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Who's That Helper Out There?

Helper Weston Kester in the blind at the 2015 USCA National Championship.

The Schutzhund helper is one of the most important people in your dog’s protection training education. The helper brings your dog along from raw material to trained Schutzhund, helps instruct you on handling your dog on the field, and prepares your dog for the protection phase of competition. There is so much more to being a helper than just putting on a sleeve and taking bites from dogs!

Types of Helpers

There are three types of helpers: the trial helper, the teaching helper, and the training helper. Some of the best helpers out there fulfill all three roles, while also training and trialing their own dogs.

  • Trial helper: this helper works dogs in a trial. Their job is to test the dogs for the judge by properly executing all of the trial exercises with appropriate pressure. However, just because they are a good trial helper does not mean they are good at training dogs for protection work. Like trial work, the training aspect must be learned.

  • Teaching helper: this helper teaches other helpers. Teaching helpers hold educational seminars, training other helpers how to work dogs safely in a trial, and classifying them at the appropriate level (see below). Teaching helpers must have also titled a dog themselves.

  • Training helper: this helper trains dogs and their handlers, bringing a dog up from a puppy to mature IPO-trained and trial-ready dog. Most training helpers started as trial helpers while also learning how to train dogs over the years, and may have titled dogs themselves.

There are different levels, or classifications, that a helper can achieve within their respective organization. In USCA, for example, helpers are classified at a helper seminar into one of six levels: entry, basic, club, regional, national, and teaching helper. The levels are based on the number of dogs worked in trials, the number and types of trials worked, the number of seminars attended, and the ratings of the judge given after each trial. Through DVG, there are three levels of helpers: class 3, class 2, and class 1. Class 3 is the beginning level, where the helper can work dogs at club trials. Class 1 is the highest level, where the helper can work dogs at championship events.

Helpers at the 2016 USCA Helper College receiving instruction from helpers Weston Kester, Ryan White and Sean Murphy, under the watchful eyes of Scott Boedecker and Deb Krsnich. Photo: Carissa Kuehn.

Helpers at the 2016 USCA Helper College receiving instruction from helpers Weston Kester, Ryan White and Sean Murphy, under the watchful eyes of Scott Boedecker and Deb Krsnich.

The Role of the Helper

Helpers have a valuable role that requires them to wear several different hats. Their job requires subtlety, instant reactions, and an excellent command of body language. They are out there on the field and truly in the moment with the dog. They read the dog, look into his eyes and see his level of commitment, observe what he is thinking and feeling, and then adjust their posture, presence, and actions instantly based on what the dog needs. It requires experience, training and skill for a helper to do their job well.

Below are just a few of the roles a good helper fulfills:

Teacher: Along with the handler, the helper teaches the dog the desired behaviors in protection, utilizing the dog's natural skills and drives. The helper teaches proper targeting, gripping, outing, and barking behavior. Later he builds on this foundation to develop correct guarding, escape bites, frontal catches (like those seen on the long bite and attack out of back transport), proper grips and behavior during drives, and more. The dog's education continues with increased control and secondary obedience: capping, call-outs from the blind, side and back transports, obedience for bites. Even when secondary obedience and preliminary exercises are trained by the handler for a toy, this must be transferred to the helper, requiring him to step into the teaching role. Like a sensei at a karate dojo, the helper teaches the dog how to properly win the fight according to the rules.

Adversary: The helper serves as an adversary and sparring partner. As the dog learns the right behavior and becomes more confident, the helper puts more pressure on the dog and teaches him more components of the fight. This is to fully develop the protection dog, and to prepare him for the pressure he will face on trial day. When the dog enters the field with the helper on trial day, he faces the helper as an opponent. It is the helper's job to test the dog for the judge on trial day, not be his friend or teacher. At higher levels, the helper will be a completely new adversary, and the dog must be confident that he can win the fight.

Helper Marcus Hampton is an intense and worthy adversary for Axel during the 2013 USCA National Championship. Photo by: Shellshots.

Helper Marcus Hampton is an intense and worthy adversary for Axel during the 2013 USCA National Championship. Photo by: Shellshots.

Reward: Biting the sleeve is inherently rewarding for most dogs. Thus, engaging the helper serves as a high-value reward for when the dog does something right. This is one of the greatest rewards for the dog, of higher value than just about anything else the handler can offer. This explains why a dog that will do a blind search or focused heeling for a ball may suddenly act as though he never learned these behaviors when a helper is present!

Teammate: The helper is not just a body or sleeve to use to achieve your goals of competition. Rather, the helper is a vital member of your training team. The helper invests a tremendous amount of time, effort, and skill into you and your dog to help you achieve your goals in IPO. You are both in this together, and you will need to work as a team to succeed.

The tools of the Schutzhund helper's trade.

The Build-Your-Own-Helper kit! Showing the tools of the helper's trade: cleats, scratch pants, stick, sleeve, and a winning smile. Just add one willing and able-bodied person!

Helpers are supremely vital to IPO, and a good helper is worth their weight in gold! Next blog, I will discuss how to evaluate the quality of a helper. How do you know if a helper is any good?


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