Schutzhund training puts working dogs through their paces

Daniel MacEachern
Published on November 18, 2012

When Jack Parsons had his midlife crisis, he bought a dog, not a convertible.

"As my daughter says, most men in their midlife crisis buy a sports car or do all of these other little things," he said. "Here, Dad goes and buys a dog."

Twelve years ago, he bought a German shepherd, but he found himself looking to do more with it than just walking it - and that's when he discovered schutzhund - an intensive German shepherd breed test developed in the early 20th century that eventually became a sport that now includes other dogs that can handle the demanding tasks, iconizing Rottweillers, Dobermans and boxers.

"I fell into schutzhund, and I've totally, totally enjoyed it ever since and been at it constantly. I'm on my third dog," he says. "It's probably the most fun everybody can have with their dog of any of the sports out there, because you get out there and you're working together as a team. The dog and the handler becomes one, and that's when you achieve the ultimate."

The sport comprises three phases - tracking, obedience and protection:

Tracking: A track layer walks across the field, leaving small items along the way. The dog follows - handler staying far behind the animal - in the track layer's path, and must indicate each item it finds. "The dog's got to touch every footstep. Wherever the track layer puts his foot, the dog has got to put his nose, so it's concentrated tracking," said Parsons.

Obedience: Dogs are judged on their accuracy and attitude in heeding commands under several sets of circumstances. "If I'm running, and if I command the dog to stand, it'll stop with its four legs right where I told it to," said Parsons.

Protection: The dog is directed to search the field for a judge's assistant - who is wearing a padded sleeve - and then must protect its handler as the handler brings the assistant to the judge. The assistant will either "attack" the dog or its handler, or attempt to escape, and the dog must prevent the attack or the escape by biting the assistant's sleeve, and must let go when commanded to.

The key to schutzhund training, said Parsons, the training director of the Newfoundland Schutzhund Club - is using motivational training, rewarding a dog's correct action - rather than compulsive training, correcting an incorrect action. "It takes a lot of patience and a lot of time, but when you have it, the dog says, 'Well, I'm going to do this,' and the whole purpose is to get that reward at the end. And when the dog starts to get a little bit older, it's all based on the ball. They'll do anything just to get that ball."

Dawn Strickland has two German shepherds that participate (plus a Jack Russell terrier that does not). She refers to it - as many participants do - as "IPO," an acronym for a German title they feel more fully represents what the sport is about.

"Schutzhund" is a German word that translates as "protection dog," but the sport is about more than just protection, she explains.

A dog trainer by profession, Strickland said the sport appealed to her because of the relationship it builds between a dog and its trainers.

"The joy and the work for the dogs, and that relationship, that's what captivated me," she said.

The training taps into a dog's natural drives, she added.

"When it comes to working on shepherds and a lot of other working breeds, there's a natural in-born, innate desire to chase, and bite, and to pursue prey," she said.

But most pet training discourages those impulses.

"IPO taps into those drives and allows the dog to have an outlet, and you're a huge part of that outlet. It's a partnership between the handler and the dog."

Club member and treasurer Allan Hewlett said suppressing the natural drives of the family pet can make training less successful.

"If you're building a dog for schutzhund, you want to build the natural drives of the dog to get them to come out so you can do the best in the sport," he said. "But most pet owners will try to squish the drives, and put them down, instead of developing them to where they want them."

Strickland says the program's training methods would also benefit breeds other than just the ones that can pass the schutzhund tests.

"The upbringing of the schutzhund dog, yes, you're bringing out drive more than you're suppressing it, but the techniques are the same for me," she said. "The techniques, the learning, is the same."

Strickland said the sport sometimes is met with concern because of the biting involved in the protection phase.

"It is a test of temperament, first and foremost," she said. "These dogs are completely safe, and they're in our homes, they're out in the public, they're very well-mannered."

Hewlett agreed.

"The sport is very good for dogs. The dogs' temperament is tested and they thrive for the sport," he said. "It brings out a very good dog. They're some of the most obedient and well-behaved dogs you'll ever see."

The Newfoundland Shutzhund Club meets three times a week at its training field in Flatrock when daylight allows - the dark early evenings of late fall and winter means they forgo weekday evening meetings.

"The whole purpose of it is just to get together and have some fun with your dog, and the camaraderie of club members, and we just have a good time. It's a great dog sport," said Parsons.

Strickland says it's not just a sport, but a lifestyle.

"You meet three times a week to train with the club, but there's things that you're doing every day," she said. "You're keeping the dog conditioned. Exercise is key, training is key throughout the day. ... It's not something that you dabble in." Twitter: TelegramDaniel