What is Schutzhund?
Schutzhund is a German word meaning "protection dog", but there's a lot more to it than that. Originally developed as a means of testing potential breeding stock, it has evolved into a sport that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels from hobby to international competition. As dog sports go, Schutzhund is without a doubt one of the most exciting and challenging. It is also one of the most rewarding. Above all, it is a team sport; the team of dog and handler. The two must work together, and perform in harmony. When done well, it is beautiful to watch and the bond between dog and handler is clear for all to see and many to envy.
Schutzhund training involves three phases: tracking, obedience and protection. When put together, the great effort involved in obtaining a Schutzhund title, and the challenges which accompany this training, make for an obedient, stable, useful and well rounded companion and create an incredible bond between dog and handler. Schutzhund by necessity involves stringent tests of the dog's temperament, nerve, and overall willingness to work, and by any definition a Schutzhund trained dog is a well trained dog. As such, these dogs are safe, happy, and obedient with great self confidence, mental stability and a willingness to please the handler. These are the traits which make the German Shepherd Dog one of the most versatile breeds in existence, and which are still highly valued by professional trainers, law enforcement officers and families wanting an outstanding companion.
A Brief History of Schutzhund
Schutzhund has its beginnings with the very origin of the German Shepherd Dog as a breed, and the two cannot be separated. The founders of the German Shepherd Dog began with herding stock and sought to create a versatile, utilitarian animal that was a canine 'Jack-of-all-trades'. With the industrialization of Europe, herding dogs, while still a valuable part of life in many areas, were becoming less common. However, there was huge interest in dogs for military and law enforcement work.
The German Shepherd was ideal for this type of endeavor but, wisely so, the founders of the breed saw potential trouble on the horizon. They felt that breeding of dogs specifically for police and military work by less knowledgeable individuals and without a set of standards for quality control could take the dogs to the extreme, and create unstable, dangerous animals. Likewise, there was the potential to go the other way. Purebred dog ownership and dog shows were already popular, and many people had much ego, money and reputation staked on the ability of their kennels to produce show winning purebred dogs. Many breeds had already suffered from over breeding and breeding strictly for fancy looks, and the founders did not want to see the heritage of the great German dogs destroyed in favor of trophies. So they designed the Schutzhund test to maintain the working ability of the breed, and keep balance between form and function.
The first Schutzhund trial was held in Germany in 1901. The purpose of this trial was to emphasize the correct working temperament and ability in the German Shepherd Dog breed, and to evaluate potential breeding stock to ensure that they possessed, and thus were most likely to pass on, the traits that make the German Shepherd Dog the incredible breed that it is. Good nerves, sound temperament, self confidence, utility, courage, willingness to work, scenting ability, physical soundness, trainability - all of these are characteristics which the breed's founders strove to develop and wanted to maintain, and all are tested by the Schutzhund exam.
The German Shepherd Dog club of Germany, the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV) was founded by the breed's creator, and adopted the Schutzhund test as an evaluation for breeding stock. Even today in Germany only puppies from breedings in which both the sire and the dam have passed the tests and achieved a Schutzhund or herding title, in addition to passing an endurance test and receiving a conformation rating and breed survey, can be registered with the SV, and be truly considered German Shepherd Dogs. Over the years, much of Europe adopted these same standards, which are still in place today and are probably the single greatest contributor to the high quality of the German Shepherd Dogs from Europe. Many breeders outside of Europe have chosen to follow the example of the SV, and still utilize Schutzhund for its original purpose: to preserve the German Shepherd as a working dog.
When the German Shepherd Dog first came to North America after World War I, Schutzhund did not come with it. It was not introduced on this side of the ocean until the 1970s, when a German immigrant set up the first Schutzhund club in the United States. It did not take long for Schutzhund to spread across North America. Today it is enjoyed by tens of thousands of people from all walks of life across the world. It is a fun and rewarding activity for dog and handler to enjoy together, and offers participants the opportunity to compete against one another for recognition of their ability to train and their dog's ability and willingness to learn. While Schutzhund has evolved into a highly competitive international sport, with local, regional, national and international level competitions held every year throughout the world, most people involved participate on a hobby level. They enjoy working with their dogs in a manner that highlights their natural working abilities and spending time together with their dogs and fellow dog fanciers with similar interests.
Today, dogs of various breeds compete in Schutzhund and many other breed clubs have since adopted standards similar to the SV for evaluating breed worthiness in their dogs. It is not uncommon to see Dobermans, Rottweilers, Giant Schnauzers, Boxers, Belgian Malinios, Bouviers, Dutch Shepherds, American Staffordshire Terriers and many other working and herding breeds at Schutzhund competitions. However, German Shepherd Dogs remain by far the most common breed involved in Schutzhund and the sport remains an important part of the breed's heritage and future.
The Schutzhund Titles
Schutzhund involves three phases: Tracking, Obedience and Protection. Each phase has specific tasks or exercises that the dog and handler must perform, and each phase is graded on a point system with a maximum score of 100 points in each phase. A dog and handler team must score a minimum number of points in each phase (70 in obedience and tracking, 80 in protection) in order to pass and earn a title. And all this must be done at the same trial on the same day. There are 3 levels of Schutzhund titles: SchH1, SchH2 and SchH3. Each title is progressively more difficult to accomplish as the individual exercises become harder and the overall level of performance required increases. The SchH3 is the highest level.
Prior to trailing for a Schutzhund title, all dogs must pass the BH, or companion dog test. The BH is graded pass/fail and includes an obedience test as well as a temperament test. To those familiar with AKC titles, one could say the BH is similar to a CD and CGC combined. The obedience exam involves two heeling exercises, on-lead and off-lead, the sit and down out of motion, recall with front sit and finish, and long down under distraction. The temperament portion of the exam evaluates the dog's traffic sureness, and general approachability and safety. The dog must not show nervousness, fear, shyness or aggression when approached by friendly strangers, other dogs, bicyclists, joggers and the like. Nor may the dog exhibit insecurity or anxiety when left alone in the presence of strangers when the handler goes out of sight for a few minutes. All of these tests are designed to ensure that the dog is safe and reliable and has the proper basic temperament for work, prior to continuing training and trailing for Schutzhund titles.
The Three Phases of Schutzhund
The tracking phase begins with a temperament test during which the judge evaluates the dog's general temperament, including his behavior to a crowd of strangers. A shy or aggressive dog is dismissed from the field, and is unable to proceed and attempt to achieve a Schutzhund title at that trial. Tracks are laid at the very start of the trial, under the careful eye of the judge. In the SchH1 level, the dog's handler lays the track, and at the SchH2 and SchH3 levels the tracks are laid by a stranger. Tracks are normally laid on a natural surface, such as dirt or grass, and the tracklayer is to walk at a normal pace. The length, complexity and difficulty of the track, as well as how long the track has aged and the number of articles which the dog must indicate, depends on the title level.
The tracking itself involves the handler following behind the dog at the end of a 10-meter line, as the dog scents and follows the track. The track includes several turns, as well as man-made articles left on the track by the tracklayer. The dog must scent out and follow the track from start to finish on his own. Help from the handler after the initial command to track at the beginning of the track and after each article indication, is faulty and results in a point deduction. The dog must be methodical and accurate in his work, remaining on the track during both turns and straights, and must indicate the articles dropped by the tracklayer, usually by lying down with the article between his front paws.
The tracking phase is designed to test the dog's trainability and ability to scent, his mental focus and concentration, his problem solving skills, and his ability to work independently for a prolonged period of time at a very specific and detailed task without influence or encouragement from his handler.
The obedience phase is very similar to AKC obedience trials, and includes a variety of heeling and field exercises. Unlike in AKC style trials, hand signals are prohibited and the dog must respond to voice command alone. Schutzhund obedience also includes a gunshot test to evaluate the dog's nerves and sound sensitivity. Dogs that demonstrate gun-shyness, often an indicator of weak character and nerves, are dismissed from the trial.
Heeling is all done off leash, both in the open field and weaving through a group of people. The dog must also perform "out of motion" exercises, in which the heeling dog is commanded to sit, down, and stand while the handler continues to move. Here the dog is required to immediately stop his forward movement and obey the command to sit, down or stand, despite his handler continuing to walk. Recalls are performed as well, and the dog must return to the handler quickly and happily and sit in front, and then to return to heel position at the handler's left upon command.
The dog must then perform a series of retrieves, using wooden dumbbells of various weights, on flat ground, over a 1-meter hurdle and over a 6-foot slanted climbing wall. The final exercise is the "send away" where the dog must at the handler's command run quickly straight away from the handler in the direction the handler indicates, and then lie down immediately with a second command from the handler.
Each dog must also do a long down at one end of the field, with the handler several meters away or, in the case of SchH3, completely out of sight. The dog must remain unmoving in the down position for several minutes, despite distractions, while another dog and handler team performs their heeling and field exercises not far away.
The obedience phase tests the dog's temperament, nerves, drive, control, trainability and willingness to work with the handler and take direction from the handler despite distraction, commotion and the presence of other dogs working nearby. It also evaluates the dog's overall physical ability, structural soundness and athleticism.
The protection test of Schutzhund is very similar to that used for police dogs. All bites are on a padded sleeve worn by a specially trained person called the "Helper". Contrary to what many people believe, a SchH dog is not merely playing a game of tug-of-war with the Helper, using the sleeve as a toy. In correct SchH training and competition the dog views the helper as a threat and opponent, and the sleeve an extension of the Helper. The sleeve is simply a necessary piece of protective gear and biting only the sleeve is one of the rules of combat. Dogs will be disqualified for biting the Helper anywhere but on the sleeve. In all exercises, the handler's control of the dog is absolutely essential and is judged mercilessly.... so much so that many seasoned Schutzhund enthusiasts jokingly refer to protection as "obedience under extreme stress".
The protection phase begins with the dog performing a search, directed by the handler, of several hiding places looking for the Helper. When the dog finds the Helper he must guard the Helper by barking until the handler arrives. Here the dog is not permitted to bite or touch the Helper, as the Helper is behaving in a neutral, unthreatening manner. When the Helper attempts to escape, the dog must pursue, catch and hold firmly. The dog is expected to protect the handler when the Helper attempts to attack the handler, and to engage without hesitation when sent across the field to apprehend the Helper that is charging and threatening the handler and dog with a stick. When the dog engages the Helper, the Helper fights back against the dog, including hitting the dog with a padded stick.
The dog must engage without pause, with bites that are full and firm and the grip on the sleeve must be calm. The dog must not show any fear, nervousness or hesitation at any time, including when the Helper counterattacks and fights the dog, hitting the dog with a padded stick. During the entire protection phase, the dog must remain in the handler's control, respond quickly and correctly to commands, and disengage immediately when the Helper ceases to resist, or the dog is commanded to do so by the handler. During guards, and the transport exercises where handler and dog escort the Helper to the judge, the dog is to remain focused on the Helper and ready to react, but must not bother the Helper in any way.
The protection phase evaluates the dog's physical and mental prowess by testing his courage, nerve, fighting instinct, ability to deal with conflict and pressure, hardness, and willingness to protect. Even more importantly it tests the dog's self control, overall temperament, willingness to take direction and follow the handler's commands, and his ability to remain clear headed and obedient even under extreme stress. When appropriate, the dog must engage his opponent with strength, determination and aggression, but he must also refrain from engaging when inappropriate, and must disengage immediately at his handler's command. Dogs that are dangerously aggressive, out of control, or are lacking in nerve, courage and self confidence do not do well in the protection phase.
The Schutzhund Trained Dog in the Home
By design, a Schutzhund dog is an outstanding, stable, well trained companion. There do exist some dogs who are extreme in drive and aggression and do not settle well into family life, and occasionally a dog with faulty temperament and nerves who never should have been bred or titled in the first place can slip through the cracks. But overall such is very uncommon.
As a general rule Schutzhund dogs make great pets, particularly for active people who enjoy going out and doing things with their dogs. Every dog owner, whether they are interested in a dog for sport, work, or family companionship, values the characteristics that are present in a Schutzhund dog; mental stability, physical soundness, confidence, fearlessness and a high willingness to work for and please the handler. Likewise, a Schutzhund dog has been well socialized and well trained, making them safe, reliable and obedient companions who can accompany their family anywhere. Schutzhund dogs are approachable, and can be excellent with children, while being courageous and protective. They are alert and aware of their surroundings, yet are unbothered by unusual sights and sounds. They are neither fearful and timid, nor inappropriately aggressive, standing their ground calmly and confidently without backing down, but not looking for a fight. They are willing to spring into action and work or play at a moment's notice, but in the interim are content to enjoy quiet time with the family. The control that Schutzhund training gives the handler, and the good overall temperament that a Schutzhund dog possesses, allows the handler to take the dog more places and do more things with the dog, increasing their bond and having more fun together.
Even if one is not interested in having a dog for work or sport competition, but instead for family companionship, careful research of breeders and dogs is critical. Most problems that pet owners encounter with their dogs are due to lack of socialization, lack of training or poor genetic temperaments. Socialization and training are the responsibility of the dog's owner, but a good dog starts with good breeding. Most dogs that are fearful, skittish and timid are this way because of genetics. Many times, such dogs that are spooky and easily threatened become dangerous fear biters. In fact, most dogs that are dangerous and unsafe are this way because of an underlying fear of strange people, objects and events. Fearful dogs commonly react aggressively in an attempt to scare away the threat. Proper socialization and training can improve the situation greatly, but the underlying genetics cannot be changed and the truth is that such dogs are never as stable and reliable as a dog that does not have genetically weak nerve and temperament to begin with. The Schutzhund exam does not allow for a dog that shows nervousness and fear, or reacts in a timid and skittish manner. Such dogs are quickly weeded out of Schutzhund, and therefore are also weeded out of the gene pool of breeders who still value Schutzhund as a test of breed worthiness and utilize it as such.
Many people are fearful of "protection" dogs and question how such animals can be safe around their families, the general public, and especially children. While protection work is a part of Schutzhund training, it is done in a very careful manner with the utmost emphasis on the handler's control of the dog. Not only do Schutzhund dogs possess the proper nerve and temperament to make them safe around children, they have been well socialized and their training stresses proper control. While Schutzhund dogs are supposed to be willing to defend the handler when required, more importantly they must be willing to trust and obey the handler's judgment and direction.
How to Get Started in Schutzhund
If you are interested in learning more about Schutzhund, meeting the dogs and seeing what it's all about, the best way to start is to find a local club and ask to come observe an upcoming trial or training session. Schutzhund requires a tremendous amount of time, energy and dedication. This is far more than an eight-week obedience class. The dog and handler team must train and practice regularly, in all types of weather, at all three phases in order to succeed. Even with diligent efforts, it can take 2-3 years, sometimes longer, before dog and handler are ready to enter their first trial. At the start, this can seem like a tremendous amount of work for little return, but for those with the interest and dedication to stick it out, the rewards are phenomenal and the bond between handler and dog is almost tangible.
If you decide that the sport is definitely something that you want to pursue farther, make sure to visit several clubs in your area. Schutzhund is something that requires a club or training group to train properly, particularly for the protection work as skilled, safe helpers who are also talented and experienced with regard to developing beginner dogs in protection are a must. Each club is different, with its own different "culture". Look for a club that utilizes training methods you can support, has a track record of success not just in titling dogs but also in mentoring novices, and whose membership is comprised of people you will enjoy spending lots of time with.
Consider carefully what your goals for Schutzhund are. Do you want to go all the way and become a national level competitor? Or are you more interested in an enjoyable pastime for you and your dog? Some clubs are for serious competitors only and don't want to waste time on people who just want to have fun. Other clubs are more geared toward the weekend hobbyist, and may have neither the knowledge, experience nor desire to work with a member who has more lofty goals. And many clubs have a mix of both and are equally supportive of competitors and hobbyists alike. Look for a club that has the same goals and people with the appropriate experience to get you where you want to go and, just as importantly, make sure that they are willing and able to help teach a novice. Meet the members and their dogs, watch the training, and ask lots of questions.
In Germany, every town typically has at least one Schutzhund club, many of which have been operation for decades. Schutzhund is very much a family affair and social outlet as well, and some of the clubhouses and training grounds are so extravagant they are more like a country club than a dog training group. So fanciers have literally dozens of clubs to choose from, and many belong to more than one club and can train at any time, any day of the week. Not so here in North America. Schutzhund clubs are still relatively few and spread out over a huge goegraphical area. This means that it is not uncommon for SchH enthusiasts drive a couple of hours or more each way to meet for training. So while location is a factor in club selection, it is worth the effort to visit as many clubs as you can find within a reasonable distance, and pick the one that best fits your personality and goals. This is far more important than which club is the cheapest or closest.
If you have a dog already that you think may make a good Schutzhund prospect, take your dog to the club and have it evaluated. The Training Director and other members will have the experience and objectivity to give you an accurate evaluation of your dog's Schutzhund potential. If you don't have a dog for the sport, but would like to get one, start first with visiting local clubs and finding one to join. Watch the club dogs carefully, and when you seen ones that you especially like inquire as to the dog's bloodlines and from whence the dog came. Your Schutzhund club members are a great resource to help you to locate the right dog. They can also give you advice based on your skills and experience as to what mix of characteristics to look for in your first Schutzhund dog. They may even know someone who has a good dog for you, recommend a breeder, or at the very least can help you sort out bloodlines and other information to help in your search for your future Schutzhund star.