Preparing for Your Schutzhund Club Visit
You've made contact with a Schutzhund club, and you are ready to visit. But how should you prepare? What should you bring? What can you expect? The first visit to a Schutzhund club can be an anxious experience for those new to IPO training, so let's get you equipped for that initial meeting!
WHAT TO BRING
Schutzhund people are notorious pack rats. We have everything we could possibly need shoved somewhere in the back of the vehicle: leashes, collars, harnesses, tracking boots, bug spray, tugs, balls, long lines, and more (and yet, we still forget things!) But what do you really need for your first time out?
As a handler, you should bring:
A positive, ready-to-learn attitude
Water and a snack/food (for you, or to share)
Sunscreen and bug spray (if applicable)
Clothing appropriate for being outdoors in your area at the current time of year
Sturdy footwear—no sandals, please!
Cash—many clubs have training fees, and only take cash on training days. Exact change is appreciated.
Camp chair (optional)
If you are bringing your dog with you, then also include:
Harness (if you have one)
Water and water dish
High value training treats
Training toys such as balls and tugs
NOTES ON DOG EQUIPMENT
Harness: If you don't have a harness, no need to rush out and buy one, as the harnesses for protection training are purposefully made for the work and cannot be purchased at a regular pet store. Ask for recommendations from the club members as to harness style and manufacturer (my personal favorites are those from K9 Tactical Gear), and then invest in a good one. This photo at left shows a protection harness in use on Marie Taylor's Nero as he works on Helper Shay Lachish (Photo by Gina Eichert).
Collar: Bring what you are comfortable using, although if you have your dog on a pinch or chain collar, bring a flat collar for the evaluation. Don't bring a no-pull harness or head halter for your dog; both of these are counterproductive to training in IPO, as this sport requires the dog to have freedom of its head, mouth, and body (and the dog will be encouraged to pull, as you can see in the photo below!).
Crate: Most clubs require dogs to be crated when not being worked. The crate can be hard-sided plastic, wire, or a custom-made metal crate, but NOT a soft-sided crate. Why a crate? Crates keep dogs and people safe. Loose dogs can result in dog fights, bites, or serious accidents. If your dog is Houdini, then please also properly secure the crate door.
Leash: Bring a nylon or leather lead about six feet long and approximately 3/4 to 1 inch wide. During the initial evaluation, the dog will range out in front of you; you want a lead long enough for this, plus one that is kind to your hands when the dog pulls, and sturdy enough to handle the pulling. In this photo, Marie Taylor's Nero demonstrates how the lead and harness will be used in training (Helper: Shay Lachish, photo by Gina Eichert).
Treats and toys: Treats should be of high value (think meaty or cheesy!). In a stimulating environment, dried dog biscuits or kibble are not going to cut it. Bring a plentiful amount of food, way more than you think you will need. Training toys can be whatever your dog values at home that you play with. If he plays with a ball, then bring the ball. If it is not a ball on a rope, then be prepared to get lectured on why you MUST have a ball on a rope. If he likes to play tug, then bring his tugs. You may use them, or you may not, but it is better to be prepared.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Expect training to be an all-day or all-evening event. This is not just a hour-long obedience class. Schutzhund people are committed to training multiple phases and multiple exercises. Additionally, training is a team effort and social hangout. Even though each handler may only work their dog for 15-20 minutes at a time, they all stick around, help other handlers, and enjoy each other's company.
Don't expect a red carpet welcome and endless attention. This is not a business where the customer is always right and must always be taken care of. People are here to train dogs, not entertain guests. They are concerned about training and working their dogs in Schutzhund, and they expect others to have this same focus. When we are busy working our dogs, we sometimes forget to be social with our guests, so please don't be offended!
Club training day - small groups of handlers all busy working dogs in IPO Obedience.
Expect to feel a bit lost. It's a whole new world, so it's okay to be a little lost at first. One day, you too will know what to do when the helper tells you to "Post up" or "Cradle the dog". In the meantime, utilize your powers of observation. Watch other handlers train, and observe what actions accompany which phrases. A large amount of information can be absorbed simply by watching others.
Expect to see different training methods and equipment. At any given club, you will find a wide variety of tools used to train the dogs, everything from clickers and treats to prong and electric collars. Many handlers use various training tools at different times, and utilize all four quadrants of operant conditioning to some degree in their dog's education.
The presence of tools like prong/pinch and e-collars does not mean this club is "abusive" or "evil", as some would have you believe. Most of the top Schutzhund trainers in the world enjoy a fabulous relationship with their dog while using these tools appropriately to balance the high levels of drive, aggression, and control required by IPO. So observe how these tools are being used, how the dogs act (they should still be happy, enthusiastic, eager to work, and clear in their understanding of an exercise), and what the relationships with the handlers are like. Then make your judgments from these pieces of evidence.
Expect to be informed that you are doing something wrong with your dog. I say this with a smile, but this is an initiation of sorts. We all do something wrong at some point. Wrong collar, wrong treats, rewarding incorrectly at the wrong time, feeding the wrong food or feeding too much food ("your dog is fat!"). It will happen, and often! Schutzhund requires a thick skin, as well as an ability to filter through all the various advice and constructive criticism.
Hopefully you now feel a little more prepared. Join me again next blog, which is all about the first visit and first evaluation!