So You Wanna Be A Dog Trainer?

Case History: The Story of Thor

(Dog Sports Magazine 12/98)

Anyone wishing to contact John may do so at the following address:
Beyond Obedience K9 Training
15 Cliff Court
Succasunna, NJ 07876
(973) 927-7387
Copyright © 1998

“Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” – Aldous Huxley

This is a true account of a real life dog attack that put this author in the hospital for 2 weeks, causing him to almost lose part of his right arm. Not to mention the worst injury the doctors had ever seen inflicted by a canine in their careers. We will examine what went wrong, and how to prevent a repeat incident, MAYBE TO YOU. We will also investigate the following:

1) How to tell by the injury that the dog was not trained properly.

2) What happens when the training is all defense and no prey.

3) How this incident inspired me to delve deep into the canine psyche, and attempt to see beyond it.

In May of 1987, I had stopped over a friend’s kennel on the way to a rare breed show (back then I’d do ANYTHING to learn something new) in Central New Jersey. He had many guard dogs on his property, and had claimed to be a professional dog trainer (What did I know? I guess he knows what he’s doing, right? Boy was I in for a treat). So as usual we would always take the proper precautions before I entered the area between his house and kennel. But on this day he had left one of his dogs, THOR, (a 130 pound Rottie that was without question the hardest dog I have ever worked), in the bedroom. Thor was a guard dog that was OVERtrained to the point he would attack anyone who entered a given area, and he would not cease his attack if the decoy/bad guy stopped fighting. To this day I wonder if he would have stopped if the decoy stopped BREATHING. I had agitated this dog on a weekly basis to the point when he saw my car pull up he would attempt to tear the chain link fence off the posts. So as we spoke in the kitchen, my friend went in the bedroom to get his keys, and when he opened the door, guess who came out?

He had 3 other male Rotties, but I recognized this one immediately. As he stared at me snarling, I said to my friend (?), why don’t you put him away? “Don’t worry, he won’t do anything,” he said. “Oh yes he will,” I said. (This dog wanted me so bad he could taste it. This dog was considered so dangerous the owner would have a .38 revolver in his pocket “in case the dog gets loose!!” What an experience for a new decoy! I can’t tell you how many times in training he attempted to spit out the sleeve and have me instead). And I shudder at the memory of that muzzle work session I volunteered for. Boy did I want to be a dog trainer! Talk about heart in your throat. Here we are, I’m on my back fighting with Thor, he’s mauling me (thank god the muzzle never came off!), and the owner (trainer?) is standing there with a .38 in his pocket holding the long line!!! I thought, “this dog training is pretty dangerous stuff.” Not exactly something for the faint of heart. Problem#1: Again, we have the classic problem owner-problem dog scenario. People like this should not own, let alone train, any working type dog. Period.

Anyway back to the story.

So you could imagine my surprise when he suddenly looked up, and then turned and just walked away from me. I remember tapping him on the rear and saying, “looks good for 6 years old.” Then the last thing I remember was taking my eye off him for a split second and reaching for a Coke on the counter. WHAM. That’s when he nailed me. My forearm looked like a shark had taken a big piece of it. I went after him and believe it or not he ran away. Here I am holding a towel over my arm, bleeding all over the place, and chasing a 130 pound Rott through the dining room! I remember thinking, Why is he running away? And what if he comes back? When the owner finally came over and asked, “did he get you?” I showed him the arm and said, “what do you think.” So once he got hold of him and calmed him down, off we went to the emergency room.

I knew I was in trouble when the nurse went, “oh my god!” The doctor insisted that a dog could not inflict this bad of an injury. I was open to the bone, and my muscles and tendons were ripped to shreds. So when I asked the doctor what he thought caused it, he said it resembled a shark attack. “Doc, do I look wet to you?” IT WAS A DOG. So I suggested he stitch me up and discuss the particulars later. He said I was going into shock and to lie down. So he stitched my muscles and tendons back together and off I went. But when I returned days later for a follow-up visit, my arm looked like Lou Ferrigno’s. “It’s infected, and you’re going to the hospital,” he said. He later told me that the infection was caused by the fact that the dog’s teeth touched in the middle of my arm. Problem#2: A dog that is trained properly in bitework would not have caused such an injury. This was a front mouth bite, with daylight, so to speak. So he actually jumped up, bit (front mouth), ripped and ran. That was the reason for the lovely tear in my forearm. Most bite incidents that occur in training or the street only have superficial cuts, and a badly bruised arm. A confident well trained dog would have came in, latched on, and held until called off or until I stopped moving. But quite obviously this was a fear biter, due to poor training (Yes, it still hurts 11 years later).

The purpose of this article is twofold; First to inform all those future trainers out there to beware of wacko owner/handlers. (Note: If you go to a training club, and they’re carrying guns in case the dog gets loose, LEAVE). Secondly, to analyze and study the specifics to understand the way the dog was trained and why. Like a forensic specialist, we should be able to study the way someone was attacked, and the be able to tell how the dog was trained BY THE INJURY. I’ve done it many times. For instance in a human encounter, we have all read about these serial killers who stab the victim 100 times, chop up the body, etc. This is not the work of a professional assassin. A pro would do it once, do it right, leave no trace and disappear. Compare those 100 stab wounds to a dog attack with 100 bites. This dog isn’t trained to do anything. If anything this dog was terrified. A well trained confident dog would bite the bad guy ONCE, the guy would go to his knees and give up. And the dog would not let go unless until either the nice policeman put him in his squad car, or the owner “outed” him and the guy gave up. You might almost categorize this type of incident as a “typewriter biter gone mad.”

With regard to the training of Thor, I was brand new to dog training, just being a decoy, doing what the owner said. It was mainly agitation work, with little or no control of the dog. There was no obedience at all, and all of the bitework was defense. He wanted the dog agitated all the time, but I could only get over there once or twice a week. I guess he couldn’t find anyone crazy enough to do it. Problem#3: With all of Thor’s training being defensive, he had no prey to fall back on, therefore from being stressed so much (who knows at what age this “training” was started), he was in effect, a dangerous fear biter. Could Thor have been salvaged with an experienced owner/handler? Possibly. I had also found out that most of the pups he threw were the same way.

I’ve always wanted to do an article about this incident, and when I saw Cheryl’s editorial on “careers” in the August issue of Dog Sports Magazine, I just couldn’t resist. Hopefully some of our readers will do their homework when choosing a trainer, or if considering the career of dog training, realize some of the dangers involved. Even now, I tend to evaluate the owner more than the dog I’m going to train. Remember, to be a dog trainer you must be part psychologist, part magician, have the patience of a cigar store Indian, and most of all be involved in it for the dogs and not for yourself. Amen.