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Bitework & Society

I know it's late and I should just let this go, especially after I posted today about avoiding reactivity.  ;-)  But I am really disturbed by this.

Someone asked online about bitework and safety.  Is it not true, it was suggested, that bitework training creates a dog which will more readily bite a human aggressively and inappropriately?

I get this question a lot.  A LOT.  And most of the time I just answer it and move on.  But what made this one different was that someone answered talking about me, not in a good way, and suddenly the question shifted from rational to emotional.

But I shall try to answer rationally, still.  

Let me ask this:  Has it not been suggested that playing tug, chase, wrestling games, and/or feeding meat, feeding human food, feeding raw, etc. all will create a dog which more readily bites a human aggressively and inappropriately?  Don't we all know (at least, I hope we do!) that none of these things will in itself create aggression?

I do not argue that bad bitework training is abominable and potentially dangerous.  You will never hear me defend bad training.  But good training is just that -- good training.

Both my bitework-trained dogs also tested successfully for therapy work.  Picture my dog lying on the ground, surrounded by mentally-handicapped children who are shrieking with excitement.  One boy, flailing his arms because he's not sure how else to express himself, steps on my dog's ear.  I move to intercept, but my dog lies quietly and calmly makes eye contact with me as if to say, "No sweat, Mom, I understand that he doesn't know what he's doing."  And this is the same dog who scared off two creepy guys late one night with a minimal show of aggression, escalating no higher than necessary to make them move away.

This is stimulus control.  This is good training.  This is the same concept that means my martial arts practice itself never made me more likely to mug someone.

I'm sorry if I sound defensive.  Some bitework trainers have been called awful things.  I wrote earlier today that aggression was a sign of fear; we can be reactive because we ARE afraid.  We have been told we are not welcome in communities, we have seen legal attempts to ban our sport.  Positive bitework trainers have been called liars because some ignorant folk think bitework must include abuse.  We're afraid because no matter how many times we explain and even invite others to come and watch for themselves, we see people prefer their base fears to learning something new -- and it's a real risk to us and our dogs.

It's as if someone attacked freestyle because it is so inherently unnatural for a dog to do those things, it must be psychologically abusive to train them.  It's as if someone protested that flyball dogs must inevitably develop into a danger around children with bouncy balls.  What if your dog suddenly, classically conditioned by the fun of flyball or agility, jumped over a fence or ran in front of someone and tripped them?  What if a trained herding dog tried to gather a bunch of kids?  These sports should be banned!  I hope you think this sounds ridiculous; trust me that this is what anti-bitework worries sound like to a good trainer.

I'm not defending that creepy guy torturing a panicked dog into biting anything that moves; that guy would create a monster even if he were playing at flyball or freestyle.  I'm talking about real training.  We try to protect the public and ourselves; occasionally our club politely rejects an inappropriate dog and/or an incompetent handler.  We don't want bad things to happen, either.  We're dog lovers, too!

One time, I left my Shakespeare (that's the one who's worked with thousands of kids) with someone else for a moment.  While I was away, a handicapped child (unnatural body movement) who was on crutches (even more unnatural movement and visual intrusion) wanted to greet the dog (who had never met him) and pinned him in a corner (the person with the leash wasn't attentive to situation).  What did my bitework-trained dog, the one allegedly with lowered bite inhibition and a conditioned reflex for aggressive behavior, do when trapped before this very unnatural, unpredictable, grasping and clutching kid?  He just barked.  I heard him, came and saw what was happening, and was able to intervene.

There are an awful lot of dogs who haven't had bitework training who would have responded more aggressively.  Why didn't the predictions of bitework opponents come true here?  Some might even argue that Shakespeare was able to more accurately assess a true threat and/or the total stimulus package to cue biting, so that he recognized this was not a time to bite despite his acute discomfort; I don't know.  But you won't hear that discussed by those who have already decided that bitework is necessarily dangerous.

Bitework is the pit bull of dog sports; wonderful fun if known for what it should be, but scary when viewed vaguely from a distance through a filter of preconceptions and bad examples.

I have long maintained that I will be happy to introduce my bitework-trained dogs to anyone interested. (It's telling that NOT ONE serious opponent to bitework has ever accepted an offer to meet my dog or view our training, even via video.)  Please, don't just declare my dog's greatest love to be a menace to society and to dogs.  Don't make false claims that legitimate bitework training creates a more dangerous dog.  Please trust that I love my dogs dearly, and I would never risk them by putting anyone else at risk.


I have been a bad trainer.  While writing this, I was focusing primarily on the negative comments regarding bitework and me personally, even though there were also positive comments.

More, the vast majority of people I've met and spoken to about bitework have listened with interest, asked intelligent questions, and accepted that it's valid training with real benefits.  I didn't write about their reasonable questions, assessments, and conclusions; I reacted only to the relatively limited unwanted and threatening behavior.  Bad trainer.  Yes, reactivity truly does come from fear!

I'm going to attempt to be a better trainer now.  I will leave the post up, because what I wrote is still true, but I want to specifically thank all those who have listened, questioned, and cheered good training even in this sport, even though it isn't your own.  I should listen more to you and less to the few naysayers. :)


That particular struggle probably will never end.
I don't do bitework with my dogs. I used to believe that only police and the military should do bitework. Then I got around to actually learning about it. That changed my mind. Now I agree completely with what Laura says above: good training is good training. Bad training is bad training.
We hunt with our dogs and meet a lot of the same myths - that our dogs must be aggressive killers. Regardless of the fact that they don't kill - they just carry the game back to us after it's been shot.
Unfortunately there are bad trainers in both bitework and hunting. Bad trainers doing bad training, making reactive dogs. And the resulting accident is then blamed on the venue, not the actual training method.
Hoping that made sense.

It's been said that you can order a lab, and you can ask a golden, but you must negotiate with a chesapeake

trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

Been here before....

Went back and looked up where we've done this before. :-) Does freestyle get this kind of flak?

Laura &

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