Todd Bartelstein's first student is a German shepherd named Jordan. As Bartelstein pulls padded overalls over his clothes and adds a knit cap and arm pads, Jordan begins to whine insistently, like a car alarm.
Bartelstein gets into the training ring with Dustin Holby, Jordan's owner, and the dog. The two men shake hands, then Bartelstein pulls a stick from behind his back and pretends to thrash Holby. Barking furiously, Jordan is on Bartelstein in an instant. He locks his jaws on an arm pad and rips at it fiercely, stopping only when Holby yells, "Out!" That gets the attention of a group of English bulldogs, who gather at the fence to stare. Javier Anaya stands near them, watching alone. His two American bulldogs, Blue and Diamond, are waiting in the car. Blue is scheduled to attack Bartelstein next, Anaya says, and can't be inside the club. "When they see him working they get too excited."
It's Wednesday night, protection-training night at Of Mutts & Men. Protection training, also known as bite training, teaches a dog to attack--and, perhaps more important, stop attacking--a person on command. It's routinely used on police and security dogs. Bartelstein offers this instruction to civilian canines through Morgan's Dogs, a boarding and training business on Belmont that he owns with his wife, Elana Morgan-Bartelstein. The dogs train outside in good weather, but in the winter they move the action across the street to Of Mutts & Men, the Bartelsteins' newest venture, which Elana calls "the first human-canine social club anywhere." When Bartelstein trains a dog, he assumes the role of bad guy, someone threatening or attacking the dog's owner. "Like, you're filling your car with gas and I come after you while your dog's in the car, or you're jogging with your dog and I try to accost you," he explains. "We try to do real-life scenarios like that."
Holby, Bartelstein, and Jordan go at it again, only this time Holby hits the ground. Jordan doesn't hesitate. He leaps over Holby's prone body and locks onto Bartelstein's arm. He doesn't let go, even when Bartelstein, acting out the role of a mugger, swings at him with the stick. Holby calls Jordan off. When Jordan releases his teacher's arm, his tail wagging, Holby calls out, "Good boy!"
Bartelstein has been training dogs this way for more than 13 years. He suffered his first serious bite while training a police dog ten years ago. The dog clamped down on his forearm for a few seconds, and he couldn't open or close his hand for two weeks afterward. He says your first really bad bite is make-or-break in this business. He's had plenty of them since; his fingers look like they've been through a food processor. "I don't know," he says. "I enjoy it."
He teaches at Of Mutts & Men every Wednesday night and Sunday morning. Outside the training ring there's a lounging area, a game room, a pool table, a reading area, and a kitchen. The club provides cable TV, free coffee, and water by the bowl. There's the occasional seminar on topics such as doggie CPR. People bring their dogs to socialize, play, and, on protection-training days, watch the goings-on in the ring. The training looks violent, admits Bartelstein, but it doesn't make the dogs mean. "The dogs love it," he says.
The Bartelsteins have a menagerie at home: two pugs, two Dobermans, two German shepherds, a toy poodle, a capuchin monkey, and a parrot. Three of the dogs have been trained in protection. (The others are too small or too young, says Bartelstein.) One of the shepherds, Bruno, has eight and a half years of training under his collar. Bartelstein says it makes him "a much more obedient dog. He's worked in high-stress situations with gunfire and loud noises--situations that would scare other dogs. Protection training makes a dog much less likely to bite, if it's done correctly. In 14 years I've never had anyone call me and say their dog bit somebody."
"A lot of people hear protection training and say, Oh, it's not good, but it is," Anaya says. "With the dogs I have, they'll know when to bite and when not to, instead of having a crazy dog that wants to bite everybody." He has two sons at home, 12 and 8, and feels fine leaving them with dogs trained to tear a man apart. "It's safer than having a gun at home," he says. "And when I'm away, I feel more comfortable because I know nothing's going to happen to them."
Trained dogs "have been taught what a real threat is," says Elana. "Some old lady tripping on her cane that startles you doesn't mean turn and nail her, which many dogs do." Her husband maintains that protection training is "a higher degree of obedience, because now you have control over what your dog naturally will know how to do. It's the same as if you were to send your kid to karate. It's actually going to make more of a gentleman out of him, not a bully." For the dogs, Bartelstein says, "the reward is the fight."
This is a very particular vision of canine nature, one not shared by everyone: Dogs, the theory goes, have surplus aggression that, left to their own devices, they'll unleash at random. A dog that hasn't learned how to rein in his aggression is a dangerous dog. Another model goes like this: Dogs want to please their owners and will do anything to do so. If their owners reward them for biting the arms of a stranger, they'll do it just for the approval.
"All dogs are not aggressive," says Peter de Felice, who owns Peter & the Wolf Canine Training Center. "They don't need [protection training]. That's a bunch of crap. If a dog is aggressive, then you calm it down. You don't teach a dog to bite, especially one with an aggressive temperament. That's like putting a gun in a child's hand.
"If you know what you're doing with a dog and you want to be protected and everything's based on respect, the dog will automatically protect you, God forbid the time should arise," he says. "That's the nature of dogs."
De Felice won't do any kind of protection training at his school, mainly because he doesn't trust the owners. "I wouldn't touch it with a pole," he says. "You have to look at the people who do this--they're mostly these tattooed macho guys. These guys want to say, 'Oh, hey, my girl can bite!' Big deal! All dogs can bite. Knowing dogs how I know dogs, it's all a bunch of BS. The one who suffers in the long run is the dog."
Dog trainers, like dogs, don't need a license to train. They can go through certification programs such as those offered by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, but they don't have to. The risks that come with teaching your dog to attack are big: If a dog hurts someone in a nonthreatening situation, the owner is liable. The dog may be killed, and the owner will at least pay a fine.
Robert Hajdani, who brings his dogs to the Bartelsteins, says he's considered that possibility. Although "I could lose my house, my car, savings, everything," he's having his black German shepherd, Chief, and Bruno, his Presa Canario ("the breed that killed that woman in San Francisco"), protection-trained. "I had a dog as a kid that put three people in the hospital," he says. "After that, I wanted to teach my dogs discipline, how to defend, and I didn't want it to happen again." The three people were family friends, bit by an untrained chow chow. "If they hadn't been friends," he says, "we would have lost the house." With proper training, he believes, that won't happen with Chief or Bruno.
Another owner, Ruby Barth, is having her black German shepherd, Riley, trained because she's too protective. Riley started training three weeks ago and, Barth says, "so far it's going really well. Before I came, anyone in my condo--it's a 12-unit building--anyone she saw she would react really aggressive toward. The neighbors would be petrified and wait until I passed. Since we started the training I've passed three people with her in the hallway and she has not reacted to any of them."
The next routine is a test of control. Jordan runs up to Bartelstein, plants himself in his path, and barks at him continuously until Holby calls him off, successfully resisting the temptation to bite his teacher. Then it's Blue's turn. "We're going to start a new thing with her called muzzle work, where she learns to fight with a muzzle on," Bartelstein says, removing his pads. Anaya enters the ring with Blue, a white bulldog who could model for a statue of Cerberus. "That dog's huge!" says Charlie, who's brought his bulldogs to the club to play. "Look at how broad he is."
Robin, another bulldog owner, nods. "He's broad, yeah," she says. "That's it."
"He's very affectionate," Bartelstein tells them. "A nice dog."
While Bartelstein places a mat on the floor, Anaya laces a muzzle over Blue's face. When Blue gets the order, he's going to leap at Bartelstein, knock him to the ground, and try to rip out his throat. For good measure, he'll also go for the crotch. "Make sure that muzzle won't come off," Bartelstein tells Anaya. It happened once, and he was lucky to get away with a couple of punctures.
"Hannibal the Cannibal," Robin says.
"He's trying to get the muzzle off," says Charlie.
As soon as Anaya gives the order and releases him, Blue leaps at Bartelstein, knocks him down, and stands on his chest. Then, with the man writhing underneath him, Blue shakes his snout repeatedly back and forth against his throat. If the muzzle weren't on, Bartelstein would be severely mangled, at least.
Robin hasn't seen this type of training before and can't look now. "Does he have the pads on?" she asks Charlie.
"No," he answers. "But Todd's really good."
Bartelstein slaps Blue on the muzzle and, after Anaya's command, Blue gets off him. All the English bulldogs in the club have paused again, briefly, to watch their American cousin. They breathe heavily as Blue leaps at Bartelstein again, going for his face this time, then knocks him to the ground. If anyone hears the thud when Bartelstein's head misses the mat and hits the bare floor, they don't show it. But everyone goes dead silent for five long seconds as Bartelstein lies on his back, not moving at all. When he slowly rises to his feet, the air comes back into the room.
He motions that he's all right and tells Anaya to let Blue go one more time. Blue knocks him down and goes for the throat.
"Hey," Elana taunts. "How come the side of my head's swollen? How come I can't see, baby?"
Bartelstein gets up, dusts himself off, and has a between-dogs smoke. Then he pulls his arm pads back on. It's time for Payton, Holby's other dog, to go after him. On the sidelines, Elana and Claire Cordwell-Rice, a dog groomer who sometimes helps out with the club, sit and kvetch about the dog's life as the Bartelsteins' toy poodle, Ophelia, looks on ("Actually, the poodle belongs to the monkey," Elana points out). "We have no life," Elana says. "We're like farmers. We can't go anywhere. As soon as we close [Morgan's Dogs] we come right here." Cordwell-Rice showed up at the club after a long day at her own shop, the Dog Scene. "I'm a masochist," she says. "I have no life right now." Elana spends so much time at work that she recently held her birthday party at Of Mutts & Men, with dogs chasing each other under tables of food. A stripper showed up but became nervous when confronted by so many canines. "He didn't like the dogs," Elana says. "He was a little bit, uh, he felt a little bit open." Both women laugh.
Payton lunges at Bartelstein and clamps down on his arm. Elana pokes Ophelia, who's sitting on a stool with her back to the action. "Look, they're biting daddy!" she says. "Cool!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.