So You Want to Decoy?
Many people casually observe dog training, either in the sport or police world and have the desire to decoy. They see the decoy and dog embrace in a moment of violence and want to put on the sleeve, or the bite suit, and find out what it is all about. These people will put on equipment and experience the thrill, terror, excitement, and satisfaction of working a dog from the sharp end of the dog instead of behind the leash. Most people will enjoy the moment, laugh about it, and move on with their own training. However, there is a small group of people that find something deeper when a dog crushes their body with 250 pounds per square inch of pressure. The pain is overlooked for an intimate connection with a trained animal. Only a decoy knows what that connection is like. Sometimes during scenario-based training or a trial, a decoy is a dog’s fiercest advisory, but more often than not, the decoy is the dog’s sparring partner. Dogs and decoys have a unique connection and the best decoys will channel that connection to make the animal a better fighter. The dog will leave the interaction with the decoy and be stronger, more confident, and better prepared for the next engagement. Most people that put on a bite suit are chew toys, and nothing more than a target for the dog. A rare few have the ability to challenge the dog and promote terror in the mind of the animal while also building confidence in its heart, ultimately leaving the dog stronger and more powerful than before.
After the thrill of catching the first dog has subsided, the casual decoy will move on from the romantic notion of slinging dogs across a field and engaging in primal combat with one of the most effective animal warriors man has trained. The bite suit will become heavy, it will be noticeably hotter, the cameras have disappeared, and now the decoy is actually challenged with the task of training the dog. Despite what people tell you about how they have trained their dog to bite, they haven’t. The decoy trains the dog to bite. Sometimes it’s good training, and unfortunately it is sometimes bad training. The glamor has subsided and the work has begun. This is the reason, every decoy, regardless of age or experience should seek out a mentor. Decoying can be compared to martial arts in the fact that anyone can step on the mat, put on a gi, and say “I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.” Much like the martial arts, it can take 30 minutes to grasp a particular behavior, and years to master it. The journey of a decoy is never complete and knowledge is never capped. Even the master will encounter a dog that will behave in a way they have not seen before, and during that encounter, the dog will teach the master.
I have observed would be decoys show up at dog training and seek instruction. Some decoy trainers take a scaffolding approach to instruction and teach very simple concepts and continue to build on those principals. While this approach is recommended for structured learning and actual development of decoys, I have seen a second group of decoy trainers take a different approach. The second group of trainers will suit up the would-be decoy, and instruct them to run down field away from the dog that is about to be sent in what many trainers would call a “flee bite” or a “runaway bite.” A well trained, seasoned dog is sent downfield to engage the decoy and almost without exception, flattens the decoy, causing the decoy to land face first on the ground with a dog attached to their arm, leg, or back. When questioned why these trainers prefer decoy introduction in this manner, the answer is often, “because if they can experience that and come back next week, I know they are not wasting my time.” This answer from trainers exemplifies the irritation that trainers have with would-be decoys and solidifies the thought that when the real training starts, many decoys disappear. The frustration of decoy trainers and the retention of students should not reflect the teaching or instruction quality, but be an indication of how physically demanding and tough it is to learn and master the art of decoying. Many people will try to decoy, some will continue the training, and very few will master the art of decoying.
All too often, particularly in the police and military working dog communities, the “new guy” is thrown in the bite suit and dogs are trained on a decoy with no knowledge of drive channeling, building grips, communicating with the dog, or any actual physical skill or agility in the suit. The new guy squeezes into a bite suit that does not fit properly and is more than likely training weight and restricts movement. This was the exact description of my very first bite as a rookie police officer aspiring to be in the K-9 unit. I was suited up, led into the woods on a dark night and told not to move until the dog bit me and then to shake my arm back and forth while yelling. This is one of the most detrimental things handlers and trainers can do to their dogs. Decoys should be looked at as a valued asset to any bite training program and highly experienced decoys should be sought out to train dogs. In the police and military world, I am a firm believer that every handler should have at least experienced and taken part in a structured decoy school, which goes far beyond putting on the suit and catching dogs on training nights. Good decoy work makes dogs better, and a good decoy will improve the dog’s confidence and skill set. If bite training is only being done during scenario-based training or to work on an “out” because certification is approaching, the training is lacking and I can assure you the dogs are not biting on a level that maximizes their potential as a use of force option. Instead of throwing the new guy in the suit, and laughing as dogs are sent on them, send the new guys to structured decoy schools which will teach them, and give them a skill set to actually improve the dogs they are decoying.
Decoy health has only really recently come up as a topic of discussion. As bite sports, especially the suit sports continue to grow, more decoys are taking the field and the injuries associated with decoying are often quite severe. ACL injuries, rotator cuffs, torn hamstrings are all common injuries in the world of decoying. I am often asked how to prepare physically for a trial and what my workout regime looks like. While I am not a personal trainer, I believe I have developed a strength and conditioning program that works for me and keeps me healthy on the field. Several years ago, I suffered a herniated disc injury that sidelined me for six months and required a great deal of rehabilitation to get back into the bite suit. Those six months that I spent outside the bite suit made me realize how much decoying meant to me, and how much personal satisfaction I get from being in the suit. My workouts changed and centered around the goal of developing a body that can withstand the punishment of decoying. On the surface, decoying appears to be a discipline requiring solid upper body strength, however, almost every time I decoy for ten or more hours a day, several days in a row, the legs, back, hips, and core fatigue quicker than the chest, shoulders, and arms. With that in mind, leg strength and endurance are paramount and the core and lower back must not only be strong but pliable. If beach muscles are your goal, that’s great, but at some point, the serious decoy will structure their workout regime around the skill set that is used on the field, just like a professional athlete would do.
With the 1%er, the first bite session will become weeks, weeks will become months, and months will eventually become years of training. The decoys muscles, joints, and bones will hurt. The reward of building dogs and creating a confident, powerful weapon will vastly outweigh the physical pain that a decoy carries privately. Without decoys, there are no great bite dogs. When you encounter a well-trained bite dog, know that a decoy built that dog to what it is today. On the same note, thank decoys for working your dog and making them better. Seek out the best decoys to build your dogs in the same way you seek out trainers to help enhance your own training skill set. For those who put on the bite suit, and stick with it, you are opening the door to a passion that does not quickly dissipate. You will crave bite work, you’ll seek it out, you’ll feel depressed when you are nursing an injury and can’t work dogs. Enjoy every moment you get to spend in the suit, and thank the handlers for trusting you to catch their dogs and learn from them. As you age, and gain experience and knowledge, mentor a younger decoy and pass on the skill set you have developed to the next generation of decoys.
About the author: Josh Kirby has been a police officer since 2003, and spent 10 years as a police K-9 handler and lead trainer for the K-9 unit. Kirby is a master peace officer, firearms instructor, field training officer, active shooter instructor, and K-9 instructor. Kirby is a certified senior decoy for Protection Sports Association K9 and has twice been chosen as a national select decoy. Kirby serves as the secretary of decoys for PSA K9 and is also a United States Police Canine Association judge.