Are Max and Pilgrim real K9s, and why the tension between Gil and Max?

Hello, Dear Readers, and thank you for continuing this journey with me, Gil, Max, and Pilgrim. I thought I’d start my blogging career by answering some of the most asked questions by readers. Hence, the title.

The answers to these two questions are both simple and complex. Gil’s dogs are not real … and yet … they are. I worked four K9s during my 35-plus years in law enforcement and trained or helped train hundreds more in different capacities.

My K9s were named J.R., Max, Thor, and Arrow. I had special and very different relationships with each. The Max in Gil’s story is a combination of all four. Max has J.R.s rank drive—the genetic drive to move to pack leader status. He has the real Max’s ferocity. He has Thor’s ability to cap, that is, to hold his drives in check when commanded. And finally, he has Arrow’s limitless energy. I combined all four in a giant melting pot … maybe caldron is more accurate … then added a sprinkle of attitude, a dash of hardship, and stirred till hot. Wallah … Max!

Pilgrim, on the other hand, is a combination of my real Max, who was as silly (when out of combat drive) as a three-month-old puppy, and J.R., a monster in size, weight, and bite strength.

The love/hate relationship between Gil and Max is taken straight from my experience with J.R. He was my first K9, and I didn’t get to pick him—not that I would have known what I was getting anyway. I was too inexperienced, and his rank drive didn’t rear its ugly head until he was around two years old. After that, it started showing up like clockwork every six months. It mostly happened during training—which was bad enough, what with the pain and all—but twice it happened on actual calls where we were searching for armed suspects.

On both occasions, it was rough enough for my cover officers to ask if they should shoot J.R., to which I answered, “NO! Don’t you dare shoot my dog … yet.” It was close both times. We train K9s to be the strongest of the strong, the bravest of the brave, the boldest of the bold. They are in perfect shape at all times, trained in bite placement, and their jaws are worked on a daily basis until their jaw strength is roughly the equivalent of an angry T-Rex. They’re like Jason Bourne—experts in doggy Jiu Jitsu and as fast and accurate as Wild Bill Hickok—but instead of bullets, they use teeth. We train them to find, fight, and defeat opponents of virtually any size or strength (or, at least, to think they can).

Now, I am not the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, or even the most skilled guy out there, so when my dog decides to eat me for real, how do I stay alive? Well, first (usually, not always, but usually), a new dog that wants to take control of the Pack still has a bit of subservience to the Pack Leader until he senses a sign of weakness. This trait gives the human trainers a bit of an edge, but they must be observant and able to act fast; if not, ouch! If necessary, the trainer can use an Alpha Roll to take back control.

I’ve heard a few trainers cry and moan about how mean and outdated the Alpha Roll is, but those trainers don’t train real dogs, dogs whose job it is to catch real bad guys, bad guys that often have guns or knives and who will kill a dog or a cop in a second if they get the chance. The fact is, an efficiently performed Alpha Roll is neither cruel nor mean. In fact, compared to what happens in the wild, it’s incredibly tame.

So, how does one perform an Alpha Roll? (Warning: do not try this at home unless you are a trained professional … and maybe not even then)

Catch the dog’s jowls on either side as he’s charging you, hip flip him onto his back (gently … you are not trying to hurt him, just get him into a submissive position), then scream into his face while shaking his head until he looks away and his tail tucks up between his legs. At that point, immediately stop screaming and shaking him and start talking soothingly to him while petting and rubbing him. Then let him up and go on as usual until he starts showing signs of aggression again, usually once or twice a year.

Like many police techniques, the Alpha Roll can appear cruel or overly harsh to the untrained. Most people are not used to seeing or experiencing actual violence. This move isn’t harmful to the dog, it doesn’t make him sheepish, and it doesn’t make him hate the trainer. He has simply been put back in his correct position in the Pack and is now happy and well-behaved.

And in the same way, trainers must never take the injuries or bites their dogs deliver to them personally. These incidents usually result from drive, frustration, confusion, or an accident—all of which need to be addressed rather than punished. I’ve had plenty of bites over the decades, and they are never fun—they are mostly painful and often leave scars—but I always took them as valuable learning experiences.

I hope this wasn’t too in-depth or boring, and please join me on the next part of our journey. I’ll be posting at least once a week. If it gains enough traction, maybe once a day.

Until then, fellow Pack Members, keep the wolves at bay.



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