Schutzhund Obedience 2004 – aka – When I Fell In Love With The Sport!

I would like to thank CroweKitty again for inspiring me to write more about my experience and learning adventures in the world of GSD’s and Schutzhund Sport. 

Schutzhund literally means “Protection Dog.”   Schutzhund is a test of the dog in 3 main areas – Tracking, Obedience, and Protection work.  The test showcases the versatility of the GSD, but Schutzhund has also become a popular breed test and competition sport for breeds other than the GSD.  From the limited historical research I have done, I believe the first official Schutzhund tests were introduced in Germany in 1901.  I’m sure the tests as they are today have probably changed a lot since 1901.  I have enjoyed trying to learn about “today’s” Schutzhund, so have not done as much research about the evolution of the Schutzhund tests yet as I might do someday.

I wish I could recommend a book for learning about Schutzhund as I was able to recommend a book for understanding a bit about the German Shepherd Dog Breed in general.  I have yet to find a book that truly captures what WATCHING Schutzhund did for me!  If anyone can suggest one, I’ll check it out.  For me, seeing was way beyond belief. 

It was the summer of 2004 and I didn’t know a Schutzhund from a Dachshund.  All me and Mr. Doggy knew was that we had a really nice young GSD puppy that German judges LOVED for her conformation.  So off we went to the Canadian National German Shepherd Dog Championships in St. Johns, New Brunswick with our 9 month old GSD girl.  In Canada, they hold the National Schutzhund 3 Championships, and choose their competition World Team at the same time as their National Sieger (conformation) show.  WOW.  I was so impressed with the Schutzhund work – running around a conformation ring with a dog would never be the same.  I couldn’t WAIT to get to the trial field early each morning, even though “our” event (conformation) didn’t happen until afternoon.

Imagine an early morning in St. Johns – the fog still thick over the college sports stadium as the day begins.  On that field there is a rack holding a few dumb bells, a one meter wall, a scaling wall (A-frame), one judge, one translator, and LOTS of green grass.  And fog.  Dog and handler teams have worked for years to get here.  They all have a chance to make the Canadian World Team – five dog/handler teams will make it.  Some have made it before.  Maybe a couple will make it for the first time.  100 possible points for the obedience portion will be earned or lost this foggy morning by each team on this large field – but obedience is only one of 3 phases to the competion.  200 more points are on the line with Tracking and Protection.    There are two dog/handler teams waiting on the sidelines – they got the early draw for obedience on Friday morning.  They want to give the best performance they can – this is their National Championships.  They worked for years to get here, and they want to make the most of this opportunity.  They may not get another shot next year.  Many possibilities exist for earned points today…or mistakes and lost points today.  But today is “IT”….for now.

The first two teams (a “team” is a dog and a human) for obedience, formally greet the judge.  Some dogs don’t care much for other dogs – so this inital greeting can be the first test, even though it’s not particularly obvious.  One team goes to the side line for the “long down.”  That dog must stay in a particular spot on the sideline of the competition field, in the down position, off leash, for the duration of the other team’s on field exercise.  The handler of the “long down dog” is many feet away, and must stay hidden behind a blind.  I was mesmerized by the fact that these dogs – any dogs – would stay down under all that distraction.  Without moving a muscle.  While another team is on the field doing all the ‘fun stuff.’  Watching a well executed long down is in some ways, like watching a spring that you just KNOW is about to be sprung.  But it stays in place somehow.   The pent up energy is palpable.  It is not the same as watching a dog taking a nap on the side line, that’s for sure.  Understanding how a dog can be “in drive” while being still is just…..  well…..  you can’t understand it ’til you understand it.

The other team takes the field in the end zone, with a required acknowledgement to the judge.  This acknowledgement between judge and handler happens between each major exercise, and is one MORE thing that the handler must remember.  It’s important.  Next, the heeling exercises begin.  At this level of competition, the handlers seem confident about this portion.  But always wary of the gun shots – BOTH dogs are being tested – the one on the field and the one on the long down.  Gun shyness is a serious fault.  There is a sigh of relief from the crowd once the gun shots are done.  Not that anyone expects gun test failure in dogs at this level of competition.  But still – it’s just something to “check off the list” of things to complete in the exercise and the event.  One step closer to the finish line.

The series of motion exercises come after heeling.  This is where at Schutzhund 3 level, the team must demonstrate a sit, and down, and stand out of motion on command.  There is also a specific protocol for each scenario, where the dog is either picked up by the handler (handler walks back to the dog) or a recall (dog comes to handler on command).  The point perils of the motion exercises are significant, especially if the dog does the wrong thing (i.e. sits rather than downs, or downs rather than stands) on these commands.  But small points that add up big at the national level, can be lost on other things like speed in the sit or down or stand, or speed on the recall, or correct (straight and close) “fronts” and “finishes.”  Lots of little points out there.

Retrieves are next.  Retrieves represent HUGE points in obedience – whether trialing just to pass a Schutzhund level for the first time, or whether to score high in competition.  Retrieves represent 45 points of the possible 100 for obedience.  Dogs must retrieve a dumbell “on the flat” (thrown out in front of the dog with no hurdles or obstacles), over a 1 meter wall, and over a scaling wall (A-frame).   The handler throws the dumbell.  The dog must wait until the “bring” command to go out and over the correct obstacle or flat, and return back over the correct obstacle or flat for a correct, straight finish in front of the handler – and correctly hold the dumbell in it’s mouth, and correctly “out” the dumbell on command.  And then “finish” back to the heel position.  For all 3.  Trial success in obedience – whether for initial passing or for competition points – is often made or broken in this section.  Watching the National Championships, tension built here for sure – you could feel it in the crowd.  People were holding their breath.  Everyone knew how many points were at stake. How a club level trial could be passed or failed, and how a National Championship and World Team designation could be won or lost in this section alone.  The smallest flaw would illicit a collective groan from the crowd.  Success brought tense applause, as everyone thought forward to the next required element.  When a dog came back over the final scaling wall for a correct front, out and finish, there was a HUGE sigh of relief and round of applause from the crowd.  We’re in the home stretch now.

The obedience routines conclude with IMO, the most visually exciting exercise of all – the “send out.”  On command, the handler “sends” the dog away from him/her to the other end of the field – at high speed.  Once the dog has gone the required distance, the handler gives the down (platz) command – which in the German version, at high volume, sounds like “Pah-LATZ!”  When the dog goes out very fast, and on command, turns fast toward the handler and drops to the ground like a new marine recruit, you have seen a VERY exciting finish to a Schutzhund obedience routine.

The handler now must walk the length of the field to “collect” the dog in the heel position.  It is “polite” to hold massive applause until the handler has collected the dog – let’s face it – they don’t want to “blow anything” now.

But great competitive dog handler teams must practice this or something – the crowd can go wild while the handler crosses the length of the field to pick up the dog.

Watching that level of Schutzhund obedience just gave me chills.   The dog and handler at this level seem to connect in a way that is impossible for me to describe.  I can’t wait to attempt describing my first view of a  REAL Competition Protection Performance!  Congratulations to the 2004 Canadian World Team members.  The 2004 Canadian World Team sure made a difference in my view of Schutzhund.  And my training path with our GSD’s was changed forever.

Thanks for reading.

DG from the Dog House

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One response to “Schutzhund Obedience 2004 – aka – When I Fell In Love With The Sport!

  1. If your are looking for a book that introduces the sport, I respectfully recommend my publication, “The Sport of Schutzhund, A Photographic Essay.” Available at http://www.bjspanos.com and http://www.leerburg.com, it is the first and only photographic (soft cover, coffee table format) book that comprehensively depicts all phases of the popular working dog sport Schutzhund, including training, competitions, dogs at play and with their families, dog portraits and puppies. 204 pages, 370 full color photos, 26 contributing photographers.

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