February 2, 2021
Yes and no.
Bitework training is incredibly demanding and requires both the right kind of dog, and a great deal a commitment from their owner. In fact, most dogs that are trained in bitework start as puppies, and continue to practice and build on the training for at least one year, if not the rest of their lives. For most of this training, including all of the early obedience training and lots of playing with your dog & their favoritee toys, when it comes to the actual task of teaching your dog to bite on command, you must enlist the help of a professional dog trainer or “helper.”
The term “helper” actually has a special designation in bitework training, and finding an experienced helper is imperative for all training, but especially if you have a young dog, a shy dog, or a dog that’s never done this kind of training before.
This is because helpers do a lot of work helping your dog to build confidence, and better understand the training. Helpers are so much more than a person wearing a bunch of padded gear! Good helpers can make a shy dog more confident, and encourage a dog to bite a specific area, teach better obedience, and help your dog get the most out of each training session. While you may be responsible for handling your dog, helpers ultimately guide your dogs and help your dog grow.
Dogs are versatile, intelligent creatures, and they can learn a lot of things, but they do not generalize well. So when we teach a dog something as serious as “it’s OK to bite people”, we must be very careful not to let the dog think it’s OK to bite you. Bitework training is often taught with rigid rules and patterns to help guide the dog to the right choice and keep everyone involved safe. By you donning the bite sleeve or suit and having your own dog bite it, you’re not really teaching your dog to protect you. The entire time, your dog will probably just think you’re playing, and will not be prepared when a real threat arises.
Professional helpers are dog trainers that are ultimately responsible for "catching " your dog, meaning that while you may be involved in the obedience training leading up to bitework, your dog should still never think it's OK to bite you.
In addition to keeping you safe, helpers keep dogs safe by knowing how to properly “catch” dogs. Catching refers to how a helper presents the bite sleeve (or suit) to the dog. Inexperienced helpers can actually be a hindrance to a young dogs development, because they can inadvertently give the sleeve to the dog in a way that’s uncomfortable to hold, or even painful. Chipped teeth, neck, and spinal injuries are all risk factors when training a dog in bitework, so working with a helper who understands how to best work with your dog, given their breed, size, and temperament may seem expensive upfront, but generally helps training to progress much faster long-term.
As you may have already guessed, good helpers are hard to find. You can expect to pay in the range of $50-$200 per hour to work with professional trainer/helpers privately, so it’s good advice to instead, start by finding a dog club in your area that teaches bitework.
Dog clubs are made up of groups of people, usually between 10-50 members, that are all training toward a similar goal. Members pay yearly fees to cover the costs of permits for using public parks and to purchase equipment, but drop-in rates are available for people interested in the sport. Finding Schutzhund and French Ring clubs in your area is a great way to get in contact with private trainers, and stay in the loop about upcoming seminars and events.
While you can do a great deal of your dogs training on your own, expecting to train your dog in bitework by yourself is unrealistic. Part of successful training is regular practice and exposure to many new and challenging situations. If your dog only ever works with the same person or in the same location, that’s all he will be comfortable working in. For a truly reliable dog, working with multiple helpers in all sorts of challenging locations is a requirement.
Due to all of the work involved, most people choose to purchase trained or young dogs who already have good foundations than put in the years of work themselves, but it can be done! With the help of a good trainer, helper, and the guidance of others who have worked with dogs trained for bitework themselves, training your own dog can be an incredibly rewarding experience that creates a bond unlike any other.