Protection Obedience: a Closer Look


It’s club training day, phase B training is coming to an end. Time for the good stuff: Protection. Once the helpers, training directors and handlers set their mind on protection, obedience becomes a distant memory when it comes to training concerns. Obedience is over with the end of phase B. Or is it?

Again, I have to go by my observations on the training field. Once protection training begins, obedience is not given very much thought. Oh, don’t misunderstand me, we all demand it. Hell, we need it to get our titles. The dog needs to be obedient during protection, we all know that. I’m talking about something a little different. I am talking about how much thought is put into the obedience portion of protection training. Pointing the finger not only at other trainers, but at myself as well, I have to say, “Not very much.” For many years I took obedience during protection as a necessary evil: I had to do it, like it or not. In hindsight, I have to say that that was not only a bad attitude, it was a training error. I’d like to count myself as one of those trainers who learns from his mistakes. With that said, I’d like to discuss some of the realizations I have come to about protection obedience.

As always, a quick comment about what stage of training the dog should be at for this discussion to apply. I am definitely talking about dogs who have their foundation work very solid. Small obedience components should have been introduced to the dog during the foundation training. But even if foundation training did not include any obedience, the dog should bite reliably and have solid grips. This is usually the stage where trial exercises become part of the training. And this is when obedience during protection has to be given thought so it becomes part of protection training.

Another short point. I am excluding the hold and bark, out, and guarding exercises from this discussion. Even though they fall into the obedience category to an extent, they are very specific parts of the protection work and are better examined separately. The obedience I am referring to includes blind search, heeling exercises on the protection field, call out, disarm, transports, and stationary positioning.

An Eye Opener
In the past few years I had the great privilege to work with some very talented handlers and very good quality dogs. The dogs had very good foundation work, they were confident and drivey. Virtually no problems in the biting phases of protection work. The hold and bark, out, and guarding were coming along nicely. I watched these handlers during obedience with their dogs, they looked good working with their dogs. Not much to complain about. Then we added obedience work to protection. And this was where things just didn’t go as expected. I’m not going to over dramatize things by saying everything fell apart – it didn’t happen like that. I am talking about good handlers with good quality dogs here. But still, something wasn’t quite right. It was almost as if the handlers had brought out each others dogs, not their own. There was a communication component missing between handler and dog. Like every trainer, I reached into my bag of techniques, and suggested some courses of action. Things I had done in the past, things I had learned from someone else, things I had read, or seen on a video. And sure enough, we got some results. What bothered me initially was the fact that I couldn’t put my finger on what the actual problem was.

Every time I encountered such a situation I got the same nagging feeling. And to make that feeling worse, I felt a little stumped when it came to an explanation for the spectators and the handler. “We’ve always done it like that!” or “So-and-so has had great success doing this!” are not explanations. So I started to brood about this subject. I thought about my own dog and the fact that protection obedience with him was always a struggle. “He’s just too stubborn.” or “I don’t really care about how good his obedience is during protection.” were my cop-outs. The reality is, I didn’t put enough thought into that aspect of protection training.

Let me explain why I say that: The dog I currently have, who is very near retirement, was throughout his Schutzhund career also my security patrol dog. During our active service, we had many apprehensions and confrontations. However, it seems that I never had big problems with obedience during service work, even though it was very much protection and apprehension work. Of course he never had to perform a Schutzhund routine, but he followed directions, and he obeyed. And considering how difficult he made things for me on the Schutzhund field, I should have noticed this years ago. In retrospect, I have to accept the blame for his poor Schutzhund protection obedience. I was the one who made the difference.

Enough with the anecdotes, let me get to my conclusion. In Schutzhund work, I concentrated on the routine, I made him do what it said in the rules and if he screwed up he got corrected. After all, this is what the judge wants to see, so this is what we do. On the street, there was no trial routine, only proper and safe procedure. My focus was on everything, especially my dog. I wanted to make sure that (1) he was going to do what he was told, and (2) that he would do the job I needed him for. How did I do that? I communicated with my dog. On the Schutzhund field, I bellowed commands, I was marching around like a little General, I was performing a routine. “The dog knows what I want him to do.” — famous last words. I never took that attitude at work and we worked well together as a team. And that is my conclusion, the dog needs to be included in the equation. Maybe he knows what we want him to do, maybe he doesn’t. Or maybe he just doesn’t care, because he wants to do something different. We have to shoot for success, and we do that by considering the dog more, and by communicating with him. And I am going to try and shed a little light on that subject.

The Problem
One area where not enough consideration is given to the dog is when it comes to the difference between phase B obedience and phase C obedience. “Heeling is heeling, whether it is in phase B or phase C, and the same goes for sit down, or stay.” I’m sure we have all heard that before. But upon closer examination that statement really is not true. We all spend a great deal of time teaching our dogs phase B obedience, there are various techniques out there and everyone has a favorite: little pouches with food, the toy in the pocket, the toy under the chin, the occasional cookie, releasing the dog for a couple of second of play, etc.. We all know them, all have one common theme: a way to reward the dog for correct behavior (of course we also have the corrective collar for incorrect behavior). So, the handler tells his dog to down, the dog does it, the handler throws a ball for him. Great, the dog figures this out really fast. So when during phase C do we throw the ball for the dog for correct behavior? We don’t! Why not? Because most dogs at this stage of training don’t give a hoot about whatever their favorite reward may be during phase B, once a helper is on the field with them. I think I have made my point: There is a difference between phase B obedience and phase C obedience. The dog should still obey commands, naturally, but we certainly don’t make it as clear for him why, as we do in phase B. In phase C, the dog is very much in a different state of mind than at any other time of training. We have to make sure we reach his mind so he can learn. Many more motivations and drives are at work and the dog is in a much higher state of excitement during protection than during the other phases. Because of all the foundation work the dog has had up to this point, he has developed almost a preoccupation with biting and the helper. It is very difficult to make the dog notice other things. Consequently, it is much harder to communicate with the dog or to get him to learn things. Phase C obedience virtually has to be started from scratch.

Another, less common problem is that a dog is so focused in his obedience work, that any obedience command puts him into the obedience mindset completely. With those dogs one sees a total loss of interest in protection work. The dog’s focus becomes the handler, he anticipates a reward from the handler, and the drive moods necessary to perform protection disappear. With these dogs phase C obedience also has to be started from scratch, and very slowly, to ensure that the dog remains focused on the protection tasks he has to perform.

A Philosophy
I guess the next point has to be how to approach phase C obedience. As I said above, it took a while to come up with good explanations for protection obedience. I like to sum it up for handlers by telling them they have to make it clear to their dog that they know the secret to success on the protection field. To keep it simple, success for the dog in protection is getting a bite. The dogs we are working with have spent almost all their time on the protection field biting. We worked on prey drive, and defense drive. We taught full and calm gripping and countering. The dog learned to get action from the helper by barking and learned letting go, so he can bite again a second later. Everything revolved around engaging the helper and biting. Now the dog has to learn that there is more to phase C than that. I have watched handlers with dogs who normally do very competent obedience end up physically wrestling with their dogs just to get them to sit during protection. Asking them to get the dog to lie down turned into a slapstick comedy, where quite often the handler ended up lying flat on the ground, with the dog still standing.

The dog needs to learn to accept guidance from the handler. The key word here is guidance. The way many dogs act the first time an obedience exercise is asked of them in protection, I would say it is not disobedience that is happening. Often the dog can’t even hear the command because they are so focused on the helper, or they are confused because what is asked of them seems to make no sense. So we have to help the dog do what he is told to do. I like to use hand and body gestures to get the dog to follow the command. But I use those only to guide. I am not into playing games. Pulling down on the collar, while the behind stays in the air, then as the behind is pushed down the front comes up again is not my idea of guidance. Compulsion is not an evil thing, it may be necessary here that the dog is forced into the position he is supposed to take. The quicker, the better. One thing that has to be avoided though, and that is getting angry or being punitive. Making a dog do something he doesn’t seem to understand, even forcefully, has nothing to do with punishment or correction. We have to remember, all the dog’s focus may be on the helper. So getting angry at him, or punishing him, or correcting him is easily misinterpreted, and the dog should never be corrected for his desire to get at the helper.

I take the approach that the dog does not know what we want from him. So, the handler helps the dog physically as much as necessary and with as much force as necessary to get compliance. Once the dog is compliant, he gets a second or two to experience the situation, then he gets his reward. I prefer to always strip the sleeve for the dog as soon as he bites.

I know, thousands of dogs have been trained with heavy corrections working just fine. But let’s not forget the thousands that have been ruined by the same methods. I am not against corrections, but I feel that a correction has to be warranted. And the only things that warrant a correction are defiance and disobedience. But, I have to be sure that that is what I am dealing with. The days of jerking a dog around by his neck until he figures out how to heel are in the past. So consider the same for protection obedience: teaching comes first, corrections come much later.

As the dog starts to perform simple obedience commands during protection work (I personally prefer to start with stationary commands like sit or down) on voice command. But we have to get more of a performance from the dog. So I like to mix things up a bit to keep the dog guessing. This is now the time where the secret to success concept is shown to the dog. Sometimes the dog is told to sit and he gets to bite. Another time he is told to down, then he gets to bite. Then he is told to down, he figures he gets to bite. But not this time, first he has to sit up from the down, then he gets to bite. The dog is kept guessing. The concept the dog has to learn is this: The only person who seems to always know when a bite will happen is the handler. And the closer the dog listens to the handler, the better his chances for success are. All exercises should be approached this way. The dog has to perform according to the handlers directions. The handler should not be all over the place, asking for 15 things at once, that will lead to confusion and sloppiness. But clear directions should be given, and the dog should be given a chance to follow the directions, then a reward should happen. Often I see dogs working complex routines, while still in the learning phases. Exercise linked to exercise, without any reward or interruption. This is not a recipe for success. Dogs learn by making connections. They connect things they do with positive or negative reinforcement. I cannot expect a dog to link a reward with an exercise he did in sequence 5 or more exercises ago. So break things down into small steps until the dog demonstrates he is clear on one task, then teach another task. They can always be added together later on.

I would like to address one close contact exercise which is very useful but also difficult for many dogs. This exercise requires that the dog is already able to perform a hold and bark. While the dog is doing a hold and bark, the handler steps beside the dog. He praises him for his work. The dog is rewarded. It is important that this is repeated often enough so the dog is unbothered by the handlers approach. Also, the dog should not learn that he can bite as the handler steps up, so sometimes step up and step away again, and vary the time between stepping up and when the dog gets the bite. This is a common exercise, so no need to go into more detail. Next, the handler steps up to the barking dog, making sure the dog continues barking. Now he gives the dog the sit command (even if the dog is sitting during the hold and bark), with the sit command the dog should stop barking. In the beginning, an additional command like “quiet” can be given. As explained before, we help the dog as much as necessary. Sometimes a touch on the head is enough, sometimes a slight collar correction, sometimes a little slap on the head. What is important is that the dog stops barking. He has to be calm and quiet for a few seconds. Then he gets a bite. The time the dog has to be quiet is slowly extended, and the amount of help is reduced. It is important that the dog sometimes gets a bite during the hold and bark without having to be quiet first so he does not anticipate what happens. As the stepping up and subsequent sit with quiet gets better, the handler gives the quiet dog the hold and bark command again. The dog should now go back to doing a hold and bark, once he settles, he gets a bite.

This exercise is by no means my invention, it has been around a long time. What makes it difficult is not only the close proximity to the helper, which gives the dog the chance to make a mistake (any undesirable action the dog takes during the hold and bark is considered a mistake), but also the fact that the dog has to be working almost fully and actively in his drives while doing a hold and bark, and then he has to stop being active. I like using this exercise for teaching the secret to success concept in a more advanced form. It also helps for disarms and pick up exercises in a Schutzhund routine.

The last point I want to discuss is capping. Unfortunately, this word is thrown around way too much in the world of Schutzhund. Capping is a good concept, but it is much easier said than done. I watched a seminar in which the instructor told the handler “OK, cap him now!” The handler yelled some command and hammered on his dog. The instructor said, “Good.” Was this capping? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

What is capping? Capping refers to capping drive. Like putting a cap on a bottle. If you want to visualize, put the cap on a bottle of Coke and shake it. Open it and the Coke will come shooting out of the bottle because of the built up pressure. So the concept is that the drive is bottled up and it will come out more forcefully when released once again. Obedience during protection has long been used as a form of capping. The problem is once again that the dog is not considered enough. One dog’s capping may be another dog’s shut down. Capping takes place in the dog if the dog stays in the drives he was in when the obedience command was given. Because the obedience does not really allow the dog active expression of any drives, but the stimulus for all the drives (namely the helper) is still there, the drives naturally build up. This should take place if the dog clearly understands the concept of obedience during protection. Unfortunately, a bit of a misconception has developed that capping has to do with harsh obedience. Like slamming a lid on something that is bubbling over. But the harshness that has become commonplace has the least to do with capping. The dog has to learn that he has to contain himself, bottle himself up if you want to look at it like that. This article has dealt with a correct way of teaching that to a dog. Telling the dog, “Listen to your handler, and if you have to hold still, then keep all that drive inside and let it out when the time comes.” That is capping. Kicking the dog into the down position does not cap a dog (of course, there are exceptions to every rule), in most cases that will actually reduce drive.

A lot of conflict is created in the name of capping. And all that really happens is that the dog is not comfortable with the handler. Some dogs may need some compulsion to learn to contain themselves, others may only need a quiet voice, “Easy Buddy, wait for the right moment.” Corrections and punitive influence are usually not the way.

As a trial helper I would say that two of the most difficult bites a dog has to take in the sport of Schutzhund are the attack on handler in SchH 1 and the surprise attack from the rear transport in SchH 2 and 3. During both of these bites, the dog has to perform a difficult obedience exercise before he has to fend off a frontal attack by the helper. I think most helpers would agree that many grip problems and entry hesitations show up in these exercises, more even than in the courage test. The reason for that is the obedience component involved in the exercise. Making sure that the dog learns protection obedience as a way to work with the handler as a team is a recipe for success. Jerking the dog to within inches of losing every last ounce of self confidence is a recipe for disaster. A handler should learn to direct and guide his dog during a protection routine, not show the dog how weak he is against his own handler. Much more is demanded from the dog during protection than from the handler. So the dog should always be given the most consideration in training even when it comes to obedience. My philosophy applies here as it does in every other aspect of protection training: Make sure the dog has the tools to do his job.

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