The bridge to bitework
For anyone training a dog to bite there are many considerations. From assessing the dogs’ suitability for the chosen role to the route you will take. What equipment you will need, what your rules of engagement will be, who you have available to help you, your time scale. They are all considerations that could warrant an article or even a book on their own but they are not what I am talking about today.
Jump forward to the dog being almost at the end of its training. The dog understands the bite command. You have worked on and have the perfect out (please share how you achieved that) and the dog will bite all the sleeves you have or need it to bite. The dog can also perform this in any location in any circumstances. For some sport applications your job may now be done. You can enjoy the fruits of your labour or torture yourself by entering competitions.
For those of you training for law enforcement, military applications or personal protection then there is one last hurdle. It is the hurdle that is sometimes so insurmountable that the dog doesn’t actually do it and that is a live bite (real bite – no sleeve). Whilst there can be other reasons such as environmental issues, confusion due to the novel situation or other differences from training to real life, there is also the very obvious lack of a sleeve. The thing the dog has been taught to bite!!
Whilst there are some dogs that are just so fast that they are likely to bite before they have even considered what they are biting or dogs so confident they never really cared about the sleeve anyway, the majority of dogs don’t appear to be in either of those groups.
My route to biting, starting with puppies usually goes along the lines of towels, small tuggers, bite pillows, soft sleeve, hard sleeve, bite jacket. Yes I am working on the dogs attitude and yes I make sure they are interested in the man not just the equipment but I also know that dogs are incredibly smart and they are under no illusion that the sleeve is part of the equation and so I try as best I can to help them over the gap between sleeves and their first real bite. This is what I call the bridge to bitework.
Others may have a different method, and if it works better than this then I will steal, no, borrow it. But this is how I attempt to bridge that gap. I don’t do this with weak biting dogs or use this as a method to improve motivation or to cause frustration. I am merely trying to overcome the equipment issue and let the dog know that it is ok to bite for real and to convince myself that the dog will and is street ready.
When the dog is motivated and capable of biting as I like and has a reliable, motivated out I am ready for these steps. I introduce the dog to what will be my covert sleeve. Not covered at this stage. An overt covert! The dog has to bite this sleeve as well as everything else because this is going to be his first step with no visual sleeve. If he doesn’t like or can’t bite this sleeve then that is going to transfer into the covert bite and work against our goal not make it more likely.
Once I am happy that he will bite this sleeve as well as the other sleeves we are ready for the first covert bite. I prefer to do this on a line so that I can control the angle of the dogs approach to stop him getting a visual on the sleeved arm. I find it is very difficult to fool dogs. Whether it be a front attack or run off just have the dog approach from the unsleeved arm and leave it as late as you dare to change direction or turn so that the dog gets the sleeve (get it wrong and you could have your first real bite and skip the next step). Praise the dog and let him enjoy the bite. Make it a good experience (don’t get your helper to go super crazy or introduce weird events during this exercise). Assuming all goes well then I would try a few other scenarios just to make sure but that is it. Do it too much and the dog is sure to work out you are wearing a sleeve and the surprise is lost. It is also worth noting that I don’t use covert sleeves on helpers in search exercises for the same reason. You can proof the dog in the search in other ways.
The next step towards the real bite is a muzzle bite. The dog will have been conditioned to wearing a muzzle a long time ago so prior planning is required. It is worth taking your time with this process because if the dog is uncomfortable wearing the muzzle it will detract from the job in hand. Make a good association by giving food for touching the muzzle and then for allowing it to be placed on the dogs muzzle. Let the dog eat a few bits of food from inside the muzzle before attempting to do the muzzle up. Put it on and immediately take it off and build up slowly. If the dog is scratching to get it off you have gone too fast. Take days rather than minutes. Next the dog must get used to wearing the muzzle for longer periods and then to do other exercises in muzzle. Go for a walk, do heel work, property search etc. DO NOT ONLY WEAR A MUZZLE FOR BITEWORK.
When the dog is happy wearing a muzzle to do other jobs AND has successfully made several covert bites you are ready for your first muzzle bite. YOU must make a choice here. The first bite should be set up in a way that is well within your dogs comfort zone not some new crazy scenario set up to test the dogs mettle (that can come later). This is about making sure the dog isn’t relying on there being a sleeve to make a bite. You can either have the dog make his first muzzle bite on a helper wearing a bite suit or on naked arms. You can make a good argument for doing it either way and I have done both with no noticeable difference. At this stage I am drawn to going naked as this is ultimately what I am working on and I feel that you have a very small window before the dog works out that he can’t actually bite in muzzle. Equally if the first bite is on a bite jacket which the dog is familiar with then if something goes wrong you haven’t tarnished your first sleeveless bite with some technical issue caused by the muzzle. It’s your call.
With all things being equal, if your dog is in the right frame of mind prior to being sent on his first muzzle bite, the scenario looks the same as it does in other training, the helper acts the same then when the dog is sent he should be intending to bite. When he hits the helper, the helper can even act as if he has been bitten and you should be able to conclude between yourself and the helper whether that would have been a real bite. Again, this is an exercise that I prefer to do on a line so that after the dog hits the target I can restrain him rather than the dog have a chance to experiment and discover his inability to bite lies in the muzzle.
I again would only do a few at most in differing scenarios just to make sure but not enough that you start to lose the surprise factor.
I then prefer to save the muzzle for scenarios that can be performed safely without equipment than go down the road to repeated muzzle bites, muzzle fighting etc. With a mature dog that I know bites, the muzzle can be a great way of doing safe scenario training without having to rely on bite jackets and other clues that this is training not real life.
There are other ways of using the muzzle and it is about finding a way that works for you and your goals. Of course that leads on to a whole new article about which muzzle is best for the job!