Helper Marcus Hampton with Jimmy Honda's dog E'Tienne. Photo: Deb Krsnich.
Before you ever let a helper work your dog, you need to see him (or her) in action first. There are some good helpers out there, but there are also some bad helpers who can ruin a good dog. How do you tell the difference? What do you look for?
Helper Background Info
Before working with a strange helper, it is helpful to know:
How long he has done helper work
Approximately how many and what level of trials he has worked (club, regional, etc.)
Whether or not he has titled a dog in IPO, or is currently training a dog in IPO
Who his mentor is/was
Ask a few questions of club members; sometimes a simple “Tell me about your helper” is all you need. Proud club members will tell you everything you could ever want to know about their helper. If not, you may need to ask specific questions like those above.
Answers to these questions can provide an idea of this helper’s experience and skill level, as well as clues into his methodology (by looking up his mentor, if you do not know who they are). The rest can be deduced from his helper work itself and his interactions with the dogs and handlers.
Shay Lachish with Marie Taylor's Nero during training. Photo by Gina Eichert.
Characteristics of Good Helpers
When you visit a club, watch the helper during protection work. Pay attention to how he moves, how he works the dogs, how he interacts with the handlers, how he carries himself and expresses himself verbally, and how the dogs work on him.
Are smooth, fluid, athletic, and confident in the work.
Care more about working each dog safely than about showing off out there on the field.
Have an excellent “read” of dogs and “feel” for dogs, and can accurately interpret the dog’s behavior.
Treat each dog as a unique individual, training to its particular strengths and building upon its weaknesses.
Bring out the best in each dog, and work each dog according to its particular capabilities.
Use appropriate force or pressure only as necessary, and work the dogs through it successfully.
Do what's best for the dog. The dog always wins in the end.
Recognize when a dog is overly stressed, shutting down, or overwhelmed, and take steps to remedy these situations.
Seek to develop the whole dog—prey, defense, and fight drive—at a pace dictated by the dog.
Always work to improve technique and to learn from each dog they train.
Good helpers almost take on a supplemental role when training dogs; their work naturally draws the eye to the dog, and you find yourself watching the dog more than the helper. Additionally, good helpers make the work look effortless and easy; they always seem to know what to do at just the right time. Dogs should be happy and eager to work on the helper, not stressed out or afraid, and they should flourish under his training.
People skills are also important for a club helper. The helper should interact well with the club members, and vice versa. Good helpers are realistic about an individual team's capabilities, but they should be supportive of the club members and their dogs, regardless of skill level of the handler and genetic prowess of the dog. Handlers should be succeeding in their goals under the helper's instruction, earning titles and showing forward progress.
Frank Phillips' dog Kliff puts Weston Kester's athleticism to the test during his stunning long bite at the 2016 USCA Nationals. A skilled and safe helper is a must for a dog like Kliff! Photo: Brian Aghajani.
Characteristics of Not-So-Good Helpers
Not-so-good helpers vary in reasons why they are 'not so good'. They may lack skill, technique, experience, or, despite having these, have an enormous ego that eclipses their talent.
Are wooden, stiff, inflexible, and lack confidence in the work.
Jam or run over dogs in the drives.
Cannot lose. They do what's best for them, not what’s best for the dog.
Care too much making money or showing off their talent out there on the field.
Utilize only one training method and insist that all dogs conform to that technique.
Put excessive pressure on dogs and destroy the dog's confidence.
Do not work with what the dog has naturally, but try to force it to fit a particular mold.
Do not have a good read of the dog’s behavior and body language, and fail to recognize conflict within the dog.
Misinterpret and confuse the various drives and behaviors a dog shows.
Push dogs along too quickly in an effort to get results, instead of allowing the dog to dictate the training time table.
Use heavy-handed and cruel “training” techniques that cause psychological or physical damage.
Make little to no effort to learn more and to better themselves and their training.
With a not-so-good helper, the attention is drawn to the helper while they work dogs, often because of their stiffness and lack of athleticism, or because of how much they inappropriately pressure the dogs. Their timing is off, and they look like they are working too hard or trying too hard to get a response. The work is not smooth, and dogs may seem stressed, confused, or afraid.
Some helpers may work the dogs well, but lack the people skills to work effectively with the handlers. They may be arrogant, extremely defensive, or are all about working the dogs their way, or else! While such helpers may have good helper skills, their attitude and approach to training make them difficult to deal with. The handler must decide, then, if they can work with this helper as a team.
The dog always wins. Rhonda Kilbane's Haven circling proudly with her prize. Photo: Gina Eichert.
As you visit a club, observe the helper's work and look for the good characteristics discussed above. Hopefully, the helper at the club you are visiting is a good helper, and you feel comfortable working your dog on him or her. If you aren’t sure, then don’t bring your dog out for an evaluation right away. Visit a few times and watch him work the dogs over multiple sessions. Ideally, you should see clear forward progress in the dogs.
The helper will be your partner in protection work. At the end of the day, there are two questions you must answer: can I trust this person to work my dog safely, and can I work with this helper as a team?
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