A Mid-Missouri group that trains dogs to bite and attack is defending the club's activities as a recognized canine sport, while the veterinarian who raised the concern is unconvinced it's a safe practice.
Smokin Guns Working Dog Club, which is based in Mid-Missouri, teaches dogs obedience, agility, tricks, dock diving and, the subject of latest controversy, bite work, one of its trainers says.
Steve Matulevich, a trainer with the club, said bite work is a nationally and internationally recognized canine sport. In addition to being a sport, he said, teaching a dog to bite is a part of obedience training.
Meanwhile, veterinarian Ashley French and other staff from Weathered Rock Veterinary Clinic think training dogs to bite is a safety concern, both for the public and the dogs involved.
Matulevich and the club had been using Jefferson City parks for bite work and other training for months before the issue came to a head in late January.
French first complained to the city last November, but nothing happened until the last week of January when the Jefferson City attorney sent a cease and desist letter to the club, effectively trespassing the group from training in the city's parks. The basis of the cease and desist letter was the club's lack of a permit for using the parks to train.
Following the letter and French's testimony, Matulevich has come forward to defend the club's activities.
Matulevich said he and the club aren't upset with the city or the city attorney for sending them a cease and desist letter. He said the club is a nonprofit and not a business, but he understands it needs to get a permit to use the park just like everyone else.
The issue, Matulevich said, was French using what he called irrelevant statistics to get an emotional response from the council.
In her testimony, French said there are 4.8 million dog bites reported annually nationwide and 22 bites were recorded in Jefferson City in 2022.
Matulevich said bite work is a nationally and internationally sanctioned sport and argued that French's statistics don't pertain to bite work. He said the dogs being trained to bite are not the dogs involved in the statistics.
Bite or protection sports take place on local, regional and national levels in and outside of the United States. The Protection Sports Association (PSA) is one organization that hosts these events, along with American Schutzhund events.
Matulevich said his club mostly deals with PSA-recognized sports.
Schutzhund is a dog sport that was originally created in Germany in the 1900s to evaluate breed suitability for German shepherds. The sport lives on in Europe and the United States through various clubs, such as DVG America, the American Working Dog Association, the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde or the Fédération Cynologique Internationale.
In a phone call Monday, French said she disagrees with the notion that bite statistics aren't relevant to the training. Even though bite work is a recognized canine sport, she said, it is not in the best interest of dogs.
Dog racing and dog fighting are both recognized sports that many people bet on, she said, but they are still bad for dogs.
Matulevich also took issue with one of the attacks French talked about in her testimony, in which a man was attacked by three loose dogs in his garage. He said those dogs were wild and obviously not trained and were instead acting on natural prey instincts.
"Our goal is to train dogs," Matulevich said.
Bite work is a part of obedience, he said. The dogs his club works with are given equipment orientation, he said, meaning they are trained to bite the equipment, not people. That equipment includes the bite sleeves and bite suits.
"They get oriented on that. 'Hey, this is nothing more than an obedience routine. When I say to do so, you bite the equipment. You're not biting the person, you're biting the equipment.' As you can see in our videos, the dogs are super obedient. We tell them to out, the dog outs – why is that? Through rigorous training," Matulevich said.
Another issue Matulevich had with French's testimony was her claim that batons were used to simulate hitting dogs in some of the club's videos. Matulevich said they were not using batons, rather they were using PVC pipes with strings and cans connected to them.
Additionally, he said they weren't used to simulate hitting the dogs. He said the tool is used to try to distract the dog from its obedience tasks. In competition, he said, points would be taken off if the dog was distracted by the tool.
French said the tool Matulevich describes can be seen in the videos, but there are wooden sticks visible in other videos that she said can only be described as batons. Regardless, French said, whether it's a baton, the tool Matulevich described or someone yelling and brandishing their fist, the function is the same.
She said the goal of these methods is to train the dog not to let go despite distractions. If someone is being bitten or attacked by a dog, she said, they are likely going to yell and try to get the dog off by hitting or kicking. She said this training will teach dogs not to react to these stimuli, instead staying latched on to the person being bitten.
During her testimony, French said she was concerned about the risk the bite training posed to public safety and to the dogs.
But Matulevich said there isn't an increased risk. Aggression, he said, is not a word on the table. He attributed this to the command and control piece of bite work and likened it to barking.
If a dog owner has a dog that barks uncontrollably, he said, they might be asked if they've taught the dog to bark. He said if the answer is no, that's the issue.
"If you teach a bark command and the dog fully understands that, because they have the mental capacity of about a 3-year-old at best, but if you teach them how to do that thing, you can control it," Matulevich said.
He also said the club doesn't start with bite work, and not every dog is cut out for the training. He said the club has a vetting process, so dogs that are defensive in nature or anxious because they weren't socialized as puppies aren't going to get bite work.
He said this is because he doesn't want to put anyone in a situation where liability might be a factor because the owner can't maintain the obedience that comes as a precursor to any bite work. He said the club is not afraid to tell owners that their dogs aren't cut out for the training.
"When you build a house, you start with the foundation, you never start with the roof. Bite work is the roof, we're not even there yet. In order to get to bite work, we need a solid foundation of obedience," Matulevich said.
He referenced another trainer's dog, which was shown in the videos during the council meeting. He said the dog goes to work with the trainer every day at a veterinary clinic and that it wouldn't make sense for the vet to allow the dog in if it was dangerous.
"It's a game of tug of war for them. Maybe that puts it in a better perspective. Otherwise, we could say that every dog that you play tug with is aggressive in nature," Matulevich said.
French said she and the Weathered Rock staff contacted a certified board of animal behaviorists before giving their presentation, and they overwhelmingly thought bite work was damaging for dogs.
Another issue French raised during the meeting was the lack of standardized certification for dog trainers.
Matulevich said he agreed there should be a standard for certification and said the club is actually planning on working with state legislators to establish a statewide standard.
There is no state or federal standard right now, Matulevich said. To become an effective trainer, he said you have to be an eternal student. He said this requires getting education through seminars and research, as well as compiling real-world experience.
Not every method works for every trainer, he said, and not all methods are effective. He also said you can self-educate on how to be a trainer extensively, but if you don't know how to actually apply that information you're not going to be able to handle a dog.
For that reason, Matulevich said, his club doesn't just train dogs; it trains owners on how to train their dogs. He said there's only so much they can do with a dog in a limited time, so part of their services include teaching owners how to effectively train their dogs.
Brandi Hunter Munden, vice president of public relations and communications for the American Kennel Club (AKC), said the organization does not have an official position on bite work. However, Munden did say the AKC believes bite work should be conducted responsibly and only by professionals with extensive knowledge of bite work.
Janet Oquendo, a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant based in Maryland offered her opinion on the matter. Oquendo is an accredited trainer as per the standards of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) and is certified as a behavior consultant by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).
Oquendo said she does not do bite work and is not an expert in the area. However, she said, it is her opinion that bite work should never be taught to domestic family dogs. Rather, she felt it should be reserved for true working/police dogs that are solely working with their handlers.
Previously owning four rottweilers herself, Oquendo said she felt her dogs naturally had a tendency for guarding, so she never wanted to further bring out that side of them. Instead, she said, she focused on teaching them to be as friendly and social as possible.
She said common sense and her understanding of dogs lead her to believe teaching a dog to bite teaches them that aggression and biting are okay, but emphasized again that she is not an expert in that area.
Although they are not state or federal programs, the CCPDT and IAABC are organizations that provide avenues for animal trainers to get certified.
The IAABC has certifications for dog, cat, equine, parrot, general animal, shelter dog, shelter cat and general shelter behavior consultants. The organization also offers a higher level of certification to applicants with high enough scores.
To become IAABC certified, trainers and consultants must be compliant with the IAABC Code of Ethics and the least intrusive, minimally aversive (LIMA) guidance, and they must be a member of the IAABC.
The organization also suggests having a minimum of four years and 500 hours of experience plus 400 hours minimum of coursework, mentorships and seminars before applying.
To actually get the certification, applicants have 60 days to receive endorsements, followed by 60 days to complete a several-hour-long written examination.
To gain CCPDT certification in training or behavior consulting, you need hundreds of hours of experience in dog training or behavior consulting, confirmed compliance with their standards of practice, code of ethics and LIMA policy, receive a signed attestation statement from a veterinarian or CCPDT certificant and pass a 200-question, multiple choice exam.
CCPDT certificants must also re-certify every three years.
Training for K9 units at the Boone County Sheriff's Department and Cole County Sheriff's Department is conducted by trainers certified by the Missouri Police Canine Association and North American Police Work Dog Association.
K9s for the Jefferson City Police Department also train at the Boone County Sheriff's Department.
K9s working for law enforcement typically only interact with one handler for their entire career. They train, work and live with their handlers, including those with families at home.
Matulevich said this was the first time someone has had an issue with Smoking Guns Working Dog Club and he wishes French had come to them before taking her complaint to the city.
French said Weathered Rock did reach out to Smokin Guns online, but received "hateful rebuttals." She also said another veterinarian in Mid-Missouri had reached out to her with concerns that this type of training would spread to their area.
"We're not isolated here as far as our clinic representing concern about this behavior. I know they're a very vocal group fighting against this, but there's a lot of veterinarians that think this is not the right thing to do for household-owned dogs," French said.
With the club clearly not welcome in Jefferson City anymore, Matulevich said, the group is now operating out of Versailles and is looking at other areas. He said the club's activities have received the blessing of the Versailles City Council, the mayor and the police chief.
Versailles Chief of Police Chad Hartman said the club had approached him to ensure they weren't breaking any laws. Hartman said the department didn't have any say in the matter, as the club isn't conducting any activity on city property.
Versailles Mayor Jamie Morrow shared a similar sentiment. She said the club checked with the city to make sure no ordinances were being violated, but the activity was taking place on private land so the city had no sway either way.
Matulevich ended his rebuttal by encouraging people to look through the club's website and Facebook page, where he said the club is transparent about its activities. He also offered a final analogy.
"If you want to teach a kid how to ride a bike, what's the first thing you do? You buy the bike and you put training wheels on there. Training wheels is the obedience. It's until they're fully riding the bike on their own that we even introduce bite work," Matulevich said.