What It Takes to Be a Decoy for Protection Dogs’ Training

Letting furious dogs with only one task – to detain and put you down – bite you is definitely not for everyone. But is it really as horrifying as it may look from the outsider’s point of view? Jan Böhm answers our questions about what it takes to be a decoy.

Defence is one of the disciplines of sport cynology that has great demands on dog’s mental balance and its obedience and controllability. It should be mentioned that it is not about training a dog to attack a person in order to seize the prey – a bite sleeve. Seizing a decoy by biting him/her in the training sleeve is a part of defence as a sport. It's the decoy who does a lot of work and his/her good skills are essential for training. (S)he needs to asses the dog’s reaction accurately and in time. (S)he should also be able to encourage the dog and help it in an emergency situation, and then tell the handler about its weaknesses. Jan Böhm has been working as a decoy for many years. Besides other achievements, he also won FMBB Belgian Shepherd World Championship 2017.


Honza, what made you interested in becoming a decoy? How did you make this decision?

My whole life is about sports. I used to play hockey, go swimming and do karate with adults when I was a kid. When there were no karate trainings, I played tennis and volleyball. When I couldn’t do that, I made adults include me in their netball games. I was doing one sport after another and I was looking for something that would satisfy and tire me and that would involve enough action for me. I always enjoyed fights and the adrenaline rush. To hit the bottom of my limits and to stand up to something that creates tension and fear within my body and mind. When I was 13 and saw 40 kilograms running straight towards a guy who was only 30 kg heavier...and he was still standing and even smiling – I knew I needed this. It’s also about training people, so this sport has become my favourite. First, I learned how to be perceptive towards animals and how to understand a dog. Later on, I became interested in their nervous system, especially in how dogs think, how they express themselves and what potential they have. What the maximum of their abilities are and what the given dog is really like. So, these days I train dogs and their handlers – for me, they’re teams. I enjoy working with people, helping them to succeed and being useful for them. I’m in love with being a decoy and it will probably be love for a lifetime for me :).


What is the biggest race you took part in as a decoy?

It was FMBB Belgian Shepherd World Championships in 2015 and 2019.


What nature or traits should a decoy have? Do decoys need any experience (no matter if in defence or generally in cynology)?

For starters – it’s the same as with other sports – the person needs to like moving and being active. I don’t think that it’s about one’s nature. I’m a choleric person and I am able to calm myself down as well as a calmer decoy can become assertive and uncompromising. It depends a lot on how much you really want it and if you really pursue it. That's the biggest indicator of whether you’re really going for it with everything you’ve got or you’re just trying it. And as in many other sports, experience is the most valuable thing you can get.


I suppose a decoy needs to be physically fit, is that correct?

It depends on you and people who train with you. And what you expect together. You can only train for pleasure, or you may want to get the best results from your dog. To show it the way it can be much better. Go for it fully and do everything you can. Physical fitness is the most important right after the experience.


What does a person need to become a decoy? Is there a school or a course or do you need to pass any tests to be able to be a decoy during races?

I don't know about any schools, but there were a few courses and seminars in the past and some are being prepared again. Those should be both for advanced and for beginner decoys. They are usually organized by an experienced decoy who has been doing it for many years. There are three classification classes in the Czech Republic. A second class is enough for you to be a decoy for tests and regional races. With a first class, you can also be a decoy for qualifying races for the championships. And the best class in the Czech Republic is the so-called league decoy – a person with this can be a decoy for any Czech championships and international races including the world championship.


How long does it take for a person to become a decoy (to learn enough)?

I have been learning my whole life and I will never be happy. I think that people should always expand their knowledge and be aware of the developments. Experience provides you with something you can't buy. With a good trainer, you can become a good decoy for races in a couple of years. But experience is important and you need to train for it. You need a team of people who are not afraid to let their dogs practice with you. It’s true that everyone wants a good decoy but not everyone is willing to let his/her dog practice with someone who would like to become one. You can gradually become a training decoy with a number of trainings, hours of hard work, sweating and blood. It’s not an easy or short journey, just like any sport.


What should a good decoy handle?

(S)he should mainly know how to work with people. It’s important to be able to explain them something and teach them to understand the matter well. Also, being able to understand a dog, to teach it and to encourage it is necessary. Each individual needs an individual approach, every dog and person needs something different and a different kind of training. It’s not that difficult to work well with an adult dog, but what really makes difference is training a puppy well and teaching it some basics. A decoy should also be self-critical and (s)he should be able to acknowledge other opinions that only his/her own. When on the field, I see us as a team. You, your dog and I are equal there and it’s all about agreeing on something and good communication. It’s important to listen, to think, to respond quickly, to be confident but also safe, so the person isn’t afraid to let his/her dog practice with the given decoy. It's a sport, but also a hobby, and for many it's all they have – their buddy and their family. It needs to be taken into account.


What are the things decoys need to think about during the race? In addition to the task and monitoring and evaluating the dog's behaviour, do they also have to think about how they can make the judge see the whole action (for example the kind of bite)?

There's a clear task at the races for you – to make it safe and the same for everyone. I'm doing this without fouls and with the best result possible – that’s what I always keep telling myself during a race. You need to show each dog separately but give them all the same chances. Keeping your standards and the same dedication for the whole race is probably the hardest thing. Also, what’s important is the mental mindset, focus on performance and not letting anything distract you – it means both negative as well as positive responses from the audience. The way to do the exercise is always set in the beginning of the race with the judge before the so-called testing dog goes on the field. Both the racers and the audience can see what the race is going to look like according to this dog. For example, where the decoy will run, in what direction the back companion will be or how long the barking should be. These things depend on the judge who determines that in order so
(s)he could see it well and could evaluate the whole race with the same parameters.


Have you ever felt at risk when being a decoy or have you even been injured?

You can’t avoid injuries. Of course, it sometimes hurts a lot, but it’s a part of this. I don’t regret any wounds, all of them have taught me something, because they were mostly my bads :).


Are there a lot of decoys in the Czech Republic or is there rather a few of the good ones?

I think we have the best decoys from all over the world in the Czech Republic. We enjoy it and we have it in our blood.


What do you personally enjoy about being a decoy?

I like the most when someone I train is honestly happy. We only live once, there is no room for planning another life, because we can’t be born again. So, go and do it now!


Thank you for telling us about your vast experience? Do you have anything you would like to add for the end?

My biggest everyday race is “me vs. me”, because it’s only up to you... don’t let yourself beat you :).