Is this dog dangerous?” This is one of the most pressing questions handlers will face from family, friends, and strangers. There is great concern that training in Schutzhund means you are “training the dog to bite”, making the dog dangerous. After all, it has been drilled into us to teach a dog NOT to bite; why on Earth are we teaching it TO bite?
There are several misconceptions related to this overarching concern. Those unfamiliar with Schutzhund are worried that a protection-trained dog is unreliable and dangerous because they may fear that the dog:
has been “trained to bite” and is therefore more likely to bite
has been made mean and aggressive through the protection work
might decide to self-deploy on a harmless person
has been turned into an attack dog
A CLOSER LOOK AT PROTECTION
In order to address the above concerns, we must first look at the end product of IPO protection. Schutzhund training should produce a strong, confident dog with excellent control that can successfully complete the requirements of the IPO test in a public trial. So what is required of the dog in this test, particularly the protection routine? During the IPO protection routine, the dog:
Must engage only the helper upon verbal command or upon being attacked by said helper
Must only grip the jute sleeve, and nothing else
Must “out” or release upon verbal command, even when at a great distance from the handler
Must perform the protection work only while under voice control, without being touched by the handler
Must guard and not bite the helper when he has become passive
Must escort the helper in extremely close proximity, without engaging or biting him
Must be completely neutral and nonthreatening to all other people at the trial: judge, trial secretary, group members in obedience, spectators
VALUABLE "CROSS-OVER" TRAITS
What does the IPO protection test demonstrate besides biting? The protection work displays the dog’s genetic grip, courage, hardness, and strength of temperament. But it also requires valuable traits such as:
Discrimination – determining who is a threat (the helper), and who is not (everyone else), and showing an ability to assess the level of threat and adjust his response accordingly (barking and guarding when helper is passive, biting the sleeve when helper aggresses)
Self-control – the ability to control itself and maintain composure even when pressured and in a state of high drive and excitement
Clarity – the ability to think and remain clear-headed even when under stress, focusing on his job and continuing to listen to the handler
Obedience – remaining completely obedient to the handler even when under pressure and while in high arousal. The obedience required of an IPO dog—even a dog going for its entry-level IPO1 title—far exceeds any obedience expected of a well-trained pet. The control required of the IPO dog in protection is exceptional.
All of these traits above are extremely valuable in any dog expected to live within society. Who wouldn’t want a dog with excellent discrimination, self-control, clarity of mind, and obedience? It is the alternative—a dog that lacks discrimination, lacks self-control, lacks clarity, and lacks obedience—that truly constitutes a dangerous dog, not the IPO dog!
Now that we have a better idea of the test, let’s look at these misconceptions one by one.
Misconception 1: Training the dog to bite makes him more likely to bite.
This misconception is similar to saying: “Training a child to do karate makes him more likely to hit people.” In actuality, the reverse is true. Training a child in martial arts helps them develop confidence, respect, and self-control. Yes, they are learning “how to hit”, but they are also learning how to control it, when to use it, and more. Most people who learn martial arts will never need to use it within real life, other than in training and in their competitions. Similarly, a properly trained IPO protection dog will most likely never need to use his skills within real life outside of training and trialing.
Schutzhund training essentially is martial arts for the working dog. Like in martial arts, we are not teaching violence; we are teaching control. In IPO, we are not teaching indiscriminate biting; we are teaching the dog a specific way, place, and context to bite, placing this under our direct control as handlers, while developing the dog’s own self-control. We are taking a dog’s instinctual desires, genetic grips, and inherent bite satisfaction and carefully shaping it into something that is well-defined, well-controlled, and performed within the context of certain rules. All this training and control reduces the likelihood that this dog will bite someone indiscriminately.
Misconception 2: Protection work makes the dog mean and aggressive.
This stems from the belief that the dog must be made or forced to bite. This is completely false. The breeds that excel in IPO come with a genetic bite satisfaction, meaning they enjoy biting and gripping things like their toys, their tugs, etc. Most of these breeds in IPO like to bite with a full grip, a holdover from their original working heritage as a herding or utility breed.
IPO protection work comes naturally to these dogs, and they absolutely love it. One only needs to watch young dogs learning protection work to see how much enjoyment they get out of it. The dogs strain at the end of the lead in excitement, trying to get to the tug or bite pillow. They bark and yip excitedly, eager to get the game going. And when they finally strike the tug and “win” it, they carry it around so jauntily, proudly displaying their “catch”. They have a great and deep satisfaction in the protection work.
Does protection change the dog’s temperament and make them more aggressive and mean? No. IPO training does not change the dog's basic genetic temperament. A happy dog will still be happy. A grumpy dog will most likely still be grumpy (He may be a little happier when he gets to fight with the helper!). Schutzhund does, however, give us an environment that exposes and tests this temperament, so that we can learn what it is and learn how to handle it. Through proper training, the dog should gain clarity, confidence, direction, and joy in the work. Improper training, however, can amplify the wrong traits and cause confusion and conflict; thus, it is important to work with qualified, experienced Helpers/trainers when doing IPO protection. This qualification alone immediately rules out the majority of "personal protection" dog trainers. This is also the reason why protection work should not be trained by oneself at home!
Misconception 3: The dog will be more likely to "self-deploy".
The concern is that the dog might make its own decision to go after someone once it has been protection trained. However, when a dog has been trained in IPO, he has learned contextual rules about when he should and should not engage someone. It has never been his decision to make on his own.
The reality is that it is the dog's individual temperament that will determine whether or not he will "take things into his own paws", which is an attitude found in assertive, controlling dogs. Such a dog will seek the upper hand regardless of whether or not he is protection trained. For a dog like this, protection training takes his assertiveness and places it under the handler's control. Indeed, with a high-drive working dog that genetically possesses social aggression, a little suspicion, and strong fight drive, protection work can actually make this dog safer!
How can IPO protection work make a dog safer?
It gives the dog specific rules and boundaries.
It develops self-control.
It trains and encourages excellent obedience, even in high arousal.
It puts the dog under the handler's verbal control, even in high arousal.
It provides excellent physical and mental exercise, and an outlet for the dog to unload pent-up energy.
Most importantly, it develops the dog-handler bond, and teaches the handler who this dog is and how to handle it.
Just like any other dog owner, the IPO handler is responsible for maintaining control of their dog, and should do their best to prevent him from getting into situations he may perceive as threatening. The good news is that should this happen (and it can happen with any dog, protection-trained or not), the IPO dog has far more training, obedience, and control than most other dogs, is better able to think and maintain composure, and has more experience with what constitutes a threatening situation. Yes, the breeds used for IPO should have some discrimination, but a dog does not think like we do about other people. Dogs think like dogs, fitting everything they experience into the framework of their canine understanding of the world. It is our job as humans to exercise our good judgment in our lives with our dogs.
Misconception 4: IPO protection work means the dog is now an "attack dog".
The IPO/Schutzhund dog is NOT an attack dog. True trained “attack” dogs are rare; what most people call an “attack dog” is usually an extremely aggressive animal with little to no actual training, making it an uncontrollable liability. The other interpretation of “attack dog” is guard dog, an animal that fiercely defends its home turf and people against ALL intruders. I will use the term “attack dog” loosely to apply to both interpretations.
There are many significant differences between a Schutzhund dog and an "attack dog". An "attack dog" or a true guard dog is not social. It sees everyone outside its immediate family or handler as a potential threat. They usually have very sharp temperaments, high suspicion, and high aggression. The “attack dog” has never had to go through any sort of standardized test, or have its temperament evaluated by an outside party, or even be taken out anywhere in public.
By contrast, the Schutzhund dog must have a stable and confident temperament. The dog must be social and comfortable around people in a public venue. The dog must also show versatility, courage, discrimination, control, obedience, composure under stress, and more. Additionally, the IPO dog:
must pass the BH exam, which tests the dog’s temperament and obedience in a test similar to the Canine Good Citizen test, with the addition of an extensive obedience routine.
has its temperament evaluated at every single trial by the judge.
must demonstrate mastery of specific protection exercises, and is graded on the execution of these exercises by the judge.
must also show excellent obedience, in addition to demonstrating tracking ability, all at the same trial.
When we review what’s required of the Schutzhund dog, it becomes clear that a trained Schutzhund dog is NOT an attack dog—far from it!
Training a dog in IPO protection work should not create a dangerous dog. Rather, it results in an animal who is confident, stable, and controllable with excellent obedience. The IPO dog is a well-trained canine suitable as a companion dog, family dog, and integrated canine member of society. Whether the dog genetically is a happy, biddable dog or a strong, assertive canine, the extensive training required for Schutzhund can make them a safer dog.