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Why Schutzhund?

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I was asked recently, "Why do you train in bitework? I think that is a kind of weird sport, but same can be said of my love of freestyle! I'd love to read a blog on why this sport? why schutzhund?"

Fair question, and here's my answer.

Schutzhund originated as a breeding suitability test. A dog who could not do the work was not considered fit for breeding. Later, it became a sport, but even now for specific breeds in many countries, the offspring of a dog without a Schutzhund title can not be registered. I think this is a good idea; it standardizes temperament and structure within the breed and ensures continued working ability for a working breed.

In this country, Schutzhund is merely a sport, but it's still an important one. It is an advanced partnership with the dog, true teamwork (or it should be!). Rather than a mere few minutes of performance, it is a triathalon for dogs. Though known for its protection work, Schutzhund consists of three phases, Tracking, Obedience and Protection. Dogs must qualify in all three phases. It's like Michelin Tire said: "Power is nothing without control."

I like the Schutzhund obedience style a lot; it emphasizes enthusiasm and willingness as well as precision. Check out these videos of obedience and protection by a Doberman completing a Schutzhund III routine. Tell me that's not exciting! (Sabine Wiedemeyer handling Lennox von Aurachgrund, taking 2nd place in 2006 Deutschen Meisterschaft [German all-breed nationals] with 100-98-95 [100 points tracking, 98 points obedience, 95 points protection, out of a perfect 300])

Because Schutzhund expects -- requires -- the dog to be in a state of extreme arousal, obedience and control are far more necessary and more highly trained than in most dog venues. The dog must be able to hear and respond to its handler when in full fighting drive. This requires not only good training but also a good dog, one with proper genetic temperament. That's what makes the sport an excellent "character test" for dogs.

Many people understand that Schutzhund is a worthy dog sport, but I've also been criticized publicly and privately for participating in this sport. I find that frankly ridiculous. Let me address a few of the more common concerns here. :-)

  • "YOU'RE TEACHING THE DOG TO BITE PEOPLE." -- Um, no. :-) First of all, any dog person should know that all dogs can and will bite with provocation; heck, *I* will bite in the right circumstances! But more importantly, biting is just a behavior, and a Schutzhund dog will, like any trained dog, learn stimulus control. A cue begins and ends the bite, just as a cue begins and ends the down. And there are a host of very specific cues for the bite -- it's not just a free for all! If you've ever played a game of tug with a dog, you've done a miniature version of Schutzhund protection work.
  • "YOU'RE TEACHING THE DOG TO BITE PEOPLE IN SNOWSUITS." -- This accusation had to be a personal favorite of mine. I have video of us working this winter, in which my helper is wearing tan Carhartt coveralls and in which I am wearing identical tan Carhartt coveralls. Amazingly enough, the dog went to the right person when cued. :-) Sheesh.
  • "YOU'RE ABUSIVE TO THE DOGS/YOU THREATEN THE DOGS TO MAKE THEM BITE OUT OF FEAR." -- No. Schutzhund training starts as young as 8 weeks (younger, if the litter is born to a Schutzhund breeder), and all initial training is done as play. Only after the behaviors are well-started does the dog see aggression/threat from the helper, and then it is raised in small doses so as not to overwhelm the dog; the dog must always believe that he can "win" over the helper. Good Schutzhund trainers do not hurt or frighten dogs into biting. (Note: obviously there are always a few freaks in any sport, and Schutzhund can attract a few "macho" morons. Just as there are idjits who will put a shock collar on a dog to teach it an agility dogwalk, there are a few idjits who will try stupid things in bitework. This is no more correct or representative of the field as a whole than the electric collar is for agility.)
  • "THE DOGS DON'T ENJOY IT." -- Please, just come watch Laev in action. She lives for this.
  • "YOU CAN'T TRAIN IT POSITIVELY, SO YOU MUST BE HURTING YOUR DOGS." -- Again, please, just watch. Ask Laev if she feels abused. ;-) Yeah, there are traditional training recipes which aren't as dog-friendly, but we're certainly not bound to use them.
  • "SCHUTZHUND PEOPLE TREAT THEIR DOGS AS THINGS, NOT PETS." -- A good friend of mine came once with me to training and left, angry and disgusted, with this declaration. I was and remain honestly confused by his reaction (he never discussed it with me), as my dogs are cherished members of my family. Yes, some people in the sport use dogs as tools toward self-promotion, but that occurs in other sports as well! Laev sleeps beside my bed and Shakespeare shares my couch; they're my dogs first of all.

Finally, Schutzhund and similar sports/breeding suitability tests are vital for our dog community. Really! Almost all police dogs, drug dogs, accelerant/bomb detection dogs and military dogs, as well as a very high percentage of search dogs, come from Schutzhund breeders and Schutzhund lines. Why? Because it still works as a breeding suitability test, and dogs from these lines are more likely to have the correct temperament and physical structure to do the work, saving thousands of dollars in "wash-outs" from untested lines.

Similarly, Schutzhund and similar training preserves the breeds; if a Doberman was designed as a protection dog, it had better be able to work as a protection dog, or it's not a Doberman, no matter what its papers say. Max von Stephanitz developed Schutzhund as a breeding suitability test for the German Shepherd Dog; if all GSDs were expected to be able to pass such a test now, we wouldn't see such widespread reactivity and fear-aggression in the breed, or such poor hips.

Finally, Schutzhund offers excellent training and physical/mental outlet for the dogs. The socialization afforded by a good Schutzhund club is superb, and the Schutzhund dog gets far more physical exercise, mental stimulation and sheer fun than most pets!

So that's why we do what we do -- it's fun, first of all, and it's a worthy venue, second. And of course we do other sports as well; Laev has a couple of entry level titles so far elsewhere. And at those other venues, she is mannerly, safe, and a good breed ambassador. :-)

Are corrections necessary?

What an awesome blog you have- I'm addicted! I recently fell in love with Schutzhund and hope to compete in it when I finally get my dobe. I was wondering if you use any "traditional" methods when you train your dogs- particularly in bite work. Do you think that Schutzhund dogs are able to be trained using positive reinforcement methods without the use of corrections? I've been talking to a lot of Schutzhund people and most everyone seems to think that bitework training cannot be done without the use of corrections. What are your thoughts on this?

Marti Wood's picture


And may i ask how many sch clubs you have visited jenny ?

Marti Wood's picture


Just a quick question Jenny do you beleive your st Bernard was protecting you or himself ? on the face of it, sounds like it was a defense behaviour dogs wont think about protecting their handlers in that state he stayed with you for support. As for GSD's being the breed commiting the most dog bites; i know it would be impossible to look at each situation individualy but chances are most of them bites came from nervous dogs a nervous dog will get no where in schutzhund therefore in theory shouldt be bred from to not produce pups of the same type. You stated somewhere the schutzhund will have an effect on bite inhibition, do you let your dogs play with a football or anything similar ? in sch the sleeve is the main attraction for the dog just a big tennis ball.

A very interesting discussion

It seems to me that you, Laura, has to face some of the same irrational arguments that we hear, because our dogs are used for hunts (along with hunting trials, field trials and conformation). When I was pregnant some people would ask me "what are you going to do with the dogs now?" "ermh..what? Nothing new *confused look*" "*aghast* But they are HUNTING dogs, how can you dare have them in the house when you are going to have kids?" ... Just how do one respond to that?
As you have met the argument about "you are teaching your dog to bite" So we hear the argument: "you are teaching your dogs to KILL" Erhmm...no, we are teaching them to ignore very distraction things in the enviroment to focus on cooperating with us to go out to find and carry back a bird (or other game) Just as Laev don't run around biting people in snowsuits (Gods, I loved that comment) neither does a hunting dog run around molesting everyting and everybody.

Hhm m nice to get that of the old chest. Thanks for listening
Christina and a bunch of not-killing-machine-chessies.

trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

oh, so familiar!

Your post made me grin -- yes, that's exactly the kind of conversation I've had and overheard!

I have a photo somewhere taken just after my release from the hospital, where I was taken to have my face closed after a bite. It's a ghastly picture; the scar has faded well with care but is still visible. (Anybody need a heartily-recommended plastic surgeon?) The dog had no previous training of any kind and had not been socialized well. He was a cute, fuzzy mutt, the kind that will never be affected by BSL. He went directly up and for my face and throat, striking both. A few who attended the very first ClickerExpo might remember how I needed 1.5 hours or so to work my way through lunch because jaw movement was still difficult.

What I'm saying is, I have a rather low tolerance of biting dogs. I will *not* allow one of my dogs to endanger someone; that's why I made the hugely difficult decision to euthanize a rescue I'd taken on as a project, who graduated to being able to make correct decisions except when suddenly startled -- and I could not risk being the cause of someone else's pain when real life triumphed over management. I make darned sure that my dogs aren't a danger and that I don't inadvertently enable others to be.

I'm glad you gave up neither the dogs nor the kids :-) but found a way to be a family together! Amazing what proper training can do, huh? ;-)

Laura &

  • Ascomannis Laevatein YTT RL1 CD-H (www.clickertraining.com/blog/179)
  • Inky (couch dog!)
trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

Quick answers:

I'm about to go out the door for a lesson, but here's an off-the-cuff response....

>> I see you use the TDI initials in your signature, so you must have a lot of training going on! <<

Yep! Shakespeare absolutely knows the difference between Schutzhund protection work and therapy work; his whole demeanor is different. (His therapy work is infrequent but is commonly mentally and physically handicapped children.) There are a lot of cues (environmental, too!) in his repertoire.

He has, however, stepped forward in real life to protect me. Again, he's well-socialized and he recognizes appropriate cues.

>> Are schuzhund dogs still bite inhibited? <<

Like any other dog, it depends on whether the owner/handler trained for bite inhibition. :-) I play finger/mouth games with Shakespeare all the time. I don't as much with Laev, but for her comfort, not mine; she has missed the toy and gotten my hand exactly once in her life, and she released before I could even say "ouch."

>> I wonder if there are statistics regarding unplanned dog bites in schuzhund breeds? <<

As of the last I saw reported, there is *NO* record of an inappropriate bite from a Schutzhund 3 (highest level) titled dog in this country. That's probably partly due to owner responsibility (Schutzhund 3 owners don't let their dogs run loose) as well as better training and control overall.

>> Could it be that some schuzhund dogs don't really understand that when they bite a person it hurts? Maybe they see it as a game, and they could be confused if they got loose and ran to play with kids on a playground? I think those sorts of questions are what most people worry and wonder about... <<

They certainly see it as a game! But again, look at the cues, both verbal and environmental. One exercise we've done at my club is sending a dog through a crowd of other humans to the helper. The dogs know clearly who is dressed for the fight, who is cuing them to come and fight, and who is willing to play -- or not.

As a very young dog, Laev broke a down and ran to the helper excitedly. He just stood still, and she bounced up on him and then sat before him, giving him a dirty look and a sharp bark which plainly said, "Hey, why aren't you ready for me?" I called her back, he put on the sleeve, and she was sent for a bite. No one worried about her, because she wasn't getting the complete cue to bite.

More later, if desired -- but I gotta run!

Laura &

  • Ascomannis Laevatein YTT RL1 CD-H (www.clickertraining.com/blog/179)
  • Inky (couch dog!)