The dog needs to learn to accept guidance from the handler. The key word here is guidance. The way many dogs act the first time an obedience exercise is asked of them in protection, I would say it is not disobedience that is happening. Often the dog can’t even hear the command because they are so focused on the helper, or they are confused because what is asked of them seems to make no sense. So we have to help the dog do what he is told to do. I like to use hand and body gestures to get the dog to follow the command. But I use those only to guide. I am not into playing games. Pulling down on the collar, while the behind stays in the air, then as the behind is pushed down the front comes up again is not my idea of guidance. Compulsion is not an evil thing, it may be necessary here that the dog is forced into the position he is supposed to take. The quicker, the better. One thing that has to be avoided though, and that is getting angry or being punitive. Making a dog do something he doesn’t seem to understand, even forcefully, has nothing to do with punishment or correction. We have to remember, all the dog’s focus may be on the helper. So getting angry at him, or punishing him, or correcting him is easily misinterpreted, and the dog should never be corrected for his desire to get at the helper.
I take the approach that the dog does not know what we want from him. So, the handler helps the dog physically as much as necessary and with as much force as necessary to get compliance. Once the dog is compliant, he gets a second or two to experience the situation, then he gets his reward. I prefer to always strip the sleeve for the dog as soon as he bites.
I know, thousands of dogs have been trained with heavy corrections working just fine. But let’s not forget the thousands that have been ruined by the same methods. I am not against corrections, but I feel that a correction has to be warranted. And the only things that warrant a correction are defiance and disobedience. But, I have to be sure that that is what I am dealing with. The days of jerking a dog around by his neck until he figures out how to heel are in the past. So consider the same for protection obedience: teaching comes first, corrections come much later.
As the dog starts to perform simple obedience commands during protection work (I personally prefer to start with stationary commands like sit or down) on voice command. But we have to get more of a performance from the dog. So I like to mix things up a bit to keep the dog guessing. This is now the time where the secret to success concept is shown to the dog. Sometimes the dog is told to sit and he gets to bite. Another time he is told to down, then he gets to bite. Then he is told to down, he figures he gets to bite. But not this time, first he has to sit up from the down, then he gets to bite. The dog is kept guessing. The concept the dog has to learn is this: The only person who seems to always know when a bite will happen is the handler. And the closer the dog listens to the handler, the better his chances for success are. All exercises should be approached this way. The dog has to perform according to the handlers directions. The handler should not be all over the place, asking for 15 things at once, that will lead to confusion and sloppiness. But clear directions should be given, and the dog should be given a chance to follow the directions, then a reward should happen. Often I see dogs working complex routines, while still in the learning phases. Exercise linked to exercise, without any reward or interruption. This is not a recipe for success. Dogs learn by making connections. They connect things they do with positive or negative reinforcement. I cannot expect a dog to link a reward with an exercise he did in sequence 5 or more exercises ago. So break things down into small steps until the dog demonstrates he is clear on one task, then teach another task. They can always be added together later on.
I would like to address one close contact exercise which is very useful but also difficult for many dogs. This exercise requires that the dog is already able to perform a hold and bark. While the dog is doing a hold and bark, the handler steps beside the dog. He praises him for his work. The dog is rewarded. It is important that this is repeated often enough so the dog is unbothered by the handlers approach. Also, the dog should not learn that he can bite as the handler steps up, so sometimes step up and step away again, and vary the time between stepping up and when the dog gets the bite. This is a common exercise, so no need to go into more detail. Next, the handler steps up to the barking dog, making sure the dog continues barking. Now he gives the dog the sit command (even if the dog is sitting during the hold and bark), with the sit command the dog should stop barking. In the beginning, an additional command like “quiet” can be given. As explained before, we help the dog as much as necessary. Sometimes a touch on the head is enough, sometimes a slight collar correction, sometimes a little slap on the head. What is important is that the dog stops barking. He has to be calm and quiet for a few seconds. Then he gets a bite. The time the dog has to be quiet is slowly extended, and the amount of help is reduced. It is important that the dog sometimes gets a bite during the hold and bark without having to be quiet first so he does not anticipate what happens. As the stepping up and subsequent sit with quiet gets better, the handler gives the quiet dog the hold and bark command again. The dog should now go back to doing a hold and bark, once he settles, he gets a bite.
This exercise is by no means my invention, it has been around a long time. What makes it difficult is not only the close proximity to the helper, which gives the dog the chance to make a mistake (any undesirable action the dog takes during the hold and bark is considered a mistake), but also the fact that the dog has to be working almost fully and actively in his drives while doing a hold and bark, and then he has to stop being active. I like using this exercise for teaching the secret to success concept in a more advanced form. It also helps for disarms and pick up exercises in a Schutzhund routine.
The last point I want to discuss is capping. Unfortunately, this word is thrown around way too much in the world of Schutzhund. Capping is a good concept, but it is much easier said than done. I watched a seminar in which the instructor told the handler “OK, cap him now!” The handler yelled some command and hammered on his dog. The instructor said, “Good.” Was this capping? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
What is capping? Capping refers to capping drive. Like putting a cap on a bottle. If you want to visualize, put the cap on a bottle of Coke and shake it. Open it and the Coke will come shooting out of the bottle because of the built up pressure. So the concept is that the drive is bottled up and it will come out more forcefully when released once again. Obedience during protection has long been used as a form of capping. The problem is once again that the dog is not considered enough. One dog’s capping may be another dog’s shut down. Capping takes place in the dog if the dog stays in the drives he was in when the obedience command was given. Because the obedience does not really allow the dog active expression of any drives, but the stimulus for all the drives (namely the helper) is still there, the drives naturally build up. This should take place if the dog clearly understands the concept of obedience during protection. Unfortunately, a bit of a misconception has developed that capping has to do with harsh obedience. Like slamming a lid on something that is bubbling over. But the harshness that has become commonplace has the least to do with capping. The dog has to learn that he has to contain himself, bottle himself up if you want to look at it like that. This article has dealt with a correct way of teaching that to a dog. Telling the dog, “Listen to your handler, and if you have to hold still, then keep all that drive inside and let it out when the time comes.” That is capping. Kicking the dog into the down position does not cap a dog (of course, there are exceptions to every rule), in most cases that will actually reduce drive.
A lot of conflict is created in the name of capping. And all that really happens is that the dog is not comfortable with the handler. Some dogs may need some compulsion to learn to contain themselves, others may only need a quiet voice, “Easy Buddy, wait for the right moment.” Corrections and punitive influence are usually not the way.
As a trial helper I would say that two of the most difficult bites a dog has to take in the sport of Schutzhund are the attack on handler in SchH 1 and the surprise attack from the rear transport in SchH 2 and 3. During both of these bites, the dog has to perform a difficult obedience exercise before he has to fend off a frontal attack by the helper. I think most helpers would agree that many grip problems and entry hesitations show up in these exercises, more even than in the courage test. The reason for that is the obedience component involved in the exercise. Making sure that the dog learns protection obedience as a way to work with the handler as a team is a recipe for success. Jerking the dog to within inches of losing every last ounce of self confidence is a recipe for disaster. A handler should learn to direct and guide his dog during a protection routine, not show the dog how weak he is against his own handler. Much more is demanded from the dog during protection than from the handler. So the dog should always be given the most consideration in training even when it comes to obedience. My philosophy applies here as it does in every other aspect of protection training: Make sure the dog has the tools to do his job.