Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Diagnosis puts dog training on track
By LAURA L. HUTCHISON
Kevin Kocher has come to view his multiple sclerosis as a gift.
The law enforcement officer and longtime tracking-dog handler had developed his own training method, but never had time to sit down and figure out how to share it with others.
The diagnosis forced his retirement as a Spotsylvania County deputy sheriff. But it gave him time to put his Kocher Method into book form with the help of his wife, Robin, still a dog handler with Spotsylvania County.
The book has now been published in English, German and Russian, and Spanish and Italian translations are in the works.
“I was happy just doing my own thing,” Kocher said. “But people were always asking me to write it down.
“It worked out for the best that I got MS, because, otherwise, I probably never would have written it down.”
But once he did, the Kocher Method took off like a dog hot on a trail.
Kocher, 55, said the dogs are the ones who started it all. They showed him what they did. He just took the time to notice.
“My dog got me my job,” he said.
When Kocher started out, as a volunteer with Chancellor Volunteer Fire Department, he’d go out on missing-persons calls.
“It wasn’t organized like it is now,” he said. “We’d basically get out there and start hollering the person’s name.”
Kocher decided working with a dog would be more efficient, and the fire company helped him get and train his first tracking dog.
“I had no professional experience,” he said. “I was self-taught. Or, really, I let my dogs teach me.”
That concept—of dog as teacher—wound up serving Kocher well.
As he and his dogs began having success with missing-persons cases, the Sheriff’s Office called on him to work criminal cases. Then-Sheriff T.C. Waddy deputized Kocher, so he worked with Spotsylvania when he wasn’t working his full-time job as a construction supervisor at the now-closed Lorton prison, then as a member of the Pentagon police force.
And when he wasn’t doing those things, he was training new dogs.
“I’d train a dog up and work a case or two. I had high expectations for my dogs to be successful, and if they didn’t reach the level I wanted, I’d give them away.”
Several of those went on to have successful careers with other handlers, but “were not what I was looking for.”
As Kocher was figuring out what he was looking for, he began noticing that the dogs were telling him all he needed to know—something he calls “negative indications.”
“Dogs don’t just follow a trail,” he said. “They have to eliminate directions of travel.”
This means that a dog follows a trail, in part, by figuring out where it is not.
Kocher says his method is simple. Handlers who understand negative indications can read their dogs’ movements. His example: The dog trails a suspect to a building. A handler reads the dog’s negative indications to rule out the area around the building. This means the suspect went into the building, but didn’t leave.
Next, Kocher “had to figure out how I could ensure a dog always has the drive to be successful.”
Kocher Method uses positive reinforcement and rewards to train dogs and keep them enthusiastic. The dog thrives on the hunt and then a reward from its handler—usually a high-energy play session or favorite toy.
Kocher posted his first write-up of his findings on the Internet at no charge as a gift to search-and-rescue handlers, who often volunteer their time and their dogs’ skills. Now it has turned into a business, with Kocher Method trainers teaching as close as Fairfax County and as far away as Turkey and Russia.
Just recently, Kocher’s InterNational Bloodhound Training Institute became the exclusive certifying agency for South Dakota’s “scent discriminatory canine teams.”
But Kocher’s never been in it to make a profit, friends say. He just wanted to help.
He has wonderful memories of missing children reunited with their families, and regrets about those he couldn’t help bring home.
Now, he feels his MS “marching ahead,” but says it’s OK.
“There’s not much I can complain about,” he said. “I’m humbled by [dog training successes].
This has reached places I’ve never even dreamed of. It’s amazing when someone contacts me and says, ‘You taught me this, and someone I taught just saved a life.’ You can’t put a dollar figure on that.”
Laura L. Hutchison: 540/374-5485