Why Schutzhund?

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. 🙂

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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  1. Enjoyed this piece on the subject. I have a GSD bitch and my son is keen on taking her agility / obedience prowess to the next level and introduce the Shutzhund method. However, I am a little unsure about what her capability to be trained 'up' to that level is and when enquiring about places at our local club was asked about her 'breeding'. Not sure where that line of enquiry was going, considering the 'its all fun' ethos you have just endorsed. Does it matter who her mum and dad was? She looks, walks, 'talks' and runs like a GSD…so where do you think that question fits in the grand scheme of things, on a first contact such as this? Interested in your view. Paul

  2. Thanks for asking!

    Yes, breeding matters — but how much it matters depends on your goals.

    The Schutzhund dog must want to fight the helper, and if we want to train in fun rather than in fear, that motivation has to come from within. Yes, it's game, but it's a game they take seriously! A dog bred for this kind of work has that, while another dog might not.

    (It's very similar to my husband having the motivation to fight for a football and quarterbacking his way through school, while I would find this a silly endeavor and would need extreme outside stimulation to motivate me!)

    In fact, that's why Shakespeare was retired from the sport; he enjoyed the game somewhat, but not enough for higher levels, and I didn't want to pressure him into something he didn't live for. He wasn't bred for this kind of work; Laev was, and conversely, she longs for it.

    Now, if your goal is just to learn about the sport, it might not matter so much. Your training experience will be different, harder in some areas and easier in others, and you may never progress beyond a certain level or to competition. I don't have a problem with that! but some clubs do, so make sure you're honest about your dog and your goals.

    If your goal is to compete, and especially to compete well, then it's not really fair to ask that of a dog who wasn't specialized for this specialized kind of work, just as it would be unfair (and disastrous!) to ask me to perform chartered accounting as a career. These dogs will excel elsewhere, so let them do that.

    Hope that helps! Good luck!

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