New York Times–bestselling author and former Navy SEAL Mike Ritland teaches all dog owners how to have the close relationship and exceptional training of combat dogs.
In TEAM DOG, Mike taps into fifteen years’ worth of experience and shares, explaining in accessible and direct language, the science behind the importance of gaining a dog’s trust and then offering invaluable steps for how to achieve any level of obedience. His unique approach uses entertaining examples and anecdotes from his work with dogs on and off the battlefield and direct tips from the Navy SEAL guidebook to teach dog owners how to: choose the perfect dog for their household, establish themselves as the “team leader,” master “command and control,” employ “situational awareness,” and to solidify their dog’s position as the family’s ultimate best friend.
TEAM DOG introduces pet owners everywhere to the new and distinctive authority on how to train your dog. . . the SEAL way.
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Mike Ritland joined the navy in 1996, and after twelve years started his own company to train dogs for the SEAL teams. His clients include the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs, TSA, and the Department of Defense. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Trident K9 Warriors, which is being adapted for film.
Gary Brozek has coauthored and ghostwritten nearly twenty books, including four New York Times bestsellers.
It all started with a black Labrador retriever named Bud. I was just a kid when we got him, and the connection between us was instantaneous. I realize now that our initial bond was a bit one-sided. I thought he was the greatest, and he thought, well, I couldn’t say for sure what Bud thought. He liked whoever had a leash in hand and was willing to take him on a walk. He liked whoever fed him or offered him popcorn. He was willing to sit, stay, speak, come, and roll over when he knew that popped treat was his reward. He also liked whichever of the upright two-legged creatures fed him, allowed him to empty his bowels and his bladder, tossed him balls, and went with him to explore the outdoors, where his nose was nearly overcome by a series of odors that pleased and sometimes perplexed him.
My dad was usually the one who took Bud on his morning walks. I did the same in the afternoons when I returned from a day at school. Bud wasn’t my own dog; he belonged to the family, and each individual member bonded with him to different degrees. It wasn’t like I didn’t have any human friends, but Bud and I really seemed to like doing a lot of the same things—being outside and exploring the neighborhood, doing anything but sitting around inside. We got along well, and the only real problem we ever had with each other was when my Rollerblade “walks” with Bud turned into off-pavement excursions, thanks to Bud’s squirrel and rabbit obsession. I probably ended up looking like a bronco rider with one hand firmly grasping the leash and the other flapping in the breeze above my head.
Bud was an amazing companion, and nothing could beat coming home from a rough day at school and having him greet me with his tail thumping on the floor and him rubbing up against my legs, letting me know how glad he was to see me. That kind of display of affection is most likely the reason why, according to the American Pet Products Association, an estimated 47 percent of households in the United States have a dog. That brings the total number of dogs kept as pets in this country to 83.3 million.
That’s a large number, and I wish I could say that every one of them is a well-adjusted, well-behaved, well-mannered dog. I’d also like to say that those dog owners have the best kind of relationship with their dogs. You’ve most likely seen some version of what I just described with Bud and me on my Rollerblades—a dog taking an owner for a walk, a hard-charging threat, a jumper, or a food stealer. Those actions don’t make them bad dogs, just dogs with bad habits. That doesn’t mean that their owners are bad people, just people with bad habits and a poor sense of their own authority.
No one in my family had formal instruction as a dog trainer; we just used the passed-along wisdom of having owned dogs before—the trial-and-error method combined with a few bits of old wives’ tales. We were fortunate that Bud was good natured, and that my dad, who did most of Bud’s early training, applied the same sense of discipline to raising Bud as he did to my two older brothers, my sister, and me. The only difficulties we ever encountered were with lax owners who let a couple of dogs wreak havoc on some of the neighborhood kids and dogs. For a long time, I had a healthy dislike for German shepherds based on my unpleasant interactions with a member of that breed who was the town bully. If you were to ask my dad, he’d tell you about an Airedale terrier who ran off his property and jumped Bud. My dad had to intervene, risking serious damage to himself, but he was able to separate the two of them. Bud was on the ropes and my dad saved him.
I share that story because it illustrates a couple of things. First, dogs are animals, and as much as we like to believe that their sweet and gentle nature rules the day, they do have a potential for violent action either when threatened or simply because their genetic makeup drives them to it. That’s true for any breed of dog, though natural faulty wiring is somewhat rare. We never found out what set off that Airedale terrier. His owner was equally mystified. To hear him tell it, the dog had no history of such extreme boundary aggression, but something none of us humans could determine had prompted him to attack on that particular day and in that particular encounter. That said, the dog didn’t just suddenly lose his mind, as I’ve heard many people say about their dogs—something in the dog’s history caused him to respond to my dad and Bud as a perceived threat.
There’s always a reason why dogs react the way they do—the trouble is that we aren’t always able to discern that cause. This book will help you better read your dog, other dogs, environments, and circumstances to prevent those kinds of unfortunate events from taking place.
The second reason I told that story is because it illustrates the bond between man and dog. Dad was willing to get torn up in order to keep Bud from suffering the same fate.
It’s beyond the scope of this book to go into the long history of human/canine relations, but at some point humans and dogs figured out that by working together they would enrich their lives in some way. I’d imagine that at some point early humans hunted prehistoric versions of dogs for food. That eventually transitioned into humans recognizing that dogs were also very good hunters and could be used as a tool rather than seen as an adversary. From the dogs’ perspective, humans had something they wanted, too. They had resources like food and shelter. Most likely that came about as their natural scavenging efforts put them more and more in contact with us. When either we offered them some scrap or they laid claim to what we’d left behind, their natural associative way of thinking produced this equation:
Humans = benefit
Similarly, we arrived at the same conclusion. If dogs could help us collect more resources and also provide us with some security, then:
Dogs = benefit
In its simplest form, that is what a symbiotic relationship is all about. We both benefit from being around and interacting with one another.
Understanding how the initial relationship between dogs and humans developed is the underlying basic principle of my dog training methodology. When you begin training a dog and developing a relationship with him, you are repeating the historical human/canine evolution in a compressed time format.
Keep in mind several points about this relationship that we’ve come to cherish:
What’s implicit in taking this approach is that human beings took charge of the relationship. Let me repeat that: Human beings took charge of the relationship. We saw dogs’ natural abilities and then shaped their genetic destiny to a certain extent to meet our needs. Today, our needs are different from those of our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship dynamic should be inverted. We are still in charge. When I see so-called problem dogs, the problems stem from an imbalance of power in the relationship and not from the dog.
That is why it is important that you be in command of yourself, your understanding of dogs and their psychology, and my approach to training in order to be better able to control your dog.
Dogs are intelligent animals, but in comparison to humans, they are simple-association creatures. If you’ve owned a dog, you already know this to be true. If each time you pick up your car keys and then take your dog with you to some location and he has a positive experience, then he will come to associate that sound with some kind of reward. A dog doesn’t understand that the keys are used to turn an ignition switch that results in an internal combustion engine propelling your car. What he understands is that the sound of the keys = good. In the same way, dogs came to associate humans with an expected future benefit.
We have given dogs enough resources to allow them to survive more easily, and we have gotten them to do tasks for us in exchange. If you look at any history of the modern domestication of dogs, you will likely come across discussions regarding the roles that dogs have played: hunting, tracking, herding, retrieving, and so on. At some point, because humans wanted to refine and preserve certain characteristics, breeding purebred dogs became an important exercise.
I’ve heard and read arguments that present dogs as nature’s greatest con artists. That belief states that in exchange for being furry, cute, and charming, dogs have manipulated humans into providing them with lives of luxury. When you look at the last hundred years or so of human/dog interaction, it’s kind of hard to find fault with the reasoning. I’d go so far as to say that many dogs in this country live lives of far greater ease than many human beings.
Because of my experience in seeing what dogs can do for us besides being good companions and a source of entertainment and affection, I don’t buy into that con artist theory. After high school, I joined the Navy and eventually became a Navy SEAL. Bud was long since no longer a part of my life, and I had infrequent interactions with dogs. During my time as a SEAL, I was dating a woman who had what most people commonly refer to as a pit bull. (I prefer to use the term bulldog for the American Pit Bull terrier because of all the negative, and wrong, associations many people have with the breed.) One day she asked me to watch the dog for her while she was at work. When I took the dog for a walk, we encountered a raccoon tearing through the trash. The next thing I knew, the dog had basically turned the raccoon inside out. I was amazed at that dog’s capabilities. I’d hunted with dogs before, bird dogs, but this was something different entirely. A fire was lit inside me, and I became very interested in hunting with dogs and seeing how they could test their mettle against prey.
I read everything I could about animal husbandry, breeding, and genetic theory and completely immersed myself, when I wasn’t deployed, in the care, training, and capabilities of dogs. In a way, I was going back to an earlier place in human/dog history. While I liked dogs and all the qualities that they possess as pets, I also developed a greater appreciation for what they were capable of as tools to help human beings. In my case, at least initially, the application of this living tool was in hunting. That would also eventually evolve.
In the course of my training myself as a breeder, trainer, and user of hunting dogs, I was shaped by a couple of people’s thinking. First was Dr. Stanley Coren, the author of The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capability. A professor of psychology, Dr. Coren was one of the first thinkers and writers to develop the field of dog psychology. His later book, How Dogs Think: What the World Looks Like to Them and Why They Act the Way They Do, also helped shape my approach to training dogs. The second person was Karen Pryor. Pryor also has written several books on dog training, and I think that her later book (after Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training), Reaching the Animal Mind, is far superior. Being introduced to these two authors really opened my eyes, and their philosophy became the meat and potatoes of my approach to animal training, particularly as it relates to the psychological aspects. After reading those two books, I then read everything I could find by B. F. Skinner and Konrad Lorenz, among others in the field of animal behavior.
All that reading helped bridge the gap between the old-school notions I’d been exposed to in talking to other trainers to a more science-based approach. I began to better understand the anatomical differences between a dog’s body and brain functions and our own and how dogs learn.
I was interested in understanding how a dog’s mind works, how he perceives the world, and how a person could maximize his capabilities. I wasn’t solely interested in getting a dog to be obedient and well mannered. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having those goals in mind, and that is the focus for this book. But I wanted to go beyond that baseline, first through hunting with dogs and later by training military working dogs (MWDs). The emphasis for me was always in testing the limits of dogs and their capabilities to be as beneficial to human beings as possible.
The first time I saw a military working dog in action was in 2003 as part of a SEAL team deployment in Iraq. I was a couple of years into my working with dogs, primarily bulldogs, when I was deployed there in the early stages of the war. A few weeks in, we were working in support of the 1st Marine Division. The city of Tikrit had fallen rather quickly, but pockets of resistance had to be rooted out. Clearing operations of that type, especially in an urban environment, are always fraught with danger. One day, members of our team were responsible for rooftop security while a group of Marines were conducting operations in the area. That evening a report came back that a member of the Marine unit had approached a small cavelike structure, with dirt piled around a small doorway. The Marine, with his explosives-detecting canine, approached the entryway. The dog worked his way steadily forward, nose to the ground. Suddenly, his tail started flagging and then he sat down immediately, his posture erect and his ears pointing to the sky.
As it turned out, that doorway was rigged with explosives, and if the Marines had tried to breach it without the dog having done his work, at least two or three of them could have lost their lives and several others would have been seriously wounded. Thanks to the dog, an explosive ordnance team was brought in, the threat was terminated, and the operation continued.
That was another lightbulb moment for me. I knew a few things about how dogs had been used in warfare throughout history. Seeing a dog saving the lives of my fellow soldiers firsthand put a dog’s capabilities into sharper perspective. I couldn’t do anything other than file that experience away at the time, but eventually, I contracted valley fever and was no longer able to be deployed operationally. So I separated from the SEAL teams, dusted off that mental file, and decided to combine two of my main interests—preserving our nation’s security and working with dogs.
For the past fifteen years, I’ve been involved in the importing, breeding, and training of various types of working dogs. I worked for a time as a trainer of both dogs and handlers for the SEAL teams. Dogs I’ve trained have gone to work for the Department of Defense, U.S. Customs, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security as well as to private individuals who want an added dimension of security in their lives.
To be honest, the kinds of dogs that I work with daily to perform these crucial tasks are not the types of dogs that are ideally suited to be housepets. Many of them can be, but more often, they should not be. When you train a dog to be a multipurpose military work...
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