Protection Obedience: a Closer Look - Part 1

It's club training day, phase B training is coming to an end. Time for the good stuff: Protection. Once the helpers, training directors and handlers set their mind on protection, obedience becomes a distant memory when it comes to training concerns. Obedience is over with the end of phase B. Or is it?

Again, I have to go by my observations on the training field. Once protection training begins, obedience is not given very much thought. Oh, don't misunderstand me, we all demand it. Hell, we need it to get our titles. The dog needs to be obedient during protection, we all know that. I'm talking about something a little different. I am talking about how much thought is put into the obedience portion of protection training. Pointing the finger not only at other trainers, but at myself as well, I have to say, "Not very much." For many years I took obedience during protection as a necessary evil: I had to do it, like it or not. In hindsight, I have to say that that was not only a bad attitude, it was a training error. I'd like to count myself as one of those trainers who learns from his mistakes. With that said, I'd like to discuss some of the realizations I have come to about protection obedience.

As always, a quick comment about what stage of training the dog should be at for this discussion to apply. I am definitely talking about dogs who have their foundation work very solid. Small obedience components should have been introduced to the dog during the foundation training. But even if foundation training did not include any obedience, the dog should bite reliably and have solid grips. This is usually the stage where trial exercises become part of the training. And this is when obedience during protection has to be given thought so it becomes part of protection training.

Another short point. I am excluding the hold and bark, out, and guarding exercises from this discussion. Even though they fall into the obedience category to an extent, they are very specific parts of the protection work and are better examined separately. The obedience I am referring to includes blind search, heeling exercises on the protection field, call out, disarm, transports, and stationary positioning.

An Eye Opener

In the past few years I had the great privilege to work with some very talented handlers and very good quality dogs. The dogs had very good foundation work, they were confident and drivey. Virtually no problems in the biting phases of protection work. The hold and bark, out, and guarding were coming along nicely. I watched these handlers during obedience with their dogs, they looked good working with their dogs. Not much to complain about. Then we added obedience work to protection. And this was where things just didn't go as expected. I'm not going to over dramatize things by saying everything fell apart - it didn't happen like that. I am talking about good handlers with good quality dogs here. But still, something wasn?t quite right. It was almost as if the handlers had brought out each others dogs, not their own. There was a communication component missing between handler and dog. Like every trainer, I reached into my bag of techniques, and suggested some courses of action. Things I had done in the past, things I had learned from someone else, things I had read, or seen on a video. And sure enough, we got some results. What bothered me initially was the fact that I couldn?t put my finger on what the actual problem was.

Every time I encountered such a situation I got the same nagging feeling. And to make that feeling worse, I felt a little stumped when it came to an explanation for the spectators and the handler. "We've always done it like that!" or "So-and-so has had great success doing this!" are not explanations. So I started to brood about this subject. I thought about my own dog and the fact that protection obedience with him was always a struggle. "He's just too stubborn." or "I don't really care about how good his obedience is during protection." were my cop-outs. The reality is, I didn't put enough thought into that aspect of protection training.

Let me explain why I say that: The dog I currently have, who is very near retirement, was throughout his Schutzhund career also my security patrol dog. During our active service, we had many apprehensions and confrontations. However, it seems that I never had big problems with obedience during service work, even though it was very much protection and apprehension work. Of course he never had to perform a Schutzhund. routine, but he followed directions, and he obeyed. And considering how difficult he made things for me on the Schutzhund field, I should have noticed this years ago. In retrospect, I have to accept the blame for his poor Schutzhund protection obedience. I was the one who made the difference.

Enough with the anecdotes, let me get to my conclusion. In Schutzhund work, I concentrated on the routine, I made him do what it said in the rules and if he screwed up he got corrected. After all, this is what the judge wants to see, so this is what we do. On the street, there was no trial routine, only proper and safe procedure. My focus was on everything, especially my dog. I wanted to make sure that (1) he was going to do what he was told, and (2) that he would do the job I needed him for. How did I do that? I communicated with my dog. On the Schutzhund field, I bellowed commands, I was marching around like a little General, I was performing a routine. "The dog knows what I want him to do." - famous last words. I never took that attitude at work and we worked well together as a team. And that is my conclusion, the dog needs to be included in the equation. Maybe he knows what we want him to do, maybe he doesn't. Or maybe he just doesn't care, because he wants to do something different. We have to shoot for success, and we do that by considering the dog more, and by communicating with him. And I am going to try and shed a little light on that subject.

The Problem

One area where not enough consideration is given to the dog is when it comes to the difference between phase B obedience and phase C obedience. "Heeling is heeling, whether it is in phase B or phase C, and the same goes for sit down, or stay." I'm sure we have all heard that before. But upon closer examination that statement really is not true. We all spend a great deal of time teaching our dogs phase B obedience, there are various techniques out there and everyone has a favorite: little pouches with food, the toy in the pocket, the toy under the chin, the occasional cookie, releasing the dog for a couple of second of play, etc.. We all know them, all have one common theme: a way to reward the dog for correct behavior (of course we also have the corrective collar for incorrect behavior). So, the handler tells his dog to down, the dog does it, the handler throws a ball for him. Great, the dog figures this out really fast. So when during phase C do we throw the ball for the dog for correct behavior? We don't! Why not? Because most dogs at this stage of training don?t give a hoot about whatever their favorite reward may be during phase B, once a helper is on the field with them. I think I have made my point: There is a difference between phase B obedience and phase C obedience. The dog should still obey commands, naturally, but we certainly don't make it as clear for him why, as we do in phase B. In phase C, the dog is very much in a different state of mind than at any other time of training. We have to make sure we reach his mind so he can learn. Many more motivations and drives are at work and the dog is in a much higher state of excitement during protection than during the other phases. Because of all the foundation work the dog has had up to this point, he has developed almost a preoccupation with biting and the helper. It is very difficult to make the dog notice other things. Consequently, it is much harder to communicate with the dog or to get him to learn things. Phase C obedience virtually has to be started from scratch.

Another, less common problem is that a dog is so focused in his obedience work, that any obedience command puts him into the obedience mindset completely. With those dogs one sees a total loss of interest in protection work. The dog's focus becomes the handler, he anticipates a reward from the handler, and the drive moods necessary to perform protection disappear. With these dogs phase C obedience also has to be started from scratch, and very slowly, to ensure that the dog remains focused on the protection tasks he has to perform.

A Philosophy

I guess the next point has to be how to approach phase C obedience. As I said above, it took a while to come up with good explanations for protection obedience. I like to sum it up for handlers by telling them they have to make it clear to their dog that they know the secret to success on the protection field. To keep it simple, success for the dog in protection is getting a bite. The dogs we are working with have spent almost all their time on the protection field biting. We worked on prey drive, and defense drive. We taught full and calm gripping and countering. The dog learned to get action from the helper by barking and learned letting go, so he can bite again a second later. Everything revolved around engaging the helper and biting. Now the dog has to learn that there is more to phase C than that. I have watched handlers with dogs who normally do very competent obedience end up physically wrestling with their dogs just to get them to sit during protection. Asking them to get the dog to lie down turned into a slapstick comedy, where quite often the handler ended up lying flat on the ground, with the dog still standing.

Continued in Part 2

Armin Winkler has been the instructor at many schutzhund training seminars. He has been training schutzhund dogs since 1976 and is a USA member who lives in British Columbia. His English translation of Dr. Helmut Raiser’s Der Schutzhund is available from Armin Winkler Publishing, 3503 Lakeshaw Road, RR#7, Duncan, BC Canada V9L-4W4 or by phone (250) 746-8989.

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