Bite Me.

The first time I saw Jenn get bitten by a dog it was from a distance as she walked a neighbour’s dog back to its house after having gotten loose. I saw the dog turn and jump towards Jenn. It was a mixed breed dog of close to seventy pounds and had clearly come unhinged at some earlier stage of its life and, at this moment, had Jenn’s wrist and forearm locked between its teeth. Jenn told me after that the only thing going through her mind as the dog closed its jaws around her arm was “don’t fall down!”

The dog punctured her hand and wrist badly enough to warrant stitches and even though the hospital shouldn’t stitch a dog bite, in case they sew in some bacteria, Jenn got two stitches on one arm and three on the other. Still shaken and shaking after seeing the doctor, Jenn was a long time getting over the incident and yet here she is, today, standing fifty feet away from a barking, wild-eyed Belgian Malinois that is twitching with excitement as it stares at the bite suit Jenn is wearing. The dog is released and it streaks across the floor, leaving its feet to lunge at Jenn and lock onto her shoulder. Everybody claps. Jenn is being shaken by the dog as she moves around the floor and then, the shriek of a whistle is heard and the dog immediately lets go of Jenn and returns to its handler. Jenn moves to the center of the room to await another dog and another attack. This is not a therapy group. This is French Ringsport and I wonder if my wife hasn’t gone crazy.

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Jenn takes a bite to the shoulder…which is awfully close to her unprotected neck.

French Ringsport is an intense activity for dogs and there are many competitions around the world. The sport involves a variety of disciplines like jumps, obedience and protection. It shares elements of service dog training and was developed as a way of testing potential breeding stock for working ability. Some of the events in Ringsport require a great deal of obedience and control, such as the Food Refusal segment where the dog is required to to not only refuse morsels of food thrown its way but to spit out food that may find its way into the dog’s mouth by well of a well-aimed throw. Our sled dogs would never pass this. This event is done with the handler out of sight of the dog, so there is every opportunity for the dog to think it might, just this once, cheat and get away with it. There are also retrieval events, sit/stay events and, of course, the attention-grabbing attack and defend events.

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Saul, one of the trainers, watches his dog

I watch as again, Jenn waddles to her place in the middle of the room. “The bite suit is very heavy.” Jenn confides. My parents sit, almost horrified, off to the side and I can see they are not sure about this sport. They came to see Dario do some sort of training, not this. They are up visiting us for the weekend and despite my and Jenn’s sometimes quirky activities, this demonstration is a whole new level of unusual. To them, and perhaps to others, this looks like these dogs are being trained for personal protection; to be attack dogs for all the drug dealers and Mob enforcers in the room. None of this is true, of course, and Jenn tries to ease their minds by telling them that any dog that might participate in Ringsport is given a very thorough temperament test: the Certificat de Sociabilite et d’Aptitude a l’Utilisation (Certificate of Sociability and Aptitude for Work). Any hint of aggression, fear or dominance and that dog is not cleared for the sport. Also, Jenn is quick to point out, the decoy (person in the suit) that the dog bites is more often than not the person with whom it spends the majority its time outside of training. “The dog’s best friend,” she assures my parents.

And then, amid a honking horn and encouraging shouts of “AttaqueAttaqueAttaque!” Canada’s second-ranked Ringsport dog runs down Jenn and grabs hold of the bite suit which it then shakes, determined to not let go until the whistle sounds.

Part of Jenn’s job as decoy – especially in the early stages of training – is to help the dog “place” the bite. In her one hand, Jenn holds a split bamboo stick. She holds the stick just high enough the dog has no choice but to bite at her knee. She also has to quickly move the leg she intends the dog to bite so that the dog sees it and focuses on it. At the same time, however, she has to plant that leg and be ready to move the other one back and behind the leg to be bitten so that her knee is exposed for the dog. As the dog comes in for the bite, the decoy has to absorb some of the force of the dog coming into contact with the leg or risk injury to the dog’s neck or mouth. All of this is done in a matter of moments and it is hard to watch it all happen and not think of dancing. Once the dog has a secure bite, the decoy alternates between shaking the split bamboo stick and stroking the dog’s face, head and shoulders, while praising it and offering encouragement. The bamboo stick is to introduce noise and commotion because in later stages, the competing dog will have to work around the sound of a gun, crowds and other distractions. Through all of this, there is a bicycle horn honking. It turns out that the horn is used in competitions to signal to the handler, decoy and judges that the event is over. The dog is not allowed to release its grip on the suit until the sound of a whistle but, smart as they are, the dogs soon figure out what the horn means and if not desensitized to the sound, they may lose points by releasing too early. The horn that they are using this weekend is your standard, run-of-the-mill bike horn, the kind circus clowns are forever honking. It adds a certain surreal air to the display: here is a dog ferociously biting the leg of my wife while in the background, a clown is making bad jokes and balloon animals.

My parents and I stay for a few more demonstrations. We ask if Dario will be coming out but, since they are using the bite suit at the moment, he won’t. Although he passed the temperament test, it turns out Dario is probably not a dog for Ringsport. He lacks the necessary drive to bite which seems odd since here is a dog that was about to be euthanized because he was said to be prone to biting. The one sport where this would be an asset, and he lacks the drive to bite. Go figure.

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…but he loves to play. Dario grabs for a tug toy.

I am working on a video of the weekend. I’ll post it when it’s done.


One Response

  1. WOW!! Just got around to reading this and watching the video… Jenn is brave! Especially after her previous bite encounter, man that sport looks crazy. But what well-trained dogs. Can’t believe they’d spit out food!

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