Photo: Brimwylf German Shepherds/Louise Jollyman
Schutzhund/IPO – now IGP – is not a sport that can be trained alone. At some point, we need help: spotters, group members, stand-in "judges", someone on the back line, etc. We need to help each other, and many handlers do just that. However, there also are those who think they are helping, but really aren’t. How do you know which group you are in?
"HELPFUL", BUT NOT
Let’s start with this group. These are the individuals who mean well, but whose way of “helping” is not beneficial, and sometimes not appropriate. These are the ones who:
Grab your leash without asking to “show” you something
Offer their own form of impromptu “distraction training”, such as clapping their hands, calling your dog’s name, heeling their own dog around close to yours
Randomly pressure your dog by walking around or toward him during sits, downs, or guarding in the blind
Attempt to “proof” your dog during exercises (see "distraction training" bullet point above)
Interrupt your training session to offer you training advice, and not just a quick comment but a dissertation on how you should train the exercise
Basically, these individuals see what you are doing and take it upon themselves to “help” you by creating distraction, correcting your dog, offering advice, etc. – WITHOUT EVER ASKING. Unfortunately, this type of "helpful" handler may do more harm than good. How so? They may not actually know what the handler and the dog need, and are stepping into a role of “trainer” that is not intended for them. By attempting to be “helpful”, they may actually add in an element the dog is not ready for and create a bad experience for that dog, not to mention interrupting the flow of the session and breaking that connection and focus between dog and handler. The last thing a handler should have to worry about is having a club member sabotage their session!
So if this describes how you offer “help” to your fellow Schutzhunders, please just STOP, and read on!
TRULY HELPFUL PEOPLE
Truly helpful club members typically demonstrate a couple of key characteristics:
Relationship - They have a good rapport with the people they are helping, and have established trust (so when they grab the leash or offer advice, it is better received and more appropriate).
Experience and/or Intuition - They tend to be more experienced in working dogs, but more so than that, they have good intuition and a good “eye”, which is one of the reasons why they are trusted.
Understanding - They are aware of the particular dog/handler dynamic at play, and have knowledge of the handler’s training program and what they are trying to achieve.
Invitation - They may take liberty here in helping the handler – such as providing distraction training, picking up the leash without asking, offering a piece of training advice (all the things listed earlier) – but the difference is that they have, at some point, been invited into this handler’s training, and they understand what is needed. It’s sort of like being hugged by a good friend versus being hugged by a random acquaintance or even a stranger. One has been granted the liberty to invade your personal space because of the nature of your relationship; the other has not, but takes it anyway.
BECOMING A TRULY HELPFUL HANDLER
So how do we ensure we are truly helpful, and not just “helpful”?
OPPORTUNITY –Instead of looking for opportunities to give advice and “help”, seek out opportunities to develop your own eye, intuition, feel, and knowledge. Become someone who is trustworthy and worth listening to out there on the training field, someone people WANT to go to for help, not someone who just airs their own opinions and “training advice” whenever there’s someone around to listen.
ASK - Before jumping in to help, there are four basic questions you can ask yourself:
Did you ask the handler/did they ask for your help?
Is their dog ready for what you are about to do?
Does it fit with the handler’s training program?
Does it align with the intended purpose for that training session?
Better yet, if you want to help, the first thing you should do is ASK the handler if they want you to help them, and how. What are they working on for this session? What do they need you to do or observe? What DON’T they want you to do? Don’t just take it upon yourself to decide what’s best for them.
UNDERSTAND – Seek to understand how the handler wants you to interact and help. Clear communication will lead to a clear understanding of what is desired. Do they want you to offer tips and advice as you see something, or do they want you to wait to the end? Do they want you near them on the field while they are training? Do they want you watching them, watching the dog’s position, or both? Also, try to gain an understanding of the particular dog/handler relationship and training dynamic, because it will be different from yours, and you cannot assume that what you do with your dog is what they should do with theirs. Their training style and their dog’s needs are going to differ from your dog, so what works for you may not work for them. Keep this in mind before offering advice, too.
OBSERVE QUIETLY – Look for what the handler wants you to look for, but do so in an unobtrusive manner. Don’t be a chatterbox, but speak up if they need you to. Keep it short: “He’s forging.” Don’t give a big long exposition of training tips that interrupts the flow of training. If you observe other things beyond what the handler requested, make a mental note about them and share those later, UNLESS what you observe is interfering with their training session and they need to fix it right then.
GIVE OBSERVATIONS, NOT ADVICE – This is crucial: give out observations, not training advice. “Hey, I noticed that your dog drops his head each time you turn” is an observation. But proceeding to tell them how to train their turn the way you think they should – now that’s advice, and it is not always welcome. If you’ve been in the Schutzhund world for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that many handlers have advice they want to share, and only some of it is good. It is wise to keep your advice to yourself unless the handler specifically requests it (or if you have a good rapport/relationship where advice is exchanged freely).
COMMUNICATE AT THE RIGHT TIME – Unless otherwise requested/needed during the training session, give out your in-depth observations after the handler has finished training. Don’t waste their time on the field talking to them or distracting them from the task at hand, while their dog runs around or falls out of drive. Find the right way and right time to discuss the training session with them. Don’t forget to point out the positives as well as the areas that need work!
BUILD RELATIONSHIP – This is probably the most important step in helping each other. Build positive relationships with each other that are based on trust, respect, and encouragement. Build rapport with each other, and then the trust and ability to speak to each other’s training flows from there.