Apr 17, 2024

An Attack Dog Sank His 42 Teeth Into My Arm and Wouldn't Let Go.

Iam standing in the corner of an abandoned elementary-school classroom, my back to the door, when the Belgian Malinois surges into the room.

His eyes are fixed on me. His nails squeal across the linoleum tile as he slinks into a low, predatory "tiger crawl."

The 35-pound protective bite suit I'm wearing, with its thick layers of padding and canvas, has an unwieldy bulk that leaves me stiff and slow. I can't fully turn my head, so I catch the dog's movements out of the corner of my eye. My stomach twists and my mind narrows to a single panicked thought: What the hell am I doing?

The handler plants his feet and leans back against the weight of the dog, both of his hands gripping the 6-foot lead. But in a matter of seconds, the animal crouches, plowing its heavily muscled chest against the harness, and lurches toward me. The dog barks, a sound like the sharp crack of a whip. Slick gobs of saliva hang from his mouth, a sign, I later learn, that he is aroused.

Just as I see the dog bare his inch-long teeth behind a curled lip, I feel the air hit a trickle of sweat on my throat. I realize that a thin slice of skin is exposed over the neck of the bite suit.

The dog lunges.

He launches up toward my face and bites me on my upper left arm, just above my elbow. I can feel the crush of his teeth clamp around my arm through the suit. His jaw is a vise, squeezing with enough pressure to draw blood where my skin is pinched between the padding and his teeth. The dog drags down on my arm and thrashes his head, jerking my 5-foot, 10-inch frame back and forth. Later, after several more bites, my arm will be bruised deep purple and yellow for days.

Originally bred to herd sheep and drive livestock, Belgian Malinois and similar breeds such as Dutch, German, and Czech shepherds dominate the ranks of military and law-enforcement canines in part because of their intensity. Trainers call it "drive" — a drive to work, to protect, to hunt, and to attack. When weaponized, this drive becomes a brutal use of force that officers can deploy during pursuits and arrests, or for prison control. Insider identified eight states — Virginia, Arizona, Indiana, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Iowa — that actively use attack-trained dogs in correctional facilities on people in state custody. Through public-records requests, court documents, medical records, and interviews with dozens of bite victims, Insider tracked 295 bites on incarcerated people from 2017 to 2022, most of them in Virginia prisons. The bites are sometimes severe and disfiguring, even permanently disabling.

Read more of Insider's coverage of prison dogs:The secret terror inside US prisonsPrison dogs are so aggressive they attack their handlers

I'd spent the past year investigating the use of attack-trained dogs against people who are incarcerated. For months, I'd pored over disturbing details in internal incident reports and court filings. And I'd visited prisons to interview people who've experienced terrible, agonizing attacks. I learned that patrol dogs in Virginia state prisons bite so ferociously that some injuries require dozens of internal and external stitches, emergency surgeries, and treatment for septic infections. I finally decided it was time to experience one of these attacks myself.

But unlike the men I'd spoken with who are still recovering from their wounds, I'd experience a bite while swaddled in protective gear.

An attack dog's bite is powerful enough to puncture light sheet metal. The 42 strong, curved teeth of the Belgian Malinois are backed by 50 or more pounds of compact, athletic animal. They're so committed to their bites that they're known to break teeth on impact. When they're training to chase and attack a fleeing human being, I learn, the volunteer in the bite suit needs to twist their body to absorb the momentum of the attack. The dogs will launch themselves with such ferocity that they'll snap their own necks on an unyielding target.

The bite suit is highly stimulating for these dogs, who have been playing tug-of-war with bite-suit sleeves since they were puppies. Getting a dog to bite a suit isn't that difficult, trainers say. What's hard is training a dog to bite a human being.

Dave Blosser, a retired police canine handler in Northeast Ohio who's now the owner and lead trainer at Tri-State Canine Services, imports dogs from central, eastern, and northern Europe already trained to compete in elite patrol-dog competitions. At his training facility — a converted warehouse in Warren, Ohio — and here at this abandoned elementary school an hour away, Blosser begins to condition the dogs to respond to threats with aggression.

Earlier in the day, I joined photographer Hannah Fowler in watching him place a dog called Mitch on a small plywood table and chain him to a metal pole while a trainer yelled, struck the ground with a cloth bullwhip, and threatened the dog with padded wooden poles until he barked and bared his teeth. Once the dog was visibly aroused, slavering and chomping, Blosser had me approach Mitch wearing a padded sleeve and push the dog's boundaries until he attacked the protective canvas. Blosser asked me to yell, scream, and thrash my arm to simulate pain and fear. Unsettled and nauseated, I half-heartedly complied.

Blosser encouraged the dog to bite more forcefully by donning the bite sleeve himself. Once Mitch latched on, Blosser reached his free hand around the animal's head and applied pressure to the back of the dog's skull to force his mouth open wider and the bite deeper into the padding. He lavished Mitch with excited, high-pitched praise.

But the real reward for Mitch is the bite itself; he gets to bite and thrash his head in ecstatic release until commanded to let go.

I'm told that when a dog's senses are flooded with novel stimuli — the scent of fear hormones, the sounds of truly panicked screams — it might balk and refuse to attack altogether. You won't really know how a dog will react in the field, trainers say, until it's been "blooded" on a first bite in action.

Once these dogs bite, they're trained to hold, something I learn the hard way. In the corner of that classroom the dog drags against my arm, pulling me away from the wall and sideways. I was warned not to let the dog take me to the ground to avoid any "accidental" bites to my hands or face, so I strain against his weight to find my footing. The handler gives the command to release, but the dog either doesn't hear or refuses to let go.

He gives the command again. The dog's jaws stay locked on my elbow.

The handler eventually grabs the dog's wide canvas collar and heaves him off the ground, suspending the animal's full weight by the collar pinched at its throat. Choked, the dog gasps and pops open his mouth. That, or a jolt to an electric collar, is a brutal way to force release when a dog is too flushed with excitement and aggression to obey commands.

I step back, relieved, as the handler drags the dog backward and redirects him, panting, out the door. Adrenaline spikes through my body. I feel detached, strangely levelheaded.

I've never been afraid of dogs, but in the days and weeks after I'll notice flares of anxiety around large, shepherd-like breeds.

I ask Blosser, who is standing in the far corner of the classroom, whether he's ever been bit. "Plenty," he says.

We both turn when we hear another dog panting in the hallway outside the classroom. He spins me back around to face the wall and reminds me to keep my hands safely tucked inside the arms of the protective jacket.

Bites to the hands, he tells me, are extremely messy.

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