Problem Solving in the Hold and Bark


After my last article I was really stumped for my next topic. There are so many things one can write about. But with a lot of topics I found that a magazine article would either be too general and not of any great value or way too long and detailed to go into a magazine. After reading my article on grip problems again, I felt that I didn’t spend nearly enough time discussing the hold and bark exercise. Now, don’t panic, I’m not going to bore you by giving you step by step instruction for teaching the hold and bark, that would lead too far astray. So I am going on the assumption that most readers and their trainers are perfectly capable of getting the exercise started. What I want to talk about are some of the problems that come up and how to deal with them.

There are different philosophies out there on how to teach the exercise. I’m not going to get into which one is right and which one is wrong. The truth is there is more than one way to start and teach the exercise and they all have merit. The problems generally start creeping up when we think the dog has learned what we wanted him to learn.

As always, I want the reader to have some insight into my way of thinking to avoid confusion.

  • Our concept of the hold and bark is unnatural for the dog. The dog does not want to hold the helper, he wants to make him react. Either by popping the sleeve up for prey action, or backing down to show avoidance or submission.

  • We as trainers have to be absolutely clear what it is we want to teach the dog. Dogs learn by making connections, it is our job to make sure they connect the right things.

  • The helper is there to help create the concept we want to teach to the dog and to reward correct behavior. He is not there to correct the dog.

  • The teaching of the hold and bark should take place everywhere but the blind. Only when it is starting to come together do we move to the blind.

At seminars the most common complaints about the hold and bark are

  • He is not intense enough

  • He is too sleeve focused

  • He needs confidence

  • He is too dirty

There are a few others too of course, but these are the main ones. Different things cause these problems, but one thing is always constant, something is not quite finished. But what is a finished hold and bark? Again there are a lot of different opinions out there. I will try to formulate mine.

The hold and bark is a part of protection training, and as such, it has to include the same components as the rest of protection training. And when it comes to protection training nothing is more revered than the all important fighting drive. As I stated in a previous article, such a drive really does not naturally exist. What we call fighting drive is actually a “package” of components including prey drive, defense drive, social aggression, and dominance. As trainers we “package” the above components to end up with the finished product: Fighting drive. Sometimes dogs are easier to “package,” sometimes they need a bit more work. But one thing is for sure, whether by accident or by plan, bite training is not finished until some of each component plays a role in how the dog works. We want the dog to fight the helper while he is biting.

Now, do trainers make sure the dog learns the same for the hold and bark (H&B)? I would say no. But the H&B is part of protection training, we cannot expect the dog to suddenly feel differently about the helper just because he is not biting. And with that we are very much at the root of most H&B problems.

What most dogs learn is to hold back and bark rather than to hold the helper. The dog needs to learn that he can hold, control, and fight the helper just as much during the H&B as he does while biting. Just as much thought, work, and effort has to go into balancing out all the dog’s motivations in order to properly “package” the H&B as was necessary during the rest of protection training.

I am convinced that we can’t separate the H&B from the rest of protection training. With that in mind we have to realize that the dog can only do what we teach him. A dog who works almost exclusively in prey drive during protection work won’t magically display defense and aggression during the H&B, that makes no sense. At the same time, a dog who works almost exclusively in defense doesn’t want to just sit in front of the helper and bark, so he can make prey when the helper pops the sleeve up. Balance is the key, if we aren’t willing to balance the motivations for the dog, we have to accept the fact that he performs an exercise with the appearance that something is missing. With that in mind let’s address the problems I mentioned above. I am assuming that the dogs are fairly balanced in their protection training, and the problems are limited to the H&B whether it is in the blind or during the guarding phase.

The dog lacks intensity

Intensity generally comes from defense, or aggression. Defense is reactive aggression and usually easier to use in training than social aggression. So by adding a defensive edge to the H&B, we can create the desired intensity. In bitework we generally teach the dog defense by countering. What is countering? It is a retaliation to a threat by the helper. It is difficult to teach this to the dog without getting him dirty. So as we are training the H&B, we have the dog at a stage where he is holding back and barking for a prey reinforcement, we want to add intensity by putting a bit of pressure on the dog. The dog counters by biting either the helper, or the sleeve. But we correct the dog for that, so after a while, we are left with a H&B which has no defensive component left. The dog simply figures he is not allowed to be defensive during the H&B. A better way to introduce the defense to the H&B is to take a few steps back in training. So we don’t allow the dog to make a mistake, we work the dog again on a tight line, with the helper out of reach. The dog is doing his version of a H&B but gets no reinforcement, instead the helper threatens the dog a bit to stimulate defense. The dog wants to bite but can’t, he will try to counter in a different way, by threatening the helper. He will curl his lips slightly, the bark will get deeper and have a growly sound to it, or the dog’s neck hair may go up. The dog is showing us defensive behavior. During defense drive promotion I discussed that what the dog wants at this stage is backing down by the adversary (namely the helper). Attempting to channel this behavior into prey drive by popping the sleeve would be jumping a training step. So the way to react to the dog’s display of threat is to act impressed and to back down. Depending on the dog’s confidence and strength we can either jump away backwards or duck slightly. This will reinforce the dog’s behavior. We are showing him a way to win defensively.

Once the dog shows that he is confident in his “no contact” counter, we can progress to channeling the defensive behavior into prey drive, by giving the dog a bite on the sleeve and stripping it. All this still takes place on a line where the dog is prevented from biting prematurely and the helper approaches the dog. Next, the dog has to display that he can rely on this non biting counter. While the dog is dog is barking in a defensive tone, the leash is slacked slightly and the dog has to still rely only on his bark and body posture. This is when the helper gives the dog the reward by offering a bite, stripping the sleeve, and backing up slightly. Next, the dog is the one approaching the helper. First on a line, he is initially held back until he displays the intense pushy bark we are aiming for. Then more and more the responsibility is put on the dog to hold himself back, but only from biting, the assertive, intense attitude of the dog should be maintained. Eventually I let the dog push me around the field. That way the dog gets small reinforcements for his defensive behavior, without actually getting a bite. As soon as the intensity dwindles I try to push the dog backwards by inching forward. And just as I described in Defense Drive Promotion it turns into an exchange of threats and counters between helper and dog, except without biting. Other ways to increase intensity are based on the same principle. We can create adversity for the dog through means other than personal threat. Like environmental stress, also mentioned in the Defense Drive Promotion article, or a neutral (but still stressful) stimulus, such as prong collar stimulation. The key is that the dog learns to focus the intensity created by the adversity at the helper and that this intensity can be recalled in the dog with the H&B command.

The dog is too sleeve focused

This problem generally results from something very positive. Namely that the prey drive in the dog is so high, that he has a pre-occupation with it. An additional factor is that the dog has a high stimulus threshold for defensive stimuli. Usually this complaint does not carry major problems with it for the dog. Generally the intensity is still pretty good, because of the exceptionally high drive and the dog never really ends up in what I term a “hole” that he has to recover from. The dog remains totally in prey drive and can handle most Schutzhund trial requirements. The complaint about it is that the handler does not like the way it looks. It can be addressed by trying to incorporate some defense into the work by proceeding as I described above. But with dogs in that category the amount of pressure it requires to push them into defense often causes more problems than it solves.

I found one good way to work on improving the performance of such a dog is to use a bite suit or bite jacket for the hold and bark (see Bitesuit Training for Schutzhund Dogs), or using two sleeves. The theory is that the dog does not blindly focus on one prey object, because there are more options. Let’s say I use two sleeves. The dog barks at the left one, he gets a bite on the right. If he barks at the right one, he gets a bite on the left. This may go on for a bit, but the dog will reach a point where he can’t make up his mind anymore and he will start barking at the person who makes the sleeves move, namely the helper. We are really not adding anything significant to the dog’s motivation in the H&B, we just change the dog’s focus away from the sleeve and to the helper. Dogs with exceptionally high prey and very high defensive stimulus threshold make very competitive sport dogs. We should make sure that the H&B has the picture we want to present, but I would not mess with a good thing by forcing something like defense on such a dog.

The dog lacks confidence

Dogs in this category generally have difficulty dealing with defensive pressures (from the helper) and their prey drive is not high enough to compensate for the problem. The cause is usually one of two things. Either the dog is not a very confident dog to begin with, or in training he was confronted with levels of pressure he simply could not handle. As a result the dog sees no possible way of coming out of this situation a winner. A way to address the complaint is to go back to re-training the dog with the concept that all he has to do is bark to get the sleeve to pop up. No pressure, no defense, just barking for action. Through this we should be able to get the dog to a point where he accepts positioning himself in front of the helper and barking to make the sleeve move. Now we need to give the bark a purposeful tone, so the dog becomes pushier. One way of doing that is (we are working on a tight line again) to slowly back away from the dog with the sleeve while he is barking. As the helper gets farther away, the dog will experience some frustration and his bark will express this frustration. With the change in tone the helper starts to go closer again to the dog and give a bite. The dog should develop a more demanding bark that way. This may be all we can expect from a dog who is genetically not very confident. If the dog’s confidence problems resulted more from poor training, then there is a possibility that with the dog’s new found confidence, we can add even more intensity into the H&B by again adding some defense (in small doses) as I described with the low intensity dog.

The dog is dirty

Dogs who show this type of behavior generally are relatively confident dogs. In some cases even extremely strong dogs. There are a few causes for this particular H&B problem. One is the dog has extremely high prey drive, and the handling is not concrete enough to stop the dog from reinforcing himself with a bite whenever he comes to within a certain distance of the sleeve. Taking a few steps back in training to make sure the dog understands that barking is a required element before biting will help get the dog on the right track. From there handling becomes very important. It is the handler who has to prevent this “self service” rewarding as more responsibility is placed on the dog. I recommend that a more experienced club member help the handler by working a second line.

One of the biggest causes for being dirty for strong dogs is that they again have not learned to fight the helper with the H&B. For them fighting involves biting. In a way this problem starts out very similar to the problem in point #1. With the introduction of defensive stimuli in the H&B (whether this is how the dog is started, or it is a progression does not matter), the dog reacts by biting the helper or the sleeve. In the #1 dog, handler corrections lowered the dog’s confidence and it led to lower intensity. The stronger dog however will not stop countering the defensive stimuli by the helper just because of corrections, instead he will break through time and time again and retaliate against the helper by biting. It takes a lot of patience with these dogs to break them of this habit. The methodology is again very similar to what I described in #1. The dog has to learn he can actually fight the helper and counter against him without biting. The dog adds threat and intensity to the H&B, and the helper reinforces this behavior by weakening. Eventually the dog gets a prey reinforcement to end the exercise. And again we have “packaged” different drives in order to teach the dog how to fight the helper.

I want to briefly mention a few other causes of dirtiness in the H&B. One is helper corrections. A dog will retaliate against harsh influences by the helper by countering. A correction is such a harsh influence. And unless the harshness escalates to where the dog is driven into avoidance to the point where he is simply too concerned to retaliate the problem will not go away. Hectic and overbearing handler behavior during the approach is another cause for dirtiness. The dog in an intense confrontation with the helper needs to be able to concentrate on what he is doing. If the handler becomes an unsettling influence, the dog will no longer feel like he is in control of the helper through his no contact fight and resort to biting again.There are likely quite a few more causes for a dog?s being dirty, but I feel that I have addressed the major ones.

Once a dog has learned to fight the helper without biting, we can consider teaching the formal out. Because once a dog has learned the proper H&B concept, he does not have to stop fighting when he is told to out. He is just substituting fighting techniques. I won’t get into the actual training of the out in this article as it would lead too far astray. Finally, I want to touch on another big problem with the H&B exercise. This problem is often not recognized. It comes from the dog learning something during the teaching of the H&B that the trainer did not intend for him to learn at all. Somewhere along the line the dog makes a connection in his head which then is extremely difficult to erase. The possibilities as to what a dog could pick up are endless. In order to determine the cause of the problem and come up with a possible solution, experimentation in training is often necessary. I would like to use an example to make my point. A friend of mine has a SchH 3 Malinois. A very strong, hard dog with very good prey and defense drives. The dog bites very full and hard. He hits very fast and hard. He handles the drive and stick hits confidently and counters powerfully. I would say the dog does not have any serious deficiencies in protection work. Now to the H&B. The dog has an intense rhythmic H&B in the blind and after the out. I would say the dog works during bite work and in the guarding phase with pronounced “fighting drive.” Sounds like the poster child of what I was talking about.

So, where is the problem? The problem was this. The dog did all his H&Bs about three feet away from the helper. Initially, it didn’t concern me all that much. The dog always took full bites from the guard, he punched with a lot of force, and he was always very intense. So in a few sessions not much seemed off. But about a year ago I found myself always working on trying to get him closer in the guard. ( I only saw him periodically at seminars). I had a talk with the handler, to discuss where this distance thing came from. He explained, “In his foundation work we taught him to start barking at about three feet away to keep him clean, thinking that as his intensity got greater, he would inch his way closer and closer and close that gap.” What nobody counted on was how quickly and accurately the dog learned his H&B. But for him a H&B meant being three feet away. So now the experimenting began. We tried raising intensity. I pushed him hard, and he rose to the challenge, 3 feet away. I got him to push me from one end of the protection field to the other, he did, 3 feet away. The handler came up to me and tried to get the dog to come closer. But to no avail, he held his ground. I tried to set the dog up. He was sent to the blind for a H&B, and just as he was setting up to bark, I took a flying leap out of the blind. Naturally he caught me. We repeated this a few times and then sent him for a real H&B, and he actually came closer. I guess he didn’t want me to fly the coop again. But, no long term success, the very next time he was 3 feet out again.

During one of my experimental sessions with him I decided to lie down on a slope at the side of the field, so that he would have to come closer if he wanted to see my face while he was barking. It was during this session that his handler and I discovered another thing the dog had learned on his own that nobody ever intended to teach him. He seemed to figure that any type of body contact with the helper during the H&B was absolutely forbidden and taboo. He would come up to bark beside my head at either side of me, but would absolutely refuse to touch me with his feet. The handler tried to guide the dog by patting my legs and belly. The dog came around me, hopped on him but still refused to touch me. This was the biggest obstacle in all our attempts to get him to come closer. Because by coming closer, he was also closer to doing something he considered strictly forbidden.

I’ve been referring to this problem in the past tense, because by finding the reason for the problem we were able to come up with a solution. We had to take the taboo out of the dog’s head. So we set the H&B situations up where I was lying down on a slope or sitting in a chair. We got a second handler who worked the dog on a line to prevent him from coming around beside me. So he was held straight in front. Then the handler came up and coaxed him to touch me with his feet. He patted my body, I tried to stimulate the dog to a point where his drive would take over. As soon as the dog put his front feet on me and barked, I would give him a bite. A few times the stimulation pushed the dog and he took an occasional body shot so he wouldn’t explode. Nothing was rewarded, except barking with his feet on me. After we got more of a handle on this coordinated effort, we got the club helper doing the helper work. Helping the dog with stimulation and only rewarding him if he overcame his taboo. It has taken several months, but I am happy to say that I worked the dog a few weeks ago, and he was rocking on my toes during his H&B, that is how closely he is guarding. With this lingering problem well on the way to being solved, I hope this great team will have a chance to compete at some big trials.

I used this example to show that dog training is much more than doing everything right all the time. Nobody does that. Dog training and especially problem solving in dog training involves thought and research to investigate the cause for the problem. Flexibility is necessary to determine where problems come from and how to work on fixing them.

I hope this article added a little bit of insight into one of the most difficult exercises to perfect in protection training. And I hope to get your attention again next time.

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