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DEBBIE ZAPPIA on Training "Without" a Helper

I am incredibly honored to feature three-time USCA National Champion, repeat world competitor, and 2015 WUSV World Champion Debbie Zappia on SCHUTZHUND LIFE!

Debbie Zappia is a brilliant trainer, an amazing handler, a competitor of first magnitude sportsmanship, and a wonderful person to boot! Debbie joins SCHUTZHUND LIFE during Helper Week to address the question: can IPO be trained without consistent access to a helper?

Can IPO Be Trained Without A Helper?

Debbie has mentioned before that she conducts a large part of her training without a helper. Given her incredible success in the sport, I found this intriguing, and felt this offers hope to those may not have weekly access to a helper.

However, there’s good news and bad news. First, the bad news: the three-phase sport of IPO cannot be done without a helper. Debbie was adamant about the importance of the helper:

Debbie: “If you don't have a helper, you must find one. There is no way to be successful in this sport without a good helper. It's like saying I want to drive a race car, but have no car to learn on, how do I do it? Or I want to compete in dressage, but I don't have a horse. Impossible to do. I train exercises used in the bite work phase, however, I am not a helper. I need a good helper to make my dog's protection performance outstanding.”

Now for the good news: there is much that can be trained first without the presence of the helper that can later be transferred to active protection work. Secondary obedience in particular can be introduced first in a lower-drive setting through use of tug, ball, or even bite pillow. Handlers can teach all of the following (and more!) with toys before transferring it to a helper:

  1. Blind running

  2. “Mark” cue vs. “Watch/Look” cue

  3. “Transport” cue and behavior for the back transport

  4. Heeling away from and around a distraction

  5. Call-out away from a toy

  6. Clean “outs” of the toy or tug

  7. Barking

  8. Carrying and holding the tug

Hannah Kook and Willa work on running blinds without the helper. Photo: Jeff Waybright.

Debbie described what she trains without the helper:

Debbie: “The secondary obedience is obtained by teaching the exercises on toys. With a toy, one can teach the blinds, the back transport, heeling away from the helper, a call out, the "out", etc. Of course, once a helper is added to the exercises, the distraction is much greater, but if the dog understands the task, executing the behavior under distractions is accomplished with ease as compared to trying to teach the behaviors with a helper present.”

This raises an important question of when to start working the dog. If all this can be done without a helper initially, then at what age should the dog start working with a helper?

Debbie: “Each dog is an individual. Age is relevant to the dog. I want to know that the dog I have chosen has a genetic grip, so I test this early. If he can bite, I usually wait until he is about 12 months to start working on a helper. Other than doing "puppy" bite work, I want my dog to be able to sit, to mark an object on command, to look at me while in a sit position, to aggress on command. Once I have these behaviors, I can move forward. My dog also understands to stay on a board. At some point I train my dog to look at me while barking to get the toy.”

Making the Most of Limited Access to a Helper

What happens when it’s time to work on the helper? How can handlers make the most of each session? Debbie described how she capitalizes on her time with a helper:

Debbie: “As mentioned earlier, you can teach many behaviors used in the protection phase without a helper. However, you have to have consistency with a helper as well. Consistency to me means once a month for 3 consecutive days of training.

“The helper starts by getting a feel for the dog. I am dependent on the helper to be able to read my dog and act appropriately. I usually work my dog twice a day during a session.”

So what should people do if they belong to a club or training group that does not have a helper?

Debbie: “The Internet is a wealth of information. Videos help a lot. However, there is no substitute for training with others. If you don't have a helper, you have to import one.”

This may involve pooling the group’s resources to bring in an outside helper once a month for a long weekend. Each handler must then make the most of their time with this helper, similar to how Debbie does with working the dog twice a day for three consecutive days of training. The rest of the month, the group or club can teach and refine the secondary obedience behaviors needed for IPO protection, such as those mentioned earlier.

But how do handlers, a club, or an informal training group go about finding a helper? It may take a little legwork to track down helpers who are willing and able to travel for training. Contact helpers in your region with proven performance records of handlers titling dogs under their tutelage, and/or of helper work at higher levels such as championship events. You are not “stealing” a helper from another club, but instead are looking for a helper interested in doing regular protection training "seminars" with your group.

Debbie's Eros demonstrating clear and convincing guarding. Photo: Brian Aghajani.

What should you look for in the helper? Last blog I discussed how to evaluate a helper; Debbie also chimed in and shared what she looks for in a potential helper.

Debbie: “I look for a helper that is able to adapt and work with dogs at all levels. This means that a helper does not work within a system, but rather can read a dog and adapt their actions and responses to create balance. The final goal is to have a dog that is concentrated and clear in his work. Each dog brings to the field its own genetic makeup. Some are heavily weighted towards the prey side, while others are more naturally defensive. The goal of a helper should be to bring the dog as close to the middle as possible. I want a helper that has that same philosophy.

“Finally, the most important factor for me, is that my helper is a good human being. He must be open to listening to my concerns and be able to converse. Many may find this a strange requirement, but the helpers I use share my home and become like family. I must trust them to have the best interest for myself, my dogs and my club members.”

Parting Words from the World Champion

Schutzhund is more than the protection phase, although this is the one that relies so heavily on other experienced people. How to stick with it? Debbie had some encouragement for handlers:

Debbie: “Have fun and enjoy your dog. IPO/Schutzhund is a difficult and time-consuming sport, without instant gratification of a title. However, the results are so worth the effort. If done correctly, the bond between you and your K9 companion is rewarding and lifelong.

“Enjoy the journey and the process. Embrace the day to day training, pay attention to the details, always put your dog first. If you pay attention to the climb, you will reach the top, and you never know what's waiting for you on the other side of that mountain we call Schutzhund. I am the perfect example of that. I never expected to hold the title "World Champion", but there you have it!”

Many thanks to Debbie Zappia for sharing her experience and wisdom in this interview! If you want to hear more from Debbie, then be sure to check out John Wolf's interview with Debbie over at (interview starts at about 8:40).


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