Kicking the sleeve in schutzhund protection

I just got back from a one week protection theory course at Michael Ellis' School for Dog Trainers. I had a blast there working with Michael. I got to work Pi on the last day and that was fantastic. Over the next few weeks I will post on some interesting topics that were discussed. Today's topic is something we commonly see during a schutzhund protection routine and I will admit - I have applied in the past without enough of an understanding of why it was used.

It is very common in schutzhund circles for new decoys (like me) to copy what they have seen without understanding why those techniques were developed. However, each of the techniques we see used were designed for a particular kind of dog in mind and a particular problem in mind that was being solved. They are not applicable to every dog. One such example is the handler kicking the sleeve away from the dog once the dog drops the sleeve.

According to Michael, this technique was designed for dog that was too into the man (civil) and not into the equipment enough. It was designed to tell the dog “don’t be so darn serious, chase this thing”. Unfortunately if you apply it to a dog that has loads of prey drive and loves the equipment already - carries it all day long - he can become obsessed with the sleeve. The dog thinks "the darn thing has a life of its own as it moves on its own - I must really watch it". Now that can result in a faulty picture for schutzhund as the dog looks at the sleeve, focuses on the sleeve and bites the sleeve. What the dog needs to do is look at the man, focus on the man and bite the sleeve.

What is more appropriate for a dog that is already into the equipment is when the sleeve falls, the handler prevents the dog from getting to the fallen sleeve and the decoy immediately redirects the dog through him. e.g. decoy makes some noise initially to help the dog understand that if you want to start the game again, you have to play with me - that thing on the ground is dead. The decoy can then redirect the dog to another sleeve and the game starts again. The dog realizes then once the sleeve is dropped that it is the decoy he has to engage with, not the dropped sleeve.That is how he gets to bite.This leads to the correct picture for Schutzhund. It is preferable that when the decoy does this, he does not already have the second sleeve on him. By this time, the decoy should have established some auditory stimulators to get the dog to focus on him (bamboo stick, whip, noise made by decoy). It is better to use those as a bridge to get the dog looking at the decoy and then the decoy picks up the second sleeve and redirects the dog and gets him to bite it. We want the dog to learn to go through the decoy to gain the bite.

In Michael's opinion, kicking the sleeve is the perfect example of a technique that is in wide use but is incorrectly used on ¾ of the dogs it gets applied to.

When this technique is incorrectly applied, the result is often a dog that is absolutely obsessed with the equipment. Tt is not uncommon to then try to get the dog to focus on the man by eliciting defensive aggression and things can take a downward spiral from that point on. Defensive aggression is stressful to the dog and the dogs attitude does not necessarily carry over to a trial situation.

In schutzhund training we want the dog to enjoy the equipment and have it feel good to bite and carry but not to the point that the dog gets obsessed about it. The dog can provide the right picture that the judge wants to see - focussed on the man - but simply by teaching the dog to go through the decoy to get to bite - rather than as a result of defensive work.



Last weekend at Saugeen Schutzhund Club, under Belgian judge Rinus Bastiaanson, I am proud
to report that we had two great performances from Frontier members.

First off, Anick won High BH with Dagger - showing what a terrific future this partnership has in the sport.
Their heelwork was spirited and accurate and they were a pleasure to watch.

Then Tracy in SchH2 with Bullet did incredibly well with a score of 88 in Tracking (great score considering he missed an article)
91 in Obedience with his usual happy attitude and 90 in Protection - when Bullet brought down the helper in the courage test!
The spectators loved that! Way to go Bullet!. We all know how determined and focussed Tracy has been and
how diligently she and Bullet have worked so it was great to watch her collect trophies for not only High Score SchH2
but High Obedience, High Protection and, the best, High In Trial!

Pretty good weekend for the club I'd say. Great job Anick and Tracy.

Club President


Holding the sleeve after an out

I had no idea that anyone had read the blog posts I had done so far. I was encouraged when I found someone today who enjoyed reading them. Here is another one for you Kourtney!

During protection, it is quite a common scene to encounter a new handler with a dog who wants to 'kill' his won prey object by thrashing the living crap out of it. Accompanying this scene is typically the experienced Schutzhunder who points out that the dog must not be allowed to do that and should be made to hold the sleeve after having run in a circle with the prize.

What follows is generally some conflict. Dog wants to thrash sleeve. Handler makes the dog hold the sleeve calmly.

Without a doubt, a dog that circles nicely with the sleeve in its mouth and then holds the sleeve until the handler outs it or the helper is ready to re-engage, makes for a really nice flow during a training session. It also makes for long lasting training equipment. Unfortunately something that perhaps should be a means to an end sometimes becomes an end itself. There are dogs that REALLY REALLY REALLY want to thrash the sleeve about and many a handler ends up fighting with his dog to make him hold it calmly.

It is worth asking ourselves at this juncture, what is it that we are trying to accomplish? Why do we want the dog to hold the sleeve calmly? Carrying the won prey object is about the dog unloading from the stress which can accompany the bitework. It should be de-stressing for the dog. MAKING a dog forcibly hold the sleeve by training him to do so, for a dog that REALLY wants to thrash the sleeve about, has a certain level of stress associated with it for the dog - as we are making the dog do something it does not want to do ... and this is supposed to be down time for the dog.

Where did these techniques come from anyway and what where they intended to do? There are different schools of thought on this. It is worth asking those that recommend them what they are intended to accomplish.

Techniques that involve the dog running in a circle with the prey object and being encouraged to hold it when stationary, are said to have come from a time when dogs very very civil in their protection work. They were interested primarily in the man, with little desire for the equipment. One school of thought says that these techniques were developed for this very civil dog, to build a desire and enjoyment for the prey object. They are not necessarily useful for the majority of the dogs we see today with an already high interest in the prey object. Unfortunately they tend to be applied, almost obsessively, to every dog.

In addition, what the dog does once the sleeve is slipped to him, tells the helper something about the dogs state of mind after the bite. Many Malinois for example tend to get a lot of bite satisfaction from the fight itself with the man and slipping the sleeve prematurely without allowing them to unload on the man often results in (more) thrashing of the sleeve on the ground. If dogs are taught to forcibly hold the sleeve then this takes a way a piece of information that a helper can use about the dogs state of mind. Now the helper does not know whether the dog is holding the sleeve because the work is just right for him or because he has been taught to hold it. The helper could have used this information to adjust his work on the next bite.

The Utopian dog who is satisfied with the bite should be happy to unload by circling with the sleeve and holding the sleeve out of his own accord, until the helper looks at him and starts to engage him. This dog would then spit the sleeve out, not caring about it anymore, and engage with the un-sleeved helper. The helper then has the opportunity to pick up the sleeve and go into the next bite. A dog that does this is 100% in balance in his drives in the protection work. He understands clearly that the helper is part of the fight and not just something the sleeve is attached to. He is satisfied to hold the sleeve and run around with it unloading, but only while the helper remains static and uninterested in engaging him. He has gained his bite satisfaction on the man and so does not *need* to thrash the sleeve about.

I find that many a dog who thrashes a sleeve normally, when worked in a way that is appropriate to provide them the bite satisfaction on the man, tend to hold the sleeve much better once it is slipped. Of course this is not always the case. Lots of dogs simply enjoy thrashing the sleeve about and it is very ingrained behaviour. It does not mean that the work is wrong for the dog. However it does give the helper something to file at the back of his mind for the next bite. It is thus not worth taking this information away.

Lots of old timers tend to have the opinion that if the dog is allowed to thrash the sleeve about then he will be chewy and do the same on the man. I'm sure that there are dogs that are chewy and thrash on both the man and the sleeve alone when slipped. However there are a LOT of dogs who will thrash the living crap out of the sleeve but will not shift their grip on the man at all. I don't personally believe in this theory. I don't think what the dog does with the slipped sleeve has anything to do with how he bites on the man.

Everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion on these matters. The one thing that is easy to agree on is that it is harder on the equipment when a dog thrashes it about :-) Tracy, whose Giant Schnauzer Bullet is the 'thrasher-in-chief' at our club, occasionally buys the club a sleeve cover as penance for Bullet being hard on the equipment. We find this is a good compromise!

Full disclosure: The above information is something I have gotten from Michael Ellis at one of the seminars he did for us. He seems to have thought through this quite a bit and explains theory behind protection work very well. I would highly recommend attending one of his seminars or courses at his school if you are more interested in these ideas.


New puppy... and not a Terv!

Christopher met a litter of Shepherd puppies at the GSSCC Ontario regionals, fell in love and is now the proud owner of Atom Von Fulk:

Atom is already showing amazing focus, is confident of everything and eager to explore. We are really looking forward to their future together!


Using Verbal Cues in Problem Solving

Dogs are masters of body language and naturally respond better to physical rather than verbal cues. This is why when we teach new exercises, we teach a physical cue first - for example using a lure to teach a platz, and then fading the lure to create the physical cue.

A verbal cue is then added BEFORE the physical one to create a classically conditioned response to the physical cue. The dog anticipates the physical cue and thus learns that the verbal cue alone is sufficient to achieve its reward once it performs the desired exercise.

Verbal cues are an extremely useful training tool in problem solving and are useful well beyond simply putting the exercises that the dog must perform in trial (sitz, platz, hier etc.) under verbal cues - as we must to achieve our titles.

I believe that in responding to verbal cues, a dog must think much harder than it does when responding to aphysical cue alone. I believe that the result is that the dog thinks harder about its behaviour and eventually learns to self correct by anticipating the verbal cue. When this is coupled with the dog being rewarded for the correct behaviour, it makes for a self reinforcing cycle with the dog being rewarded for it correcting its own behaviour.

It is probably easiest to explain my thoughts on this with examples of how verbal cues can be used in this way.

Teaching Correct Heel Position Beside the Left Leg

Two of the most common errors we are likely to find in our own heeling, from time to time, are forging and crowding. Here I am talking about a dog that knows the position beside the left leg quite well and is generally does not crowd when heeling. Even in a well trained dog that knows the position, you will encounter times when the dog is not in the perfect position.

If you re into micro-managing this behaviour, and attempting to get it correct, then I think it is worthwhile to have your dog know the verbal cue 'Back'. You teach the dog this verbal cue outside of formal heeling.

Teaching the type of 'Back' that we are after here is best done in three phases. The first phase is to start stationary with the dog in a stand beside the handler, on a short leash. Best to do this exercise so the dog is beside a wall. The handler says 'Back' and then one second later takes a deliberate step backward. Since the leash is short, the dog has no choice but to step back with the handler. Doing this beside a wall teaches the dog to walk straight backward. The handler marks the correct behaviour with his release marker (OK, click - whatever you use - I'm assuming you are using operant conditioning), and then rewards the dog.

Once the dog is at the point where the handler can say 'Back' and the dog immediately moves back without the physical cue of the handler moving backward (don't forget to jackpot your dog when he does this the first time!!), now we are ready to move to the next phase.

The next phase of Back is to teach your dog that you want it to move back when you use the cue even if you say it while you are walking forward. You set your dog up similarly - short leash, against a wall. Now you are heeling forward with the dog and say 'Back'. One a second later you deliberately and abruptly step back, causing the dog to do it with you and marking and rewarding when the dog does. Important to remember that you must use the cue while are still moving forward at your natural heeling pace. If you use the cue at the same time as you break your stried to move backward then the physical cue of you breaking your stride will over-ride the verbal and your dog will be dependent on it. We are after the dog responding to the verbal cue alone. This is simple for me to state in words but it is not easy for any of us to do in practice. You must think about this deliberately and practise this without a dog several times - best with a spotter, to ensure it becomes second nature before you apply it with a dog.

Once you have practised the above many times and have a dog that will reliably step back when you say 'Back' while you continue to walk forward, you now enter the third and final phase. Again do this beside a wall to encourage the dog stepping straight back. Something different in this phase with the first two phases is that unlike phase one and two where the behaviour ended and the dog got released once the dog took the step back, here the 'Back' and its response on the dogs part, is now put together with you and the dog continuing your forward motion into heeling with the dog's step back only being a slight interruption. To ensure that your dog is rewarded for the correct behaviour you do need to reward the dog. I recommend that if you normally release and reward with a tug at the end, you might want to incorporate food here.

In phase three, you and the dog are heeling beside the wall. When your dog is obviously one or more step forged from the heel position, you say 'Back', your dog will step back, now you mark with a bridge command (I use 'Good') and reward your dog with food in the correct position to re-inforce the step back it took. While you are doing this you keep walking forward and not break a stride. It is not necessary to use food. Your dog will generally be able to respond to the bridge ('Goood') if you have already correctly established it as a secondary reinforcer using operant conditioning. I like food because it immediately rewards the dog in the right position for the behaviour it performed.

Once you have the 'Back' command firmly established, what you *should* be able to use it for during your normal heeling is as soon as you see your dog step out of position (ahead by one step), you say 'Back', your dog responds through the very extensive conditioning you have done from phase one to three, by taking a step back, you say 'goood' and continue heeling. Initially, it is a good idea to mark the end of the exercise and reward with the primary reinforcer after the dog has correctly responded to the 'Back' and stepped back into position.

Once your dog is proficient and you are correctly using 'Back' every time your dog steps out of position, you will find that the dog starts anticipating your use of the command and steps back into position itself. This is suttle. Expect this and reward it with a jackpot the first time your dog does this.

When you use verbal cues to micro manage your dogs behaviour in this way, it creates for a very powerful tool that you can use while heeling without breaking a stride.

There is an additional physical cue that is worthwhile using with 'Back' which I have not mentioned so far because this article is primarily about using verbal cues. If you have taught your dog to move with light leash pressure, then your dog can respond quite well to a couple of taps on the prong in the backward direction, after you say 'Back'. I'm not talking about a correction here. I am taking about light taps on the prong which are intended to communicate direction to your dog. Puppies are best taught to move with leash pressure in this way (and yes I mean with a prong). You are not cranking on your prong when you are doing this. What you are doing is simply communicating to your dog which direction you wish it to move. You have to teach your dog to do this by deliberately rewarding for movement with leash pressure. You can insert a couple of light backward taps on the leash / prong in this way, right after the 'Back' command in phase one and two but before the strong physical cue of you taking the step back. This way you have two tools at your disposal to manipulate your dog during heeling to fix its position - the verbal cue and a light physical cue.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must point out that with Farrah, I have, during teaching of the 'Back', used it somewhat incorrectly and made her more dependent on a physical cue than she should be.

Teaching a Dog to Center on the Man in the Blind

I must start by pointing out that I have not yet applied what I discuss in this section. I hope to do this in the coming weeks with a couple of dogs in the club if their handlers want to work on it together with me. I will report back in a future post on how well it worked.

After a lot of repetition of receiving bites from one hand, many many dogs tend to move to the side of that sleeve in the hold and bark. The hold and bark can start to look a bit weak in some cases and in others you might loose a few points for the dog not centering on the man - even if the hold and bark is quite strong otherwise.

The totality of reasons why dogs start to hold and bark sleeve-side are probably beyond the scope of this current post. One obvious reason is the sign tracking behaviour that I described in the previous paragraph. It is worth noting however, that it is a certain type of protection work that is probably more prone to a dog occupying the sleeve-side position. Training a dog out of a more predatory type of aggression than defensive aggression will result in more of this behaviour. While I like a dog to be active in its aggression in the blind, I believe that the proper picture is possible to achieve without the more traditional techniques of focusing the dog on the man by eliciting defensive aggression (whipping the dog in the blind and so on).

I make no excuse out of the fact that I dislike eliciting a purely defensive response out of the dog as I believe that the proper picture can be achieved with a dog being rewarded for focusing on the man for his reward - the bite.

I don't mean to suggest that I don't like to see a dog being a bit defensive in the blind. What I don't like is to force that response in the ways it is traditionally done. My reasons are that I believe that a lot of dogs that are simply not built for this tend to needlessly look worse in the blind than they otherwise would. Additionally, I believe that even the dogs that are built for this tend to desensitize very quickly to it. Then the helper finds himself having to escalate to achieve the same response from the dog.

Back to the point at hand of the verbal cue. There are different ways to elicit the dog to fix its position in the blind. Using a barrier is one but it is a bit of a crutch and I don't believe that it creates a lasting response.

Others include having the helper move his body to get the dog to move with him into the proper position. Many good helpers are in-tune with the dog and can do this well. I am beginning to experiment with this with varying degrees of success. I find that I can only do this about 50% of the time. Another good way is to use some other physical cue to get the dog to fix its position. In the case of one dog at our club, Frankie, our club helper demonstrated to me how he was doing this with the stick held in his right hand but tapping the dog under the sleeve, reaching across the dog's body, nn the right side of the dogs body. The handler assisted by helping move the dog with a bit of leash pressure. Of course when you are working on fixing position like this, the dog only gets the bite when he is in the right position.

I believe that it is very worthwhile to put the act of the dog fixing his position under a verbal cue. Of course you can only do this once you have found a physical cue that works well for that particular dog, to fix its position.

I believe that once the dog learns to fix his position on verbal cue alone, it becomes much easier for the dog to fix his position in the absence of the cue as he tends to anticipate it. In addition, you can then use it in situations where you ensure that the dog will be incorrect in its position and you make him correct by reminding him with the verbal cue. You should then be able to move side to side with the dog being able to fix his position and do a centered hold and bark on the man.

You can do this with a physical cue too except I think that that is too easy for the dog and a verbal one makes the dog think on his own quite a bit more. I believe he is more prone to anticipate and self-correct his behaviour when you put these fixes under a verbal cue and use them that way.

To turbocharge this kind of problem solving, I also believe you need to move to two sleeves so the dog stops predicting where the sleeve is coming from. If the dog is particularly sleeve focused and actually looking ta the sleeve alone or back and forth between sleeve and man then simply fixing his position is not adequate, I think you need to move the sleeves behind your body (provided that the dog is safe as a heavily sleeve focused dog will generally be), and produce a bite from either side so that the dog cannot predict. Such a dog also benefits from the helper actually dropping the left arm sleeve in full sight of the dog while hiding the right arm sleeve behind the helper and presenting the bite with the right arm sleeve, or a hidden sleeve. This convinces the dog that the visual presence of the left arm sleeve is immaterial with respect to where the bite is going to come from.

While this post has now gone well beyond the verbal cue, I thought these points are worth making in the context of the problem being discussed. The verbal cue is one tool in helping with this overall problem.

In my own opinion, I prefer any and all of these techniques than simply the old fashioned response of making the dog artificially more defensive in the blind. I prefer that response to come from psychological pressure applied to the right dog that can handle it appropriately by a good helper in the blind. I find this to be more appropriate because in trial the dog comes upon a static helper and must bring his own aggression to the blind for the picture to look good. A dog that comes upon an imposing self confident helper on a strange field at a high level of competition faces a degree of psychological stress and must bring some active aggression into the blind in the face of it.

Full disclosure again. I am not a vastly experienced helper with wide experience in fixing these types of issues. I am quite new to helper work myself. These are simply my observations based on limited experience and as I get the opportunity to apply my thoughts, I will report back on what works and what doesn't for me.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on what techniques you apply to address the training issues that I have discussed here.

Aamer Sachedina


Group shot

We tried to get a group shot this past weekend but it didn't go so smoothly. They are all so funny I have to post them all – takes 1-8. Enjoy! Click for big.


Valerie & Fresca, HIT

May 15 /16 Valerie and Fresca competed in SchH3 at Scarborough Select Schutzhund Club under judge W. Szentmiklosi. He was a judge with a very sharp pencil, but even with scores of 87/84/76 Fresca still managed to be High SchH3 - although the protection score smarted a bit and caused some surprise, since her performance was generally considered to be pretty good. But the judge felt her bites could have been harder and fuller and so she was heavily penalized for having an off day. She still ended with High Obedience and High Tracking and overall High in Trial - but not one of her best performances.