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  • Writer's pictureRobin Greubel

Failure is a Great Teacher

I just received my canine detection learners permit.


In the past four months I have certified dogs in three different detection disciplines. I received my learners permit in all of them.

In two disciplines, narcotics and explosives, it is my first time around. These disciplines are different in the sense that I have new things to learn about storage and handling of target odor and handling techniques to help my dog be more efficient in their search. Each type of odor has specific security concerns that must be addressed.

In a third, human remains detection, I have a new partner and we are negotiating the fine points of how to work together. He’s the pilot, I’m the navigator. We are learning how to run the course and not end up in a fiery ball of fur and frustration. We still have to navigate a FEMA certification before our full learner’s permit is in effect.

Just like driving, detection dog training is a lot of stops and starts. Smooth sailing followed by some stutters and gear shifting so you can move forward again. Then throw in a dog that might not want to do the type of racing you initially wanted them to do and you need completely retool the whole garage!

I am striving to be fluent in all of the skills required for a certification. But a certification is still a manufactured situation. A certification is a standardized set of skills selected to be a predictor of success in the field. (Thank you Teresa MacPherson for that definition!) 

Ideally, we would be able to provide certifications that replicate real world situations. However, how do you replicate flying in a Blackhawk, doing hot on/offloads onto sandbars and searching ice boulder/slash pile in a fiscally responsible manner?

Or standing for hours at a time screening people and bags?

Some things are easier to replicate than others, but then add in that 30 K9 teams which need a yearly certification, you have two evaluators and only 10 hours of daylight. Not to mention, the transport and storage of target odor.

Being an operational team is something completely different than being certified.

Operational incorporates a level of fluency into the equation. We, as a team, are proficient being able to search, locate and report, and are at fluency in certain situations that are mimicked in a certification.

As an operational level handler, I am always asking myself questions.

How do we problem solve together? How do I find the best way to put the dog into odor and get out of the way? What do I need to do better? What other things can I do so my dog is clear on what I expect?

As a trainer I am continually working to generalize the skills needed to respond in any operational environment that I can imagine. Because, no matter how hard I try, an operational environment will always bring stressors I cannot replicate in training.

Developing this type of learning environment for my dog involves imagination, dedication and hours spent driving and planning my training.

It also involves a good healthy dose of failure.

Failure is not bad. It is a great teacher.

This is when I find holes. Holes in what I thought was a solid foundation. Holes in stimulus control. Holes in environmental socialization. Holes in the body awareness of my dog. Holes in my mechanical skills and understanding of behavior technology.

Each one of these holes (failures) is an opportunity for me to reinforce the correct behavior. Reinforcing the behavior so it becomes stronger.

I envision adding a microscopic layer to the protective coating around the stimuli/behavior relationship. The more times I reinforce this coating, the stronger that relationship becomes.

I want to add so many layers that we could drive through a lake of fire and my dog will still complete the correct behavior. Will I ever get there?


Because the people I am searching for and protecting deserve it.


Robin Greubel Robin has been training working dogs since 2001 and educating working dog handlers and trainers all over the nation since 2008. While working in corporate America, she managed relationships and people using the same behavior principles she honed training dogs. Not only can these principles transform your ability to work at an elite level with your dog, but apply to every animal (humans too!) you work with. She is the CEO of the K9Sensus Foundation, a foundation that focuses on coaching the human end of the leash and is a certified professional coach.

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