FAIRMONT, W.Va. —
He gives me a puzzled stare. Then he starts to explain that dogs don’t speak human languages before he realizes I’m not as dumb as I look and cracks a small smile.
During a break, Craig Groh, a judge visiting from California, explains how he looks for preciseness in the dogs during the obedience phase, as well as expression and drive.
"When you’re out here and you see a dog who’s happy, he’s animated, his ears are up, he’s focused on his handler," said Groh.
The final phase is protection - the one I experienced with Gribben's dog, Jaro.
A handful of blinds are set up in a field with a decoy hiding behind one. The dog must search each blind, find the decoy, then keep the decoy in place by barking. When the decoy runs, the dog chases him down and bites the sleeve upon its handler’s command.
Groh said he looks for “power but also control.” Watching the dogs run through the course, I marvel at the way their owners handle their animals with simple, one-word commands.
But one question lingered: How does a dog know that it’s alright to bite a decoy during competition and it’s not OK to bite, say, a 6-year-old child?
Gribben said the training in Schutzhund is clear: Dogs are biting sleeves, not people.
“A police dog, we’ll teach him it’s OK to make contact whether there is a sleeve or not," he said, "but that’s not what our sport is about.”
Gribben said it’s also important to make sure that a dog is "sound" and "clear in the head.” Before a dog can compete, it must complete a behavioral test to prove its trustworthiness.