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Canine Trauma




The Rottweiler in Schutzhund: Prey and Defense

Copyright 1996 by David Deleissegues

The phase in Schutzhund generally of most interest to people is the protection phase or the "bite work," but this is also the phase in which the separation occurs - the separation between those dogs that can make it as a Schutzhund-titled dog and those that cannot. Almost all Rottweilers are capable of doing the tracking and obedience, but many are eliminated in the protection work because they cannot handle the stress of the work.

Generally, there is not a single reason why a dog cannot handle the work. Genetics, environment, physical structure and early training all play a part in determining a dog's ability to do the work. But genetics is the single most important aspect in having a dog who can compete in the sport of Schutzhund. This is why you rarely, if ever, see a good Schutzhund dog that is of pure "show lines." These dogs are usually too soft in temperament and don't have the mental makeup to handle the work because this trait has been slowly bred out of them. The same holds true in every breed of dog; dogs that do the work inherent to their breed come from parents and grandparents that were also used in that work, and not from show lines of dogs that do little more than stand around begging for food.

On occasion, a good working dog can be produced from these show lines; but this dog is usually a fluke and rarely passes on its own working ability. This may be a disturbing fact to many, but the evidence is present and can be seen every day at Schutzhund clubs throughout the country. The best working Rottweilers come from Europe, most specifically from Germany. This is because of the breeding restrictions imposed by the ADRK that a dog must do the bite work along with having correct structure before it can be bred, just as the USRC now requires for registration. Don't let anyone fool you and tell you that, " A Rottweiler is a Rottweiler" and that it can certainly do Schutzhund just because of that simple fact. This is very far from the truth. If your dog is very far removed from any type of working Schutzhund ancestors, a generalization that is 99% correct is that it's doubtful that your dog can do the protection work. Working dogs are "bred" and rarely "made."

The protection work is based on the dog's two drives: Prey and defense. Prey is the drive in the dog to chase and catch his food in the wild in order to satisfy his hunger and is at its highest level when the dog is hungry. Now that dogs are domesticated their prey drive is no longer based on hunger but on the dog's natural instinct to chase and catch (i.e., a ball, squirrel, frisbee, sleeve, etc.). I want my Schutzhund dog to be very high in prey drive because these easily excitable dogs are more that willing to respond to the agitator and can be advanced quickly because the dog has great enthusiasm for the prey. Some dogs can do very well in competition working solely in the prey drive if their fighting drive to keep the prey is very high. In fact, these high-prey dogs usually get the best protection scores because they are easier to control in the obedience phases of the protection work and because the biting is not seen as a threat to this type of dog. The pure prey dog gets his enjoyment from biting and fighting for the sleeve.

The downside of a strictly prey dog is that because the work is seen as a game, the dog can be turned off from biting if they have a bad experience such as something painful happening to them (i.e., helper steps on their toes, the stick is acidentally placed across the dog's ribs instead of the loin, an awkward catch by the helper, etc.) At these times of pain, the pure prey dog can quit on you (and this can be painful to the handler if this happens during a trial!) because the "game" is no longer fun. It may take many training sessions to build the dog back up to the level he was working at previously -- if you are able to do this at all. This is why I prefer a dog who possesses a high prey drive and yet who is confident in defense also. These types of dogs can be worked anywhere and remain confident because the dog always takes the bite work seriously and yet enjoys it also. That way, if something goes wrong in a trial or in training, the dog can overcome this problem (pain) with his defense drive: the dog is made angry and fights back even harder.

Defense drive is completely different from prey. Defense is the protective instinct in the dog to defend, first himself and then his pups, pack, owner, etc. This is the dog's serious side; when he is not having fun chasing but is defending/protecting. The dog is made to feel insecure or threatened and so he comes out to bite in a serious manner.

As you can see, there is a big difference between prey and defense drive; and this is why it's ideal if your dog possesses both of these drives if he is to be a good Schutzhund protection dog. You don't want too much defense, however, as these dogs tend to be too "nervy" and unstable to be a good Schutzhund prospect. Defense drive can be taxing on the dog as his nerves come into play much more than in prey. Dogs that initially appear tough in defense (i.e., they bark and snarl quickly with only slight agitation) are often extremely nervous and scared and cannot handle the training and pressure that is imposed upon them. These dogs are generally spooky and lack confidence either as a result of genetics, the environment they were raised in, or a combination of the two. This type of over-nervous dog does not tend to do well in Schutzhund and can pose a threat to the community at large because of the nervous aggression which shows up in the dog at the slightest provocation. Don't, however, confuse an over-nervous, flighty dog with the dog that may be high in defense, but nevertheless is confident in that defense. This dog knows when it is appropriate to turn on his defense and generally is a very stable dog who is ideal for the protection work.

It takes an experienced, knowledgeable decoy (or helper) to know when to bring out defense and when to use prey and how much to use of each. Protection is the one phase in which you must have someone to help you. The helper must be an athletic person with knowledge and experience in reading a dog's temperament. Success in the protection work is greatly dependent on the knowledge and ability of the helper because the helper trains the dog. He must read the dog and then act accordingly to teach the dog how to bite full and hard on the sleeve, safely and with confidence. It takes a lot of practice and a natural feel for the work to be top-flight helper. The helper must be quick, athletic, and possess strength and endurance to work a dog properly, he must also be an actor who can be or do whatever he needs to in order to stimulate the dog and bring the dog's prey and defense drives to high levels. Many times only small, subtle changes by the helper, at the correct time, is all that is needed to make or break a dog in the training. But it's not the helper's place to try to back a dog down or run him off. Quite the opposite is true; it is the helper's job to try and advance the dog at all times and to have the dog's well-being and progression in mind at all times.

If you don't have an experienced helper, then the helper you do have should concentrate on working the dog's prey drive only, as this can be done safely. Trying to work defense, without understanding how, can create lifelong problems for a dog. For example, if a helper mistakenly overloads a dog's defensive drive, it can create avoidance and insecurity in the dog which, in turn causes the dog to not respond confidently to the helper and may ruin the dog for the work.

It is vital that the helper look at each dog individually as no two dogs are the same in temperament and each dog must be trained according to the ability and/or limitations that that particular dog possesses. This is why I believe helpers should have some kind of apprenticeships in order to be competent enough to work dogs in protection, for their sake, and the sake of dogs they are working. Ideally , a new helper should work with an experienced helper initially; and it's also best if the novice helper works seasoned dogs first, to gain from their experience and because the seasoned dog should be able to handle any errors the novice handler will make. It is unwise for a novice helper to work young or inexperienced dogs when he starts out, as any error in a young dog's early traiing can have a bad impression, and a bad impressin is a lastig impression. This also may cause friction between the helper and the handler, and obviously this is not desirable.

This brings me to the point that decoy/helper work can be a thankless job as it entails many hours of hard physical and mental work and because people tend to blame the helper for any problems that occur in the training. Helpers get the glory and the blame. The helper must work hard, usually for no money and oftentimes little appreciation. I would suggest to any Schutzhund club - or individual who has a good helper - to treat that helper well or he may move on to another group that will appreciate him. In our Schutzhund club, the helpers do not pay dues, nor do they pay for seminars or meals at club functions. The club also pays for the helper's scratch pants and cleats and basically tries to keep their helpers happy. Remember, the key to successful protection work is a good dependable helper and he/she should be worth their weight in gold to the club. A top helper can make a Schutzhund club successful.

Being a helper myself, I am pro-helper, but I'm sure you can see my point. Take care of your helpers for they risk serious injury every time they do protection work. Develop new helpers also, but realize that a well-intentioned non-athlete is not going to help much. It's demanding both physically and mentally with the mental aspect being the toughest. The helper must read the dog and find out the dog's temperament. He then must discuss what he sees with the handler and formulate a training plan for each dog. This is very difficult to do for a number of dogs and is stressful to the helper because a "good" helper is doing his or her best to help and improve your dog.

So now we get to the meat and potatoes: Starting your dog in agitation. Assuming you have access to a helper and that he's a good one, go to your helper and tell him about your dog. Listen to the helper and answer his questions honestly about your dog. Remember, the helper must get an accurate picture of your dog in order to know how to work him. The helper should then have you tie your dog to a pole (a fixed stake in the ground with a heavy nylon or leather leash at least 6 feet long) or have you, the handler, act as a pole. The dog should have on a strong leather or nylon collar, fur saver and harness. The helper should now get out of sight from the dog (i.e., behind a blind, wall, etc.) The handler should then walk his dog to the end of the line so that he won't lunge out and get snapped over backwards and hurt himself or worse, suppress the temperament the helper is working to bring out.

Now the helper should step out of the blind or wherever he's hiding) with a sack, leather strip or sleeve in one hand and a whip or stick in the other hand, and stare at the dog while using suspicious body language, but without moving. (I personally like to be about 25 feet from the dog, although it can be much further or closer than that.) At this point, the dog should then transmit signals to the helper which the helper must be able to read and respond to accordingly. A dog with good nerves and a low suspicion level will generally just stare back or act indifferently toward the helper. The helper, after seeing this type of response to his behavior, will then react by slowly walking toward the dog in a slightly bent forward position, possibly cracking the whip or hitting the stick along the pant leg, which simulates a threat to the dog. He continues to slowly advance until he gets a reaction from the dog. This reaction may be only slight (such as the ears cocked at full attention, intense staring) or the reaction maybe a very strong one such as growling or barking). It's the helper's job to make sure he responds immediately to the dog's reaction, however slight, by running away and hiding so that the dog feels that he has caused the man to run. We are testing the dog's defense drive here. When the dog reacts, the helper should quickly avert his eyes and swing the sack or sleeve as he makes his retreat as this stimulates the dog's prey drive and releases the stress the defense caused initially.

Unlike the calm, typically prey-oriented dog, the sharp dog will generally react to the helper very quickly after he steps out of the blind. He may immediately bark or growl at the helper, as the sharp dog goes into defense drive much faster than a more calm dog. When the helper gets this strong response, he then must immediately react to the sharp, defensive dog with the prey attraction as these sharp dogs can overload easily. Sharp dogs should be worked in prey almost exclusively early on to get them less frantic and calmer in biting the sack or arm. Care must be taken not to overstress the sharp dog and to keep the calm dog excited so that their drive to bite the sleeve is enhanced. Ideally, you want a dog who responds to the defense threat confidently and yet reacts to the prey drive in an enthusiastic and high-drive manner. This is very technical yet vital in the early training as it is of utmost importance the dog is made to feel he is winning at all times and that he is controlling the helper. Again, a show of defense by the dog, however slight, must be reinforced by the prey attraction through the helper. And then, you will generally see the dog react more quickly and more confidently on the next approach by the helper.

Okay -- so now the helper has received a reaction from taxing the dog's defense; he should then know in his mind what must come next. The dog should be approached, but not straight on and not in a threatening manner. Instead, the helper should move side to side at the dog, while at the same time cutting the distance between the dog and the prey object in his hand. As the helper gets in close - a few feet from the dog - he should swing the prey object within reach of the dog and give the dog the opportunity to bite the object. If the dog lunges out and bites the sack or sleeve, the helper must then judge the nerves of the dog. A very sharp dog should immediately be allowed to have the prey and to hold or carry the prey to release the dog. A more calm dog can be met with some resistance and calm tugging by the helper before releasing the prey a moment or two later, to enhance the fighting drive.

At this point in a young dog's training, the helper should stop the work after only one or two bites to leave the dog at his peak intensity. On the last bite, he should allow the dog to carry the prey off the field with him. It's vital that you do not overwork the young dog. The dog should leave the field full of intensity and actually a little unfulfilled. He should be left wanting more so that the next time you work him, he will be full of drive and into the work even more. Less can be better than more in protection work.

I also believe that the young Rottweiler should not be hit with the stick for many sessions. The stick should, however, be present in the training and the helper may wave the stick around or above the dog, in a non-threatening manner, so as to acclimate the dog to it and to help it overcome its natural avoidance of being hit.

If your young dog shows little or no interest in the prey and cannot be stimulated in his defense, then stop training and put the dog away for awhile. A dog should not be forced to work before the maturity is there. Remember, the time to start each dog is differrent because they are all individuals and do not mature on the same time schedule. Some Rottweilers are ready to start at 10-12 months of age, others are not ready until 15-18 months. Some may never be ready. Another thing you can do for a dog that seems lacking in drive is to tie them out and let them watch while other dogs are being agitated. This often will stimulate the dog and build drive. However, it is important to let the dog watch only a short while so as to build drive and not overly tire the dog.

If your dog is working well with lots of intensity, then you should be able to work him one to three times per week with no problems. If the dog gets bored easily and loses drive, don't work him as often so that his drive builds in the times of non-work and he will be more ready to work at the proper time. Discuss this with your helper. He should be able to give you insight into how often your dog should be worked.

Some very good dogs will bite the hard competition sleeve the first time out. Other dogs may need months of sack work before they can be advanced to the arm, and some will make no progess and will be unable to go on. As stated before, the helper and the handler must work closely together and watch the dog in the training so as to correctly advance the dog. At times, you may even need to put your dog away for a few months in order to allow maturing and to build drive.

It's very important to create the proper foundation in the young or inexperienced dog. Shortcuts and bad experiences are hard to correct in our breed as Rottweilers tend to have memories like elephants. A note to keep in mind: "Patience is a virtue" -- and it has its rewards when working a Rottweiler.




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