Cross Training a Dog

by Susan Bulanda

Q. My question concerns the wisdom of dual certifications. I have a two (2) year old pup locally certified in Area/Live search through our SAR team. I have truly enjoyed the training and the time spent with my K-9 partner but, the truth of the matter is, we don’t get many callouts for this discipline. I have done some disaster training too with the dog but I’m considering adding HRD to the curriculum so that I can better serve my community and work the dog more. What would be the considerations, the pros and cons, and the feasibility of tackling this?

A. This is a good question and one that has been hotly debated; that is, can you cross train a dog? To fully understand the dynamics that is involved in cross training a dog, we have to look at this from a canine behaviorist point of view. (I am a certified animal behavior consultant.)

Research has demonstrated that dogs have episodic memory. That is they recognize and remember an event that happened in the past, can apply it to the present and project it to the future. If they did not have this, they would not be able to learn.

They also have metacognition, which means that they know what they are thinking. For example, if you tell a dog to sit after he has been taught to sit, he knows that he knows what the command means. This is important because it demonstrates to us the high level of intelligence a dog has, much more than scientists previously suspected.

Training a dog is not entirely dependent on how smart they are, but a function of how well we can communicate to them what we want them to do! The performance of that task is not totally dependent on the intelligence of the dog, or how well they know what to do, but on their ability to exercise self-control which is directly linked to motivation.

Therefore a dog can be trained to do multiple tasks and they will not get confused or make a mistake. Cross training a dog is no different than a dog who knows how to behave one way in a given situation and another way in a different situation.

For example, you can teach a dog to be very still and quiet in a boat and, by doing it repetitiously, he will learn that when he is in a boat he must always be still. Yet the same dog will learn that when you take him to a dog park, he can run and play.

My husband, Larry and I have successfully cross trained SAR dogs for many years. When you have a small unit or few units in an area, it can be very helpful to have a dog that can switch from one discipline to another as needed. Some of my SAR dogs were also trained to do other non-SAR related jobs as well.

To successfully cross train a dog requires a few rules that cannot be broken. First, you must be able to clearly communicate to the dog, exactly what the task is and the circumstances.

Next, you must use a different command/word for each discipline so that the dog knows what you expect him to do. The dog must have a different signal for each discipline. For example, one signal for HRD, one for live finds, one for drowning, etc. Lastly, you must trust your dog and be able to “read” what the dog is communicating to you.

The only drawback to cross training a dog is that some authorities will not trust the dog’s findings if they are cross trained. They may feel that the dog could make a mistake and the evidence may not hold up in court.

However, in all the years I have been in the field, I have never found this to be a problem and have never had to go to court. When I first started in SAR, DNA evidence was not perfected. Today we have DNA and other ways to prove whatever a dog may find. A handler must decide how many times the cross trained dog will be able to assist the search vs. how many times they will have to submit evidence in court. It is a personal decision.