Two Sides to Everything - Part 1

A good foundation is where everything starts. I've covered foundation topics over the past few months and looking back, I think I missed something. The reason for that is probably because what I will discuss in this article may not become an issue until later in a dog's career. But I think it should be addressed as part of the dog's foundation training. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the "other side," of course.

Regardless of whether we are right- or left-handed, we all perform certain tasks a certain way. We get used to doing it like that and feel quite awkward when things are not the way we expect them. For example, all our cars are left hand drive. We are used to sitting on the left side of a car while driving and never give it a second thought. Has anybody ever driven in a right hand drive car? It feels weird to say the least. That's one example of course, there are a million things we do every day that we are used doing from one side.

Dogs get used to doing things a certain way just like we do. They develop techniques and habits during training. Sometimes the habits that develop in training are very one sided. Let me run through some areas where I have noticed this and offer some suggestions to ensure it won't lead to problems down the road.

The Frontal Strike

All frontal strikes in a Schutzhund trial are essentially the same as far as technique is concerned -the attack on handler exercise in SchH 1, the surprise attack from the rear transport in SchH 2 and 3, and the courage test in all levels. There are two ways a dog can be caught when performing a frontal strike: to the sleeve side, or to the stick side. I'm staying away from right or left here, because it doesn't matter on which side the helper wears the sleeve.

As helpers we all have a preferred side. Well, guess what, so do the dogs. I really noticed this a few years ago, when catching some faster dogs who had their preferred side opposite to mine. Not a pretty sight. I ended up bending and contorting to avoid jamming the dog. The first thought I had was, "I screwed that up." We tried it again and experimented around a bit, and it turned out that I was not the only one screwing it up. The dog did too. Now you may say, "so catch the dog to the other side then." That certainly is a solution for the moment. But the problem goes deeper. The problem is that dogs do learn a preferred technique. They learn to come to one side and only one side when they strike. Some dogs have this so ingrained in them that they simply cannot be caught to the other side. In a trial the timing between helper and dog is a matter of a second or two; in this time, we have to make sure we are set up to catch the dog safely without hurting him and we have to decide which side to catch him to and do all this without falling flat on our butts in the process. Most high-level competition dogs have this bug worked out, and most high-level competition helpers have learned to compensate for the few who don't. But nobody starts at high-level competition. There is a road that has to be traveled to get there. And the road benefits the helper as well as the dog.

We teach the dog how to perform a frontal strike. So it only stands to reason, that we should make sure that we teach it in a complete way with no problems to come up later. As helpers we naturally have to hone our own mechanics in a way that we are physically capable of catching dogs to both sides. The decision as to which side has to be made ahead of time, so we avoid just ?winging it?. Set the strikes up short and use dogs that allow a catch to both sides. And practice. Something I like to do with helpers who are just learning is to have them catch dogs with just a puppy tug. The thing the helper has to learn is to absorb to both sides and set the dog on the ground. This can easily be done with the tug. It is a lot of fun for the dog, and he doesn?t get jammed while the helper is practicing. The footwork rule is the same for tug and sleeve. When catching to the left, the right foot has to be set forward. When catching to the right, the left foot has to be planted forward. This allows a smooth pivot at the hip to absorb and direct the dog?s weight. Once the mechanics are good, we can start to use them for young dogs who are just learning. Again, I would suggest using a tug in the beginning and to alternate sides with each catch. Naturally, this has to be practiced with a sleeve as well. If the dogs learn it like that, they will commit more to the center of the helper?s body, and they will allow the helper to catch them to either side. So if the dog encounters a helper who is very determined to catch to only one side, it won?t cause problems or lead to injury for your dog.

The Sleeve Arm

Another area where the training may be a bit ?one sided? is the side the sleeve is worn on to begin with. Most right handed helpers wear the sleeve on the left arm. But there are helpers who do wear the sleeve on the right. This is a bigger deal for the dog than people may think. The whole trial routine looks different for the dog. Some exercises where the dog will show some reaction to the sleeve being on the ?wrong? side and which are relatively simple to incorporate into training are the hold and bark, the re-attack from the guard, and again the frontal strike. Also being driven on the right side after any of the initial bites is a very new picture for the dog.

Continued on 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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