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Features

November 9, 2013

Shutzhund trains dogs to track, protect

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.

'Protection dogs'

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.

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