Schutzhund is not the same as protection training; it is an active sport with a dog that tests three specific areas of a dog's training and behavior in tracking, obedience, and protection. It is also not only for German shepherds, though it did originate for those lines as a test of suitability for work. Schutzhund is trainable for any dog with the proper attitude for it; however, if the owner of a dog wants to go a do-it-yourself route for training in the sport, they must become a knowledgeable trainer beforehand. In order to do so, learning about the sport and about how to properly train a dog for it are necessary.
Training to be a Trainer
Schutzhund trainers require a basic understanding of effective obedience training with positive reinforcement. The would-be handler must not be a novice at training a dog. Schutzhund needs trainers who are advanced in their methods and who understand dog behavior, agility skills and advanced obedience. Most professional trainers suggest a novice become a member of a Schutzhund club or group in their area to learn more about it before attempting it themselves with their dogs. All of this preparation is because foundation work must be laid in training a dog to watch and listen to its handler and get used to following commands, which obedience training teaches. A dog cannot "track" without having the ability to recognize the handler's command and link it to an action to follow. Obedience training for the handler to effectively control his dog and for the dog to understand his role must happen before entering Schutzhund.
When learning how to train for the sport, a handler must also know what the sport entails. The tracking phase includes a temperament test, and then a tracking test to demonstrate the dog's ability to scent and indicate objects, often by lying next to it, along with being mentally and physically durable. The obedience phase includes a gunshot test for noise sensitivity, heeling exercises within a group of people, field exercises, retrieving (including over obstacles), and spot-on obedience no matter what the dog has been asked to do. The third phase is that of protection. In this phase, the handler must have complete control of his dog. A live human decoy is used to prove guarding, pursuit, protection and willingness to continue his ordered attack even when retaliated against if the handler commands it, until the handler commands the dog to back off. A judge is present for each of these phases for scoring purposes.
Many trainers begin working with Schutzhund-oriented puppies as early as eight weeks old. A good Schutzhund candidate will be the puppy who has a strong physical conformation without hip or elbow problems and who will be from working rather than show lines. Any dog can enter Schutzhund provided they have these qualities from a young age: Independence, courage, stalking instincts, curiosity, intelligence, dominance with its littermates and calm nerves. The mother of the brood should also be rated, as she's a major influence for their formative weeks; if she is nervous or otherwise ill-tempered, her pups may develop the same temperament. When in doubt, check the pedigree.
Even after learning the basics of training and choosing the proper dog for Schutzhund work, a trainer should not stop learning more about how to train. Techniques may be tried-and-true, but new methods appear whenever scientific advances occur in how animals, especially dogs, seem to learn. Schutzhund is not about how tough or vicious a dog can be, but instead how far an intelligent companion will go to please its handler. Once out of the sport ring, the dog will be home with his family and will be treated as a family pet instead of a working animal in many cases. Knowing how to choose the right temperament and train the proper behaviors into such a dog is not something that happens overnight.
By Dondi Ratliff
About the Author
Dondi Ratliff is a certified secondary English teacher in Texas. Her articles typically cover topics regarding animals both wild and domesticated. Ratliff holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Tarleton State University, a Master of Arts in teaching from Texas Woman's University, and a Master of Arts in English from Tarleton State University.