Photo Courtesy of Heart Dog Photography
Photo Courtesy of Heart Dog Photography

“An out to a guard?” I asked. It was more a statement than a question, as I knew what was coming next.

The decoy nodded, the massive 90lb Malinois’ jaws shut tightly around his leg as he worked the bite.

I called the dog’s name and commanded the out.

In a moment, the dog worked his monstrous jaws free of the bite suit and dropped into the down position, centered to his opponent, anticipating his next move.

The decoy stood, his thick blue suit pants offering little protection from the dog who lay impatiently at his feet.

As the dog held position, the decoy feigned an escape, and in a split second the dog engaged the bite again, subduing his opponent, proud to have earned the reward he’d been pining for.

“Again.” I whispered as the decoy worked the dog, the subtle lessons taking effect as the dog drove deeper and bit down harder.

Wincing and calling out in pain, the decoy stumbled backwards and in response, the dog drove in again. Whether the pain was real, or simply an act, the reaction had the desired effect.

I worked my lead, maintaining slack and letting my dog work the bite. Then, I used pressure, my body, and my voice to manipulate my dog’s behavior to exactly where I wanted it to be.

Silently, the decoy read my cues, and together, his movements and my presence helped the dog find the exact bite mechanics we were after.

Again, I commanded the dog to “out”, and again the dog dropped into a down.

This time, the decoy held his position, asking for a longer down, testing the dog’s patience.

One more feigned escape, and my dog was rewarded for his out…. For his down…. For his restraint, with exactly what he wanted.

“You read my mind,” I said. And with a smile, he continued working the dog.

Photo Courtesy of Heart Dog Photography

It’s no secret, I work A LOT of dogs in bitework on a daily basis. From the police dogs I train, to the personal protection clients I have, to friends who need help with their sport dogs, to my own sport dogs….I quite literally handle and train dozens of working dogs on a regular basis.

Despite the wide variety of breeds and backgrounds, these dogs all share one commonality. They all make considerable strides in their training, the lessons compounding on one another, the dogs all shaped into exactly what we want them to be.

This progress isn’t a reflection that I’m some crazy advanced trainer, deploying secret and progressive techniques to transform the dogs at the end of my leash.

It’s not a reflection of superior genetics – in fact some of the dogs that I work came from unscrupulous breeders and wouldn’t so much as look at a tug toy when they first arrived.

And it isn’t a result of flying in all of the top sport decoys to work and train my dogs.

Despite what many think, these dogs advance so rapidly for one reason and one reason alone. These dogs advance because my decoy and I view bitework as a team effort.

The unfortunate truth is that, all too often, bite work is one sided. A handler will hold the lead, relying on the decoy to do all of the work. They stand stoic, waiting for the next instruction, silently acting as an anchor as the decoy carries out the training.

“What are we working on today?” the decoy asks as handler after handler steps onto the field.

And often, the question is met with a look of confusion, followed by a shoulder shrug or a quiet, “What do YOU think we should work on?”

After a few moments of looking like a deer in the headlights, the decoy will then cave, dictating the training session, effectively letting the handler off the hook.

As the dog works, the handler becomes motionless and quiet, or worse yet, the dog is tethered to a back tie while the owner stands silently next to the lead, the dog 30 feet down the line, the decoy teaching all of the lessons.

Photo Courtesy of Heart Dog Photography

The handler’s only job then becomes calling the “out” command when it’s time for the dog to let go.

When it does come time for the dog to let go, correcting and reinforcing the out once again falls on the shoulders of the decoy. And as the lessons begin to take shape, the handler becomes complacent, never practicing in between sessions, but instead leaning on the decoy to make the training happen.

Alternatively, I see decoys own the training, mandating what’s coming next and completely removing the handler from the equation. They’ll cite reasons of safety and timing for why they require the handlers to back tie the dog and step aside. But when the handlers are removed from the equation, they never learn to handle. And when they never learn to handle, their dog will never be able to fully realize its potential.

Listen folks. Good decoys are some of the most skilled trainers out there. They are fully responsible for conditioning the bite, manipulating pressure, managing stress levels, and solidifying your target. Their movements can make or break your dog. But your dog’s success shouldn’t lie solely on their shoulders. In fact your dog will never reach his or her full potential unless you, as your dog’s handler, have a (VERY) active role in the training process.

If you’re participating in bite sports, in order to be really effective, you and your decoy need to work together. That means you can’t just sit back and let the training happen, and you sure can’t lean on your decoy to teach the lessons you’ve failed to teach.

More than anything, you need to get very clear on your end goal. You need to understand how your decoy is rewarding your dog and for what, and you need to HELP your decoy by planning your training, by being there to support your dog, AND by being the one to correct if your dog doesn’t get it right. Your decoy needs to be able to trust you, and it’s up to you to make that happen. You won’t get there if you simply show up to bitework week in and week out without doing your homework and without having a plan.

Here are some tips that can help.

  1. Know what your decoy knows – Now I’m not expecting you to dive into the bite suit and work a dozen dogs (although you should try it sometime….it’s fun!). But you should know and understand the basic mechanics of the bite. To be a solid handler, you should have an understanding of what rewards your decoy is using and when and how your decoy is targeting your dog. You need to understand the biting style you are after (yep there are several), and you need to ensure your decoy is rewarding exactly what you want. By being knowledgeable, not only will you be able to weed out the decoys that won’t help you advance to your end goals, but you’ll be able to work better as a team with the decoys you do entrust to work your dogs.
  2. Don’t be a bump on a log – Be involved in your bite work sessions. Support your dog, and be his or her cheerleader. Know when to insert your praise and celebrations and when to hold back. And don’t be the bad guy whose only job is to take your dog away from what he or she loves so much. You are your dog’s partner. Make sure he or she knows it.
  3. Plan your sessions – Now if you are in any of my training courses, you know that I’m a crazy planner. Before I even hit the field, I know exactly what I want to work on. And before I get my dog out, I’ll have a full discussion with my decoy on the things I’d like to tackle, along with any techniques that I think might help. I know my dog better than anyone, and my decoy is relying on me to set him up for success.
  4. Debrief – When the training is over and your dog is put up, debrief with your decoy. Talk about what worked and what didn’t and where you want to go next. Your decoy has a different perspective because he or she works your dog from a significantly different angle. So by comparing notes once all is said and done, you can make the most out of every session.
Photo Courtesy of Heart Dog Photography
Photo Courtesy of Heart Dog Photography

Listen. It isn’t your decoy’s job to train your dog. It’s yours. And while your decoy is a major player in how your bite work will develop over time, the two of you need to get on the same page and work together as a team to be truly effective.

And here is a little tough love…..

“I don’t know what I am doing…” or “I’m inexperienced…” isn’t an excuse to take a backseat when the training happens. If you are going to handle a dog in bite work and do it well, and if you are going to keep everyone safe, you need to study up, and you need to speak up when you have questions or you don’t quite understand.

“I don’t know what we should work on today…” should never be words that escape your lips when stepping onto the training field. You need to have at least a general idea as to what you want to accomplish at the start of every training session before your dog even makes his way to the field. If you are training for, let’s say, French Ring Sport, you should at least have an idea of the exercises you need to teach. Saying something as simple as, “I’d like to work on the Defense of Handler today,” is enough to get the dialogue going. Your decoy might have other ideas or he or she might tell you that you aren’t ready. But that dialogue will help you learn things about your dog you may not have known before. So while your plans might not always work out (and you need to be prepared to pivot should you and your decoy decide that’s what is best), it is absolutely a practice you need to be in.

Plain and simple, bitework is a team sport. You can’t go it alone. And your decoy shouldn’t be expected to either. Study up, learn the mechanics of the bite, get clear on your goals, and plan your sessions well. You’ll be a better handler for it in the end.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    5 replies to "You Can’t Go It Alone: Treating Bitework as a Team Sport"

    • JM Coccia

      I enjoyed the article and would not disagree that the bottom line in most situations is that animals are animals and act as such. Unfortunately there are also situations where the “Trainer” knowingly places both the animal, other animals, and humans in the path of danger. The old ” money is the root of all evil ” may sound melodramatic but the fact still remains many “trainers “are in it for the wrong reason.

    • clint morton

      good stuff Megan thanks for writing this it tells alot about what i do each week and i always ask what are we working on?

    • JL Winings

      I am trying to decide if bite sports are something that I want to get involved in with my dog. Are there any books or dvds that you would recommend for someone like me who has no idea of what is involved in the training? Thank you!

    • Mark clancy

      What would you recommend I read regarding the topic, mechanics of the bite?

    • B

      new to this site and the info is spot on. I sent an e-mail summarizing my two year journey with training my pup and where we are today. My dog is a German Shepherd, East German/Czech working line and I wanted him for personal/home protection and wanted to be involved in every aspect of the training. He was a baby dog and I was a baby handler that thought it was way cool to have him trained in protection and the more we train the more I realize A: I don’t know crap, B: this is awesome. We’re having a great time, but being involved from day one, got him when he was 10 weeks old, has solidified the bond and made the training and understanding what he wants a lot easier. We do a variety of activities together; whether its just him and I or the whole family; boating, fishing, swimming deer hunting, squirrel hunting, hiking (he jumped off a waterfall with me in Pisgah national forest, scared the shit out of him but he did it again) its because we spend so much time together and trust one another. Been through the different handlers and bought into a lot of new handler stuff, i.e. like I spent/wasted $500.00 to learn he likes hot dogs during a very long proofing session to get him to heel-next. Did not know how to put on a prong collar, in fact it broke the first time we tried it because it wasn’t on correctly. Been the recipient of trainers that share their secrets when they choose to and with whom of their choosing; not us. Pulled out his tennis ball during an obedience test and I think I actually heard my dog say, “you brought a ball!!!” Hell yea I did buddy! then we got yelled at for playing ball during an inappropriate time (?) So, the journey has finally taken us to a trainer that is spot on, explains the why, debriefs after bite work and trains my plan, adjusting me when necessary. Its not perfect, my dog has looked at me a few times like I was the crazy one, but we’re having a great time and its a life long commitment to help him and our family be a team. The point being finally; don’t settle for a trainer that you and your pup don’t vibe with. Your commitment is to your dog and their commitment to you. I don’t know crap about training dogs but I’m having a blast learning.

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