CNHI News Service
FAIRMONT, W.Va. — I’m scrunched behind a 10-foot, plastic blind trying to make myself invisible.
Maybe he won’t find me? Maybe if I stay perfectly still, hardly breathing, he won’t …
It’s no use. I hear the dog panting, rushing toward me. He circles the blind then looks me squarely in the eye.
The German Shepherd snarls. Each powerful bark pins me further in place.
Stay calm, I tell myself. Dogs can smell fear, can't they?
The next thing I know, I’m sprinting down the field with the dog at my heels. Then, with practiced precision, he bites my right arm. I feel it only faintly through a thick, padded sleeve, but the force of the 90-pound animal nearly drags me down.
“Good boy! Get him, boy!” barks his owner, Joe Gribben, a 42-year-old barrel-chested man who still sports the high-and-tight haircut of his days in law enforcement.
Gribben is an imposing figure who looks like he could bench press a car. If not for a gentle smile and quick laugh, he’d be almost as frightening as his dogs.
But, when Gribben speaks, the dogs listen.
“Oust!” he orders.
Jaro releases my arm.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Gribben says.
“I’m just glad I had the sleeve on," I laugh.
That was my introduction to Schutzhund, a sport begun in Germany in the early 20th century as a way to select German Shepherds to breed, and to hone their intelligence and athleticism.
German immigrant Gernot Riedel introduced the sport — its name translates to "Protection Dog" — to the United States in 1957. Its following here has since grown from a single club in California to thousands across the country.
And while German Shepherds remain its most popular subjects, the sport includes other breeds including Rottweilers, Giant Schnauzers and Doberman Pinschers.
Next week, thousands of dogs and their owners will arrive in Philadelphia for the Schutzhund World Championships.
Gribben discovered the sport 20 years ago, as he was starting a career in law enforcement, with a club called the West Virginia Canine College. A dog lover all his life - he had trained the family's Golden Retriever while in elementary school - Gribben and his Rottweiler, named Beck, completed two, three-month training programs with the club.
Gribben spent about 15 years in law enforcement before leaving to be closer to family, he said. Seven years ago he and his wife opened Creekside Kennels in Fairmont. In addition to Schutzhund, he helps dog owners train pets to correct behaviors such as lunging at people or barking at visitors to their home.
More recently Gribben and another trainer started the Mountaineer Schutzhund Club, organized under the American Schutzhund Clubs of America. As a titled club, they can bring in judges and hold trials.
It just so happened that a judge was visiting last Saturday, so they invited me out to check it out.
Dogs in competitions are judged on a 100-point scale in three phases - tracking, obedience and protection.
During tracking someone walks through an open field and drops items, which dogs will have to use their noses to follow. For obedience, dogs are tested in all of the basic commands: "fuss" (heel); "sitz" (sit); "bleib" (stay); "platz" (down); and "hier" (come).
“Why do you speak to the dogs in German?” I ask one of the dog owners who is sitting on a green plastic chair adjacent to the field, smoking a cigarette as he watches the competition. “Oh, I know, because they’re from Germany. It’s their native language, right?”
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.
Groh, the judge, said Schutzhund dogs are not "junkyard dogs."
"They aren’t attack dogs," he said. "I couldn’t give my dog a command to bite you. He knows no such command."
The dogs at Creekside Kennels are social, obedient animals. A testament to their good nature is that many are certified therapy dogs that visit patients in hospitals or residents of nursing homes.
This includes my friend, Jaro.
“Most people just have them as sport dogs,” said Groh. “They go home and sleep with them every night.”
Mike DeFabo writes for The Times West Virginian in Fairmont, W.Va. Email him at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.