Training Director of the South County Schutzhund Club, David Deleissegues has competed at the International Meisterschaft in Switzerland and recently won the USA North American Schutzhund Championship with his dog, Hark Vom Hause Anin.
Do you feel extremely nervous, slightly sick, tremendously apprehensive, or maybe even ready to run and hide? If you suffer from these symptoms, you are either facing a firing squad or you may be entering your first Schutzhund trial. I know from personal experience that even having 50-plus trials under my belt hasn't helped these symptoms disappear. Even the most seasoned and successful trainer will suffer from some form of anxiety. If you are new to the sport and are about to enter your very first Schutzhund trial, take heart, because even the cool, calm looking old pro next to you will be somewhat nervous. They have just learned to mask it better.
The side effects of this "pretrialitis" are many and can start to wear and tear on the handler and the dog in the weeks prior to a trial. The nervousness intensifies leading up to the last few seconds before reporting to the judge, and then you must report to the judge and pass not just one phase, but three phases. Talk about pressure! (At least the firing squad would be over quickly and put us out of our misery.)
It is during this "pretrialitis" period that many of our worst training errors occur. A majority of these errors are caused by the handlers insecurities. Many novice, and even experienced handlers, fall prey to the temptation of making these errors. We sometimes lose our cool and put unfair pressure on our dogs, or simply over-train the last few weeks before a trial.
This over-training and extra pressure is most evident in the tracking and obedience phases. The over-trained dog usually gives a listless, flat and tired looking performance, while the over-stressed or force trained dog gives a slinking, cautious, and unhappy routine. These dogs are more concerned with where the handler is, or what they are doing, more than the job at hand. This type of performance makes a bad picture and will cost not only points but also a reprimand from the judge and our peers.
Handlers, from an advanced international competitor to the novice Schutzhund first timer, will all react differently to the pressure depending on their nerves and temperament. I've seen experienced top notch handlers make stress related errors during this critical pre-trial period. Wise trainers know the last week to 10 days before the trial is not the time to teach something new, nor is it the time for heavy force. Instead it is time for correct, and motivational, work to bring the dog to his peak -- physically and mentally. If your dog needs more teaching or enforcement, don't rush; pass on the upcoming trial and enter when you are both capable and ready.
Another common error that novice and experienced handlers alike make is they lose sight of their dog's capabilities as they perceived them to be. No dog can be perfect, nor can they withstand overtraining and pressure. I've often thought that if we subjected the handlers to some of the unreasonable pressures applied to our dogs, we would become much more fair in our training methods. Poor training and incorrect pressure consistently ruin good dogs.
I believe the toughest part of Schutzhund training is knowing how to "peak" a dog for trial day. We don't want our dogs to peak in their training three weeks before the trial.
Novice Schutzhund handlers will sometimes not train over a long enough period of time, or they become lazy. Before they know it, the trial is almost upon them and their dog is not ready. Rushed methods and "stop-gap" measures are applied close to trial day. This can often set the dog back months in their training, just for an attempt at a title that was not properly prepared for.
The novice trainer with natural ability and performance drive will many times work their first dog too long and hard right up to the trial. Their logic is more training will make the dog better and better. It's usually not true. Dogs need time off and rest as well as drive motivation and a strong dog-handler bond. It's important to keep the work varied and stimulating to the dog.
I must admit that I have made more than one of the aforementioned errors in my years in Schutzhund. I am not ashamed of making errors and mistakes the first time. I won't accept making the same mistake or poor judgment a second time, as I see this as lazy, poorly thought out training.
Here are a few tips that I believe will help your training program:
1) Have a training plan for whatever phase you plan to train that day. Take a couple of minutes to think about what you need to train on that particular day. Random, poorly thought out training is useless. If you're not mentally into training on a certain day, you're better off to forget it that day.
2) Don't let your trial nerves create over stress on yourself, as you will relay this uncertainty to your dog. You must be able to get pumped up and yet remain calm and confident. Get focused on the task at hand. Get in the mental zone which will shut off outside stimuli which is distracting to your focus and attitude.
3) Don't worry about what others may be saying or worry that their eyes are on you. Do your best and it will work out.
4) Trial your dog when you are both ready. You will have more confidence and you will therefore do better.
5) Remember that your dog will need rest the week or so leading up to the trial.
6) Don't try to force points out of a dog that is not capable of doing what you want. It's not fair to the dog.
7) Before your trial day watch some seasoned handlers in a trial situation. Pay especially close attention to the 20 minutes or so leading up to each phase.
8) Keep your eyes open to what are good as well as bad ideas. It's sometimes better to know what not to do to your dog in training as well as what you should do. Mistakes and bad judgment can cause many long term problems that correct, well thought out training can prevent.
9) Remember, no one knows everything. You can respect experience, success and knowledge, but don't worship or follow them blindly, because no one person is perfect.
10) Most of all...you can't win 'em all and it's supposed to be fun!
Reprinted with permission of the author, David Deleissegues.