Power. Control. Athleticism. Courage. Harmony. This is Schutzhund, or IPO. It is the smell of jute, leather, freshly cut grass, and plowed loamy earth. It is early morning sunrises, late evening training sessions under the lights, and time spent alone with just your dog—your partner and your teammate—by your side. It is a tango of power between the dog and the helper, and a waltz of harmony between the dog and the handler. It is the intrinsic satisfaction that comes from observing your dog fulfill his genetic destiny by doing what he has been bred to do. It is adventure and challenge all rolled into one, and the deep personal accomplishment of your hard work blossoming to fruition. Welcome to this life-changing dog sport and test of temperament for both dog and handler!
What is IPO?
IPO—or International Prüfungsordnung—is a rigorous dog sport and breeding suitability test for breeds like the German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois, Rottweiler, Doberman, and more. It has three phases: tracking, obedience, and protection, which are used to test a variety of skills, genetic traits, and overall versatility of a dog. IPO is derived from the original test of Schutzhund, which has a long and rich history of evaluating and testing working dogs for over 100 years. These two terms, IPO and Schutzhund, are frequently used interchangeably, even though we all now compete for IPO titles.
The brilliance and elegance of Schutzhund is often overlooked and taken for granted, especially if it is viewed only as a sport. This test was originally developed for German Shepherd Dogs by individuals who understood working dogs, and who used this knowledge to craft different exercises testing specific components of the dog’s temperament and working abilities. From beginning to end, Schutzhund/IPO is designed to test the dog’s temperament under different scenarios and pressures. Coincidentally, it tests the handler's character and resilience as well!
Three Phases, One Title
IPO is a triathlon for the working dog. It has three equally weighted phases: tracking, obedience, and protection. The dog/handler team must pass each phase with a minimum of 70 out of 100 points at the same trial in order to earn their working title. Each team must also first pass the temperament test and companion dog exam known as the Begleithunde, or BH, before attempting their IPO titles. After this, there are three levels of working titles—IPO1, IPO2, and IPO3—that must be earned in sequence. Additionally, there are different levels at which to trial—club, regional, national and international—with each level increasing in the rigor of judging and expectations of the team.
Phase A: Tracking
In tracking, the dog/handler team works together to follow a track left by a person, or tracklayer, on a natural substrate such as grass or dirt. The tracklayer walks a specific pattern of straight lines and turns at a normal pace, dropping several small objects, or articles, of wood, fabric, or leather onto the track itself. After a specific amount of time passes to let the track age, or sit undisturbed, the dog/handler team follows the track from beginning to end, relying on the dog’s sense of smell to complete the task. The handler must follow the dog at a distance of 10 meters at the end of a 10-meter line, approaching the dog only at the articles. The dog must point out or pick up the articles as he reaches them, and must wait for the handler to collect the article and restart him on the track.
Schutzhund tracking requires the dog to methodically work through the track with intense focus and minimal guidance from the handler. To earn top points, the dog must demonstrate a deep nose close to the ground at all times, with good focus and intensity, and accurate working out of the track—checking nearly every footstep, making each turn perfectly, and accurately indicating each article.
Phase B: Obedience
In obedience, the dog/handler team works together to perform various obedience and agility exercises. Off-leash heeling, out of motion exercises (sit, down, and stand out of motion), recalls, retrieves on the flat ground and over a 1-meter hurdle and an A-frame, and a ‘send out’ away from the handler must be demonstrated in a particular order. The dog’s sound sensitivity is also tested with gunfire during the heeling portion, and any gun-shy dogs are dismissed from the trial. The overall picture should be one of harmony and power, with the dog happy and confident in the work, focusing intently on the handler, and energetically and accurately complying with the handler’s commands.
Phase C: Protection
In protection, the dog/handler team works together to complete exercises designed to test the dog’s courage, power, commitment, and control. At each level, the dog must perform a search for a hidden “bad guy” or helper, a hold and bark upon finding the helper, an escape bite to restrain the fleeing helper, defense against the helper’s attack, transport of the “captured” helper to the judge, and the long bite (also called the ‘courage test’), where the dog is sent down the length of the field to engage an aggressive helper.
Protection is the most exciting and often most misunderstood phase, requiring a unique balance of power and control. More information about the protection phase can be found in "Protection Explained", an article I co-authored with Anne Kent for United Schutzhund Clubs of America. You can find that article here.
If any phase of the IPO test is failed, the team must complete all three phases again the next time they enter a trial, in order to earn their title. If a team fails a phase, they must still compete in the other phases at the trial, unless the team was disqualified.
If this test of temperament and character sounds exciting and challenging to you, then stick around! Next blog, I'll talk about how to get involved in IPO in North America, with a little help from my friend Yvette Skinner and her awesome map skills.
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