On a quiet country lane in Caerphilly borough one of the most renowned animal trainers and his family have enjoyed a thoroughly successful 40 years preparing their furry friends for the big screen. Martin Winfield and his wife Ellen Ball have worked on their idyllic 13 acres nestled between Machen and Draethen training the most bizarre of creatures on request, and they are always up for a challenge.
Their 150 animals – parrots, peacocks and alpacas among them – have worked with Sir Anthony Hopkins, Peter O’Toole, Kenneth Branagh and Rhys Ifans to name but a few. Television credits include Casualty, The Bill, Skins, Waking the Dead, and Grandpa in my Pocket.
But now Martin says the task facing his training center is the most important they’ve ever taken on. Animal welfare experts have warned of an epidemic of dog attacks after the number of people requiring hospital treatment for dog bites more than doubled in 15 years, and he is certain the situation is getting worse. You can get more local news and other story updates by subscribing to our newsletters here.
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In Wales in the last six months, official police figures reveal officers attended 279 dog attacks. Ten-year-old Jack Lis from Caerphilly was killed by an XL killed Bully breed dog on November 8, John William Jones from Lampeter was by three British Bulldogs in January, and this week Keven Jones was killed in Wrexham aged 62 – again by an XL Bully.
In the last year Martin said he and his family had been overwhelmed with requests from helpless families who had purchased working line dogs capable of killing their owners, let alone children, without a second thought. Those that reach Martin quickly enough are often at “last resort”.
Sat outside his luxurious home with his Dutch Herder Red and Golden Doodle Jessie J (two of the fourteen dogs running about the place), I ask Martin if he is the best dog trainer in Wales, to which he responds with a modesty that my rather rubbish question probably deserved. I rephrase: Are you training the most dangerous dogs in Wales?
“Yes, absolutely,” he responds. “We take the most aggressive. A lot of our clients have been everywhere before they reach us. They tell us we are the last resort. It’s because other clubs are just terrified to take them on. It’s a shame and it puts us under a lot of pressure to get it right. But we’d never say no. How could we? It’s a real problem and we have to help people as much as we can.”
He calls the phrase “there is no such thing as a bad dog, just a bad owner”, “absolute nonsense”. In his long career he said he had come across countless dogs that were “bad and unsuited to family homes”.
Born in Boscombe Martin spent the rest of his childhood in Spain following his father’s retirement aged just 45 after a career in business. When he returned to the UK to join the RAF he said he could “barely read or write” after spending a large proportion of his infant years sneaking off to play with the German Shepherd next door. “It’s always been in me,” he laughed.
After six years serving his country he moved to Wales with Ellen where he opened Rockwood training school in 1982 working on behavior and training animals for security purposes. “I didn’t ask to be involved in the films, it sort of just happened,” the now 60-year-old grandfather of 13 continued.
“We were down in Southampton doing demonstrations for dogs for security in the private sector and a guy randomly came up to me and said he was a film director and I fitted the bill. We trained the dogs for his film, and then a couple of months later I got another request, and then another one. It’s never stopped.”
Whether it’s security, policing or films, he insists it’s imperative he chooses where the dogs end up, and he applies that to breeding too. “I supplied dogs to a security company that went all over the world with chauffeurs, oil tankers etc, and we’d often train the dogs because others couldn’t handle them,” he explained.
“It was at a massive old school in Hereford. The handlers we’d give them to would be lined up and I had a file on each dog and each handler, and I would choose the dog for the handler. Some moaned about it, but how could they when I knew that dog better than them? It’s so important the match is right.”
That theory has been lost in an era where people are searching for the most Instagrammable pooches. Social media has a lot to answer for; the rise of digital community groups advertising mixed-breed “bullies” is a prime example.
Many have tens of thousands of followers with members gawking over the cropped ears, strong bite and muscled shoulders. Aside from why on earth you’d want to welcome that sort of animal into a home with children, I can’t help but feel sorry for the families who have been lured into this mess, and ask Martin what he thinks.
“A lot of the responsibility comes down to the breeders and how passionate they are about the dogs. I don’t think enough people are doing enough and taking it seriously enough when they are handing these dogs over to families. Too many breeders have no thought for the kind of breed or its temperament. They think: ‘Oh right, it’s a Rottweiler, I’ll just breed it and make money.’ Then they’re surprised when it goes wrong and you end up with a dog that’s biting people.
“The bull breeds are now more popular than ever. With demand the price goes up and more people want to get involved. The same happened with German Shepherds. The breed never had any issues with hip dysplasia, epilepsy, or haemophilia, but then they became popular and people started messing with them.
“There is so much responsibility involved with all dogs, but it is so, so important that when you’re dealing with bullies, Dobermanns, German Shepherds, Rottweilers etc that you get it right. We would very rarely let someone come here and pick their own dog. Often people come and point at one and say: ‘I want that one.’ The breeder should be happy to say: ‘No, that’s not suited to you.’
“If you’ve never had a dog before and you don’t understand leadership skills then certain dogs just are not suited to you and you shouldn’t have them. Not enough of that is happening anymore. What you will see in the next few years is a consequence of what has gone before. I do believe these incidents of attacks will continue.”
In the last 12 to 18 months the number of people arriving at the center with concerns over the danger their dog is posing to them and others has increased. The school now takes 200 dogs a week – some of them are too dangerous to teach alongside others.
“Sometimes the owners have recognised the issue enough that they’ve got to us but they actually don’t realise how dangerous the dog has become,” he said. “They are telling me: ‘Don’t worry he won’t hurt you.’ But I can tell the dog actually would like to kill me. We sometimes send them away and organise sessions with the dog on its own. We would usually put a muzzle on the dog and while they try to maul you we force them to put up with being touched. It’s a healing process. What I’m doing is effectively removing the dog’s power of manipulation and intimidation.”
He believes many incidents of dog attacks come because of two reasons – one being that the dog has gained too much control in the home, and the other that the owner doesn’t have an understanding of signals their dog is giving off.
“As much as I love these dogs and they love me, they see me as the leader,” he said, while demonstrating his power over them by ordering his small Chow to get off the sofa beside him – to which she immediately obeys. “I decide what they can and can’t do and they never decide.
“It can’t be the other way because then the dog is pushing your buttons, and that manifests into controlling and then the responsibility your dog associates with that control is dangerous. Within two months an owner can establish that position of authority.
“A key principle is to never greet your dog when you first walk into your house. When you come through the door and the dog is all over you, ignore them. Apply the two-minute rule and once they have calmed down call them to you for a fuss. That process ensures a connection has not been established by the dog that demand equals attention. That is so important for more dangerous breeds.
“Sometimes it might not have much to do with the dog and more with the person. I once went to a home of a woman with two Westies and it was clear the children in the home weren’t leaving the dogs alone when the dogs went to bed. The dogs were using avoidance behavior and the children weren’t understanding, and then they were surprised when the dogs bit. A child should never approach a dog in its bed.
“In my first class with owners I used to make them come to class without the dog. People would think I was wasting their time because they envisage it as just walking up and down with your dog on the lead. That first session is the most important session they will have.” To sign up to our TeamDogs newsletter go here.
Is he a magician? Are the sessions fool proof? “No, absolutely not,” he replied. “I would never trust any dog even if they’d had all the training in the world. I’ve always been of that frame of mind. I wouldn’t leave my granddaughter with you, so why would I leave her with a dog?
There is a saying: ‘Good dogs will growl.’ It’s true, they will. Some breeds – bulldogs being one of them, sometimes don’t growl. They go from being cute to blowing up. We have to remember dogs have not always been pets, and things can go wrong.”
Is his role and the role of other breeders and trainers now more important than ever? “I think so, yes. I’ve always felt that when you breed a dog your input will go on for generations, and if you get it wrong and another dog breeds from your progeny there will be real problems. It is such a massive responsibility.”