When you initially start training a protection dog, you’ll most likely start with a puppy, or in the very least, a young dog that doesn’t have any experience biting a human target. For that reason, it’s easier to gradually build the dogs confidence using tools before exposing the dog to a human target. Not only does this allow you to guide your dogs training, it lets you more easily address issues as you can switch between gear if your dog needs to move back, or advance forward in his training.
A bite rag doesn’t have to be an “official” piece of training equipment. Oftentimes, it’s just an old rag or towel. Bite rag’s are used with very young puppies to get them excited about “winning” the game of tug of war that is most dogs first exposure to bitework. Attached to a flirt pole or even a long stick (like PVC pipe or a lunging whip) the puppy can chase the rag and will be rewarded by the sound of the rag tearing, and even winning their own piece.
Bite rags can also be made from other materials, however, like leather. These professional-grade rags don't have the same exciting tearing effect, but they are great for teething puppies, because the soft leather is easy to bite, and they can be helpful in establishing good grip at a young age.
Working puppies on a bite rag is known as “ragwork”, and can start as young as 6 weeks old and continue as long as it’s still a challenge. For some puppies, ragwork may only last for a few weeks, whereas for others it can be apart of their training for several months and still enjoy it immensely. Most dogs will enjoy the game of playing tug of war with a rag for their entire lives, but as a training tool, it is only useful if it challenges and excites your puppy, bringing out a more energetic and driven side of them.
Puppies that enjoy ragwork will usually also enjoy graduating to their own tug style toy, called a bite bar. Bite bars are thicker and bigger than rags and present a real challenge to young puppies and dogs alike. Bite bars are long rectangular toys that usually have nylon handles double-stitched into either side, ideal for clipping onto a leash and using it like a flirt pole to entice your dog into chasing, or holding the handles to play tug.
Both exercises are helpful for your puppy and teach different things, as well as encourage them to bite something much bigger and thicker than a rag. Although this is not always true, the main difference between a bite bar and other types of bitework gear are that it is typically made of a much softer material than jute, to encourage young, or “soft” dogs to bite and have fun.
A bite pillow is a small, usually square-ish shaped training tool made of jute, which usually has one of the following style of handles:
Although bite pillows can be attached to the end of a leash or rope and pulled around, sort of like a rag on a flirt pole, it’s primarily made for playing “tug of war” with the helper. From a young dogs perspective, biting something else is still a lot less intimidating than biting a person. Bite pillows are designed to expose your pup to what it feels like to be engaged with a helper, while not necessarily having the pressure of a full sleeve. Work on a bite pillow can last for a short period of throughout your dogs puppyhood, as they are also useful to teach your dog more precise targeting and a better grip.
Some adult dogs are also started on bite pillows, especially if they were not exposed to protection training during their puppyhood. It's not uncommon for a dog to work on a bite pillow for several weeks before they move up to a puppy sleeve.
German Shepherd Dog working on a bite sleeve
Sleeves are the traditional gear associated with protection training, and can be used with an optional inner neoprene lining to add an additional layer of protection to the helpers skin, as well as a padded sleeve cover made from a tough material like jute or french linen.
Like the other training gear mentioned in this article, bite sleeves are designed for differeent “levels” of a dogs training, from puppy sleeves, designed to be soft enough for a young dog to still have fun, as well as different "hardness" of sleeves, which offer a challenge for experienced dogs, and can often help tackle different areas of training, with much more padding to protect the helpers arm.
Young Malinois working on a leg sleeve
Like bite sleeves, leg sleeves go on the helpers legs and are useful in training police dogs, military working dogs, and protection dogs. Leg sleeves offer a different target for your dog — which some dogs prefer — but are generally not used until a dog has graduated through using other types of training gear, including bite sleeves. Most leg sleeves are designed to come off easily, using velcro straps so that the helper can reward the dog by giving him the sleeve at the end of an exercise.
The ultimate test of a protection dog’s training in a real-world situation is to use a hidden sleeve. Hidden sleeves are still thickly padded, but they have a narrower profile to regular sleeves and are designed to be worn under regular clothes, like a hoodie or jacket. Using a hidden sleeve is only designed for very experienced dogs who display confidence and control biting targeted equipment.
Although it may be obvious to us that the helper is wearing something under their hoodie, to the dog, the lack of visual cues from normal training equipment can be very confusing. Many dogs are equipment oriented, meaning that while they display fantastic confidence biting the sleeve, biting a person without a visible sleeve on is much more difficult for them — to the point where some will not do it at all! So using a hidden sleeve is essential to reliably train a protection dog or police dog to respond in all situations.
As the name implies, Bite Suit’s are a full-body suit with padding everywhere. They are heavy and thickly padded, many costing well over $1,000.00, and often custom made to the handler or training company. Bite Suit’s are most useful when training police, protection, and military working dogs, who may not necessarily only bite one targeted location (as is the case with many sport dogs) where the helper may require more extensive protection to stay safe.
While many owners of protection dogs and sport dogs own their own gear, it is never advisable to work your own dog on a sleeve. You should never wear a bite sleeve with your own dog and should always work with a trainer (or “helper”) to get the results you want. While playing tug of war with your dog is OK, teaching your dog to bite a part of your body is never OK, and you don’t want to confuse them by teaching them it’s OK to bite their own handler no matter what.