalances in an organization’s structure. The key is that the Trainer and Coach check in with the Observer before they actually start working with the dog.”

“Oh, crap! You mean he gets tell me what to do? I think I might be in big trouble then.” Lindsay replied with a grin on her face.

“Let’s get to it.”, I said. “Lindsay what’s your first step as the Coach?”

“In the old days I would’ve said let’s start training. At first I was going to say baselining but I think I need to have Jeff clearly define his goals before I start even thinking about baselining, much less remediation.” Lindsay turned toward Jeff and asked, “What exactly do you want Sally to do in this context, Jeff?”

Jeff thought about it for a moment . . ., “I’m not as worried about Sally’s speed as I am her inclination to just bolt through things, so I guess my goal is to have her follow an arc around objects in the search area.”

Lindsay said, “That makes sense. I feel silly for having told you to check her with the lead and hand-detail the cans. I was so focused on getting her nose to the cans I didn’t think about finding a way for her to figure it out for herself.”

“What would that look like?”, asked Jeff.

After a brief pause Lindsay said, “Maybe Sally will naturally go around the scent wheel if we just make it harder for her to cross it. Then we can gradually fade out whatever barrier we put on the scent wheel.”

“Cool! I’ll go get my dog.”, said Jeff as Lindsay turned towards the scent wheel.

“Are you two forgetting about something?”, I asked.

Jeff made a grand gesture of face palming and said, “Oh, duh! We forgot to check in with the Observer.” Lindsay turned toward me and added, “Is there anything we need to know before we start?”

“Speaking as the observer, I only have one question. Is what you described baselining or training?”

Lindsay jumped in, “Dammit! That was training. I suppose we’ll have to set up a baseline exercise that doesn’t involve a barrier on the scent wheel. But do we really have to? After all Jeff and I both saw the same behavior.”

I asked, “Did you, or did Jeff get to see one cold rep performance of the behavior before you entered the picture earlier today?”

Lindsay’s insightful nature kicked in as she said, “I suppose the closest we can ever get to us all being on the same page is for all three of us to watch the same event at the same time. Even then we’ll have differences in how we perceive it, but that’s better than having it be about stories we’ve told each other.”

“Spot on!” I exclaimed. “Now let me tell you about the power of the three-step process that is at the heart of this three-person model. The actual training is the quick part. It’s the planning and analysis that take up most of the time, so the process is ‘Pre-brief, Be brief, Debrief.’ As Coach, Lindsay, your job in the Pre-brief is to help the Trainer both articulate the relevance to the goal and define the boundaries of the exercise—space, time, repetitions, reinforcers-delivered, and anything that imposes constraints. The Coach should have the Trainer repeat the exercise’s specifics before he gets his dog. The Trainer is responsible for ensuring that he completely understands how the exercise is to unfold. The Observer should verify that s/he has a clear picture of the exercise before it occurs. This process takes time, especially when you’re new to the process or when you’re moving into uncharted training territory. Once you’ve done it a few times though using the Training Triad gets as natural as breathing.”

Jeff piped up, “It sounds as if in my role as Trainer I’m in charge of how this exercise goes, and Lindsay’s role as the Coach is to help me keep it simple and clean.”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself.”, I grinned. “My job as the Observer is to help you two stay in your roles, keep your communication focused, and keep things from running off the rails . . . but any of us three can call for an Emergency Stop on that last part, especially if a safety hazard pops up.”

“So, I assume the “Be brief” part is that we limit the exercise to what’s required to address the training goal or stay within the boundaries . . . whichever comes first.”

I replied, “You’ve got that right, but it involves one more critical piece. Once the exercise is complete the dog must be taken out of the working context. Otherwise we risk the dog wasting its energy and capacity to connect with us while we monkeys chatter among ourselves. Either put the dog up, pass it to a person who will act as a non-interactive tether block, or put it on ‘Station’ (a bed, mat, platform, or place where the dogs know it will not be expected to perform).”

Lindsay added, “Then I guess the Debrief is a step in the process in which we discuss how the exercise actually looked compared to what we expected. Based on that analysis we’ll make adjustments for the next exercise.”

“You’ve got it, Lindsay. The Debrief actually folds into the Pre-brief for the next exercise. This is a critical part. We should make your training plans for the next exercise while the previous exercise’s performance is fresh in our minds. That plan should be put in some kind of a note so the if there’s a gap in time you can come back to train you’ll know exactly what comes next.”

Excited to move on, Lindsay said, “Let’s get started! By way of a Pre-brief, with your goal in mind, Jeff, why don’t we start with the exercises you working on before you reached out to me? What did the first of those look like?”

“Well, the scent wheel was in the courtyard. We approached it from the downwind side with Sally on-lead. I cued her, but she already had target lock on the scent wheel. Since she’s never worked that apparatus before, I assume she smelled the source. Pulling not quite as hard as she was in subsequent reps, Sally sniffed one can and vaulted over the near cans to get the far side of the wheel. She found source but couldn’t really give her usual Sit response because the of the other cans under her belly.”

Immersing herself in her Coach role, Lindsay said, “Okay, gentlemen. I think we have our exercise boundaries. Jeff, I propose you approach the scent wheel from the downwind side with Sally on lead just as before. We will work in the courtyard with the gate closed. This will be a one rep baseline exercise. If she correctly identifies the hot can with a clean Sit-and-Stare, you can pay her at the can with the ball. If she fails to identify the hot can within 15 seconds, then lead her out of the courtyard, put her up, and come back so we can debrief. You can warm Sally up with some obedience and play for five minutes prior to the exercise but do no explosives detection. Do you both agree that this is a suitable baseline exercise?”

Jeff and I both nodded in agreement as Lindsay said, “What are we waiting for?” I thought to myself, this going to be fun.

To be continued in Part 2. Check back soon!

¹ – A scent wheel is an apparatus used to train detector dogs. It consists of circular plate or multi-spoked arrangement with canisters at the outer end. These canisters can be filled with target odors, distractors, or they may be left empty.

² – The Training Triad® is a three-person team-based approach training. The Trainer works with the dog and establishes training goals. The Coach helps the trainer define goals, design and execute exercises, and evaluate performance. The Observer preserves the integrity of the process, makes sure communication is clear, and ensures the process is safe for all participants.

About Steve White

Steve has spent most of his 38-year law enforcement career working in and with K9s. Steve loves helping people and dogs learn how to love life together.
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