AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SCHUTZHUND SPORT

Jim Engel  

As the last century drew to a close, the industrial revolution was in the process of changing a centuries old way of life throughout Europe, altering the very fabric of society.  In many different regions, diverse groups of men realized that the indigenous working dogs of the farmer, drover and stockman were in imminent danger of being lost forever because of the rapid modernization of agrarian life.  Separately and in small groups they sought to gather together and preserve the various regional working types and form them into breeds.  Their legacy to us is the German Shepherd, the Rottweiler, the Bouvier des Flandres and the other herding and working breeds as we know them today.

Since the primary objective of these men was the preservation of the working heritage, it is not surprising that as they created their various organizations and evolved formal standards a number of working trial systems were devised.  The primary purpose of these trials was to serve as a gauge of working character so as to facilitate the identification of animals suitable for consideration as breeding stock.  In this way, the working trial served the purification of the soul just as the conformation show served to consolidate correct, uniform physical structure.  The sporting aspect drew in many who enjoyed the training and then the competitive nature of the trial itself.  It would seem that the desire to go out and see whose horse is faster or whose dog is stronger, quicker and more courageous is as old as the domestication process itself.

Among the earliest systems was that devised by the creators of the German Shepherd Dog, that is, the Schutzhund (protection dog) trial.  Others include the KNPV competition (the Dutch Police Trials) and the Ring Sport of Belgium, which date from the same era.  For a variety of reasons, including the early and strong popularity of the Shepherd, the Schutzhund trial has become predominant, and is rapidly evolving as the primary arena in which the protective heritage breeds demonstrate their working character and the quality of their training.  This trend is strong in Europe beyond Germany and its scope is in fact world wide.  The predominant rules are those of the VDH (the West German kennel club) although there is a slightly different FCI (The World canine organization) version.

Although Schutzhund competition is usually open to any dog capable of the work, the primary interest is among the fanciers of the protective heritage breeds such as the Doberman Pincher, Boxier, German Shepherd, Giant Schnauzer, Bouvier des Flandres and the Rottweiler.  Patterns in Europe and America vary, with the Boxier for instance being very active in Germany but virtually never seen in North American competition.

A review of the objectives of training and working trial systems in general serves as an effective introduction to a discussion of the Schutzhund sport in particular.  These include:

Since the Schutzhund  program is primarily for dogs of the protective heritage, its emphasis is on those qualities necessary in such dogs, such as initiative, courage and responsibility.  The three phases of the program are:

    TRACKING       where the dog uses his olfactory capability to follow
                           the path taken by his handler or another person.
    OBEDIENCE      heeling, retrieval of objects and other exercises that
                           demonstrate cooperation and handler control.
    PROTECTION    search out and hold of an adversary, close in defense
                           of the leader and a remote attack on an aggressor.


There are three progressively more difficult levels of competition that lead to the Schutzhund titles I through III.  Many dogs go on to compete repetitively at the Schutzhund III level in order to achieve the highest possible score and to qualify for participation in various annual championship events.  There is also an advanced tracking title and a number of other specialized degrees.

Among the factors contributing to the usefulness of the dog is his incredibly sensitive nose, which makes the sense of smell so totally superior to that of a human being that a dog virtually lives in another world.  The olfactory sensitivity adds another dimension, a further capability, to the human/canine team.  The dog can locate a lost child, detect the presence of narcotics or warn of a hidden adversary in time to save a life.

Tracking is thus an integral facet of the program in order to measure and enhance this most useful faculty.  The test is conducted in an open field where a person walks a prescribed route several hundred yards long and drops a number of articles, such as a glove, which the dog must locate. Elementary level tracks are laid by the handler, more advanced competition uses a different person.  The track is often laid in a plowed field rather than one with vegetation or in a pasture.

The track is aged for a period according to the title being sought (20 minutes to an hour) after which the dog is taken to the marked starting point and sent out, usually on a line.  (The handler has the option of sending his dog off lead, but I have never seen this done.) It is necessary to stay ten meters behind the dog except when he picks up a dropped article or indicates its presence by laying down or sitting.  The difficulty of a particular track is dependent on the nature of the vegetation and the weather. Damp, cool, still conditions are generally the most favorable.  Early in the morning is often the best time of day.

The obedience exercises require the dog to heel at the handler's side on a route with turns, changes of pace and distractions such as gun shots and a group of milling persons.  The dog must be left in the down, sitting and standing positions and come when called.  Objects thrown by the handler are to be retrieved on command.  This is done "on the flat" and over a one meter barrier.  The dog must go out away from the handler and then down on command.  The gun sure AKC obedience competitor at the CDX level will find the Schutzhund I obedience routine familiar, the only additional exercise being the go out which is introduced at the Utility level under the AKC system.

A fundamentally different character of Schutzhund obedience is due to the arena, that is, the fact that it is conducted in an open field rather than a small, confined ring.  This is a significant consideration for the team with a large dog, which is at a substantial disadvantage in the typical cramped AKC ring.  Within broad limits the handler has much latitude to adapt the size and order of the heeling pattern to his own dog.  That a beast heels a couple of inches ahead or behind or sits slightly crooked is not of earth shaking consequence, for the purpose is to demonstrate control, cooperation and working willingness rather than to turn the dog into an ultra precise heeling machine.

The protection exercises involve a number of simulated attacks by a human adversary who wears padded leather pants and a padded sleeve which the dog bites.  (In Schutzhund the dog is trained to bite only the sleeve; in other forms of competition he is encouraged to bite either an arm or a leg or go directly to the body.  The agitator's protective equipment is substantially different in such instances.) Once on the sleeve, the agitator will strike the dog with a bamboo stick to establish the willingness to persist in the face of a counter attack.  The dog is trained to respond to an active aggressor, and that when the helper stands still he is to watch and bark but may not bite.  Control and discipline are recognized as essential attributes of the well trained dog.  The purpose of the protection program is not to produce a weapon that will automatically attack at the least excuse, but rather a dog who will respond to a direct threat in the appropriate manner.

Although tracking, obedience and protection are the three phrases of the program, the divisions are more apparent than real, for each facet of the training must contribute in harmony to the balanced whole, result in a fundamentally sound dog, or they mean nothing.  In a correct program there is tremendous synergism, the lessons of one phase positively reinforcing those of the others.  The tracking builds confidence and initiative that carries over as an alert, positive attitude in the obedience.  Obedience teaches discipline and responsiveness to the handler, which reinforces the precision necessary for high tracking scores and paves the way for the control aspects of the protection work.  And the enthusiasm of most dogs for the man work carries them through the long haul, provides the spark that makes training day the best part of the dog's life.  The very best Schutzhund program does not train tracking, obedience and protection, it does not even consider the dog as a whole and train him, rather it trains the team, the dog and his leader together.

The trial generally starts with the tracking early in the morning, since that is the most favorable time for the dog to track, and because there is a long day's work ahead if there is a full slate of ten or twelve dogs. The judge begins by assigning track layers and supervising the laying of the tracks.  Each team in turn reports and is sent out to attempt their track.

The judge will often conduct a preliminary temperament test in which he will purposely pressure the dog, perhaps by walking between him and his handler and pushing him with his knee.  The dog who shows a fearful or inappropriately aggressive reaction is excused on the spot.  It is the judge's right and obligation to devise whatever tests he believes to be necessary to establish the stability of each dog as they progress through the day.  It is necessary that Schutzhund judge have significant latitude in conducting the trial in that his duties are by far the most difficult and serious one can take on in the entire scope of canine affairs.  Put quite simply, the future of the working heritage is in his hands each time he steps on the field.

When two dogs have completed their track, the judge will in the presence of the handler and his dog, and any others who care to listen, give a brief critique of the performance and announce the scores.  A primary purpose of this is education, as the judge will often not only point why he has taken points away, but go on to suggest improvements in training approach to correct the problems.  Teaching is in fact the essence of the judge's role, and a trial conducted by a good one is an educational encounter as well.

The judge's critique does a great deal to enhance the spirit of fair play and sportsmanship, for the audience may find out what he has seen that was not apparent from their vantage point.  They will often find out that they noted a detail that he in fact missed, for no man can see everything when there are two dogs and two handlers on the field, often widely separated. The noted judge Jean-Claude Balu makes a point that bears repeating:  it is the judge's responsibility to score according to what he actually sees and hears, that while he will on occasion know that something has occurred when his vision was blocked or his attention diverted he must not deduct points.  It is important that those in the audience be aware of this distinction.

There is no doubt that the necessity of giving a critique and announcing scores immediately after the exercise puts pressure on a judge, as there is no such thing as having a ring steward post the scores and being long gone before anyone knows what went down.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Schutzhund competition is not that the dog must track, execute the obedience exercises and show protective capability.  Rather the real challenge is that each of these three must be done successfully on the same day in order to earn a title.  It would be much easier if you could get the beast up for tracking next week, pass the obedience after a couple of tries next spring and then worry about the protection work!  The comprehensiveness of the test is the essence of its validity, for the dog who attains the degree under a competent judge is in most instances a legitimate working dog.  An occasional unsure dog may have a lucky day and get through, and judges, being human, are on occasion too lenient.  There are of course distinctions in that some pass without a high score or are not able to attain a higher title.

There are reservations in many minds about protection training of dogs by private individuals.  These questions are relevant, for enhancing a dog's willingness and ability to perform an effective attack on a human being is very serious business.  One view is that nobody should be permitted to keep or breed animals capable of harming a man, that the emasculation of our utility breeds is a noble service to mankind.  Perhaps the happy day when no man need be concerned with defense of family and property is on the horizon, perhaps our all powerful government is about to introduce a global program to incapacitate the criminal element (surly the best kept secret of recent years!), rendering dogs with the protective potential superfluous.  You may not believe it, and I may not believe it, but by and large contemporary American breeders of working dogs are well on the way to being prepared for the new era, well on the way to rendering our protective heritage breeds impotent!

But if the breeding and possession of dogs with credible protective capability is to be a valid prerogative of the individual citizen, there must be a means to encourage responsible ownership and provide the necessary training and support.  The Schutzhund movement has a major role to play in this.

Proper training does not create something that was not there in the first place, for the dog that can be effectively trained was physically capable before hand; his reactions simply become more predictable and controllable.  The properly protection enhanced dog is truly a more reliable companion, for the most dangerous dog is the one apt to bite out of fear, an inability to deal with the world at large.  The strong, confident dog who knows he can deal with whatever comes over the horizon has no need of the preemptive bite, can wait for a real threat before taking aggressive action.

The correct Schutzhund may be taken out in public with confidence and introduced to guests in the home along with the rest of the family.  There is something very seriously wrong with the dog who must be locked away when there are gusts in the home, regardless of breed or training history. The prime purpose of the Schutzhund sport is the provision of strong, stable dogs by serving as a guide to breeding programs and providing the training so that the individual dog can become the good canine citizen he should be, an animal that can participate in all aspects of the day by day life of his family.

There are those who would have you believe that there is no need to train a dog in order to bring out the protective potential, that a particular breed is made up of "naturally protective" individuals.  This is well and good if one finds it of comfort and has no real need, there is after all the place for the placebo.  But if one intends to go in harms way, to depend on the dog for assistance when the going gets rough, there are two very sound reasons for protection training.  In the first place, the dog that is not tested is simply an unknown quantity, for there are some dogs in every breed that just don't have what it takes, and it is impossible to identify them without testing each candidate.  Finding your dog inadequate when he fails to respond to a real attack may mean that you never have the opportunity to replace him with an adequate dog.

The other reason for protection training is that many dogs are taught from a young age that any sign of aggression, even in play, is not allowed and will in fact result in being cuffed in the head.  Dogs are sensitive, they can be tremendously inhibited without the owner's being aware of the process.  The well trained obedience or show ring competitor is at a particular disadvantage in that they are apt to ignore the mugger thinking he is just another "distraction" and expect you to be pleased at the show of good manners!  Many dogs will simply stand confused, not know how to react, when a simulated attack on the owner occurs as part of an evaluation.  Their training has blunted the protective instinct, rendered it impotent when most needed.

Since the sport is a gauge of the working potential of the protective breeds, its credibility would seem to be dependent on the link between successful participation in a trial and practical applications such as police work or family protection.  It is to be understood up front that it would be most foolish to take your high scoring Schutzhund III to a tough neighborhood and insult the natives, expecting him to spare you the normal consequences of such a foolish action!  When the chips are down the dog may realize that this is not a game and head for the hills.  On the sport field most dogs understand quite well for the agitator must play by the rules and may only strike back in a prescribed manner with limited force.

It would seem reasonable that the capable boxer would be an effective street fighter and most of them probably would, but this is not necessarily true in every case.  Similarly, most good sport dogs have the potential for a real protective functionality that could be readily enhanced with a minimum of additional training.  The protection test is a simulated situation, somewhat stylized and not totally realistic.  There are those dogs who can by careful training be acclimated to the sport situation and yet who would likely falter when faced with a real, unrehearsed, threat.  The more skilled and experienced the judge and helper, the less likely these boarder line dogs are to pass a protection test.

The experienced trainer will usually have a good idea of which dogs are dependent on the familiarly of the padded sleeve as permission to bite and which would respond to a real situation, attack regardless of the garb of the aggressor.  A hidden sleeve, that is one compact enough to be worn under a shirt or jacket, can be used to test a dog's reaction to a more realistic situation and also as a means of more advanced training to insure a realistic protection functionality.

Thus while it is true that some successful sport dogs would fail in an on the street confrontation, just as some soldiers who are sound in training fail in combat for reasons not fully understood, it is not necessarily the fault of the training methodology.  Dogs are not machines and it is not possible to be absolutely sure of what they will do in a new situation.

Stability and inherent responsibility are essential attributes of any dog to be protection trained, either for sport or service.  Children and people in general are going to walk up and handle the police dog just as they are going to approach the private citizen's sport trained dog.  It is pointless to say that they should know better, the simple fact is that it is going to happen.  Fair or not, the burden is on the dog and his owner. The dog who threatens or bites innocent people simply cannot be tolerated; and it is a tribute to the stability of the animals and the skill of those doing the training that this high standard is almost universally met.

Although Schutzhund training and competition is a sport, it is also a very serious business with important obligations for those who choose to participate.  The decision to become involved should thus be made only after careful investigation of what is involved and careful consideration of the implications of a commitment.  Many who become interested are likely to be subject to subtle warnings such as "One of your kids is going to give the attack command, how will you feel when a neighborhood child is mauled by your vicious Schutzhund dog and ends up in the hospital?"

Is protection training a dog in fact equivalent to leaving a loaded pistol on the dining room table?  Does it increase the likelihood of a serious incident resulting in injury to an innocent person?  The answer is a qualified no, and the qualifications are a sound dog and sound training methodology.  It is a simple fact that owning a dog physically capable of injury to a human being involves an element of risk, for several times each year there are newspaper reports of a death of a human being, all too often a child, as a result of an attack by a dog or dogs.  In a sense the fact that such incidents are reported in detail is positive, in that very few of the 25,000 deaths that occur as a consequence of mixing alcohol and motor vehicles are interesting enough for much newspaper coverage.  But even one death is of course one too many.

The fact is that very few if any of these incidents involve protection trained dogs, although I do not claim that such dogs are less likely to be involved; I simply have no relevant statistical information.  What I do know is that by building the dog's confidence in himself and enhancing the handler's control and understanding the properly trained Schutzhund dog is a better canine citizen, substantially less likely to be involved in an irresponsible action after his training than before.  One of the primary causes of dog bite incidents is the fear motivated preemptive action by the dog that was not properly socialized and/or of inherently unstable character.

The sport trained dog is exposed to many situations that require restraint and self control as a normal part of his training and living with his partner.  In the properly run Schutzhund club, unstable dogs are recognized as such before the protection training begins or advances very far and the owner made aware of the danger he is living with.  If a dog is refused training and put down or more closely watched as a consequence the safety of the public is enhanced by one less potentially dangerous dog.

The danger that a child will send a trained dog against an innocent person and cause an injury is simply not a serious concern if proper precautions are taken.  The Schutzhund dog is taught to respond only to the active adult aggressor rather than a passive person.  He understands full well that it is the commands of adult family members that must be obeyed, those of small children are in general regarded with tolerant amusement.  It is the situation and tone of voice that leads to the aggressive response rather than the actual words used.

The owner of a dog of any of the protective breeds takes on important responsibilities, for they are capable of a great deal of damage. Schutzhund training, when applied to a sound dog in responsible hands, is an effective means of fulfilling these responsibilities, for it provides an enhanced level of discipline and control that renders unjustified aggression less likely.  Also, the discipline also provides the ability to call back a dog when necessary, thus providing an extra margin of safety.

Although not likely, it is conceivable that a dog could be taught to make an unprovoked attack on verbal command and that a child could then invoke the trained response.  But the same child could also abuse an automobile or alcohol with tragic results; and these are much more common occurrences as the reader of any newspaper is well aware.  The owner of a Shepherd or Bouvier must teach his children respect for the potential of the dog, just a he should teach respect for the automobile, alcohol, power tools and the many other things that have legitimate purposes but are nevertheless potentially dangerous.  This is a very serious responsibility that every dog owner should be made to understand.

As in any physically active sport, there is an element of risk on the training field where a single lapse in concentration can be the cause of an injury.  The agitator is the most likely candidate; and he understands the risks before stepping on the field and picking up the sleeve.  The point is that it is his own choice, the gratification of working the dog and contributing to his progress is satisfactory compensations for placing himself in jeopardy.

Each of us who participate - as instructor, agitator or trainer - is responsible for the safety of those involved and for producing reliable dogs suitable for living with their families in contemporary American society.  Each person interested in participation must make his own evaluation of the overall merits of the program and make his own commitment.  He should also contemplate the inherent risks of owning a dog with the protective potential without knowing how it is likely to respond in a situation he regards as provocative, or even which situations will be so regarded.  The owner of the Schutzhund trained dog has the advantage of knowing first hand how his dog will respond to a wide variety of stressful circumstances.

Jim Engel   Copyright 1993

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