During a combat deployment to Iraq in 2003, then-Navy SEAL Mike Ritland witnessed a group of Marines attempt to take the city of Tikrit.
As they prepared to enter a structure near the city limits, an explosive-detector dog alerted the Marines to a deadly threat — the doorway was laced with grenades.
It was in that moment that Ritland decided he wanted to train the next generation of war-ready canines.
Ritland’s new book, “Team Dog: How To Train Your Dog — the Navy SEAL Way” (Putnam, $27.95), out Thursday, advises civilians on how to coach Fido with military precision to turn him into a trusted — and hard-working — companion.
“It capitalizes on the fundamentals that we as special ops SEALS live by: absolute confidence, exuding leadership and body language reinforcement,” Ritland says. Here, he shares some tips:
Be the leader
“Most people act like absolute clowns with their dogs, and, guess what, your dog thinks you’re a clown,” says Ritland. Instead, imagine you’ve been tasked with giving a presentation to the executives at your company — and behave with your dog as you would in the boardroom.
“Dogs understand power, authority, leadership, maturity and emotional stability,” he says. “If a dog doesn’t respect you and doesn’t look at you as a leader, you have no business trying to train them.”
Gain your dog’s confidence
When a combat canine lies at the side of a fallen handler, it’s not out of love, it’s out of loyalty. To develop the same bond, prove to Fido that he can rely on you. “You’re [his] source of water, food, play, comfort, bathroom, going outside, going for rides, going for walks . . . so it’s important to engage with the dog so he understands that you are his world,” instructs Ritland. And remember — your pet is always watching. If he ever senses fear, anger or anxiety from you, his loyalty may waver.
Mark good behavior
When you’re ready to teach your dog new tricks — and get him to quit his bad habits — invest in a “clicker” tool ($1.35, Petco). Every time your dog properly performs a command, you “click” and give him a treat.
Soon he’ll develop a Pavlovian response — meaning he’ll be more willing to abide by trained commands such as “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “heel” and “recall.” But also be prepared to punish inappropriate behavior. “The correction should be the absolute bare minimum [needed] to get your point across. It should never be when you’re angry, because you’ll overdo it and break that trust.”
Speak with your body
When your dog does something good, get down on his level and give him a pat on the head to show your approval. “Dogs are highly social creatures who live in groups. When you make the move to join a dog, to form a small group, you’re tying into his elementary nature and needs,” says Ritland.