The Right Dog for IPO

Snapshot/still from the USCA Nationals video. Photo: Martin Barrow's "Inigo" with Don Yelle, taken by Brian Aghajani.

“Courage is probably the single most important characteristic of a Schutzhund dog.” -Dietmar Schellenberg, TOP Working Dogs

What makes a dog a good candidate for IPO? Which breeds do best in this sport? How do you find a good dog for the work? The new handler is faced with many questions about one of the most important players in Schutzhund: the dog. It takes a certain kind of dog to succeed in IPO. So where to begin?

Characteristics of IPO Dogs

First: there is no such thing as a perfect IPO dog! Every dog will have strengths, weaknesses, and a unique mix of character traits that make up its genetic temperament. However, there are general characteristics that are considered ideal in a Schutzhund dog. Regardless of breed, the Schutzhund/IPO dog should have:

  • a stable character

  • high trainability

  • a desire to work with and for the handler (biddability)

  • drive and desire for the work (work ethic)

  • some level of natural aggression and protective instinct

Additionally, they should be relatively easy to motivate, with an interest in food (food drive), interest in playing with and chasing toys and ball (prey drive), and a natural desire to bite their "prey" with a full, strong grip. The best dogs also have a strong "fighting" instinct that is directed at their adversary; they enjoy the fight, just like a pugilist enjoys a boxing match. Most importantly, however, the IPO dog should show a courageous and resilient character, with an ability to cope with and think clearly under stress.

Which Breeds Work Best?

Nothing opens up a can of worms faster than posting which breed you think is THE BEST for Schutzhund! Each breed brings positive and negative attributes to the table; thus, selecting a breed really is a matter of determining which matches your personal preference, lifestyle, and goals.

Schutzhund initially was developed for the German Shepherd Dog, but many other breeds show an aptitude for it, including Beauceron, Belgian Malinois, Belgian Tervueren, Bouvier de Flandres, Boxers, Briards, Dobermans, Dutch Shepherds, Giant Schnauzers, Rottweilers, and more. Several unconventional IPO breeds include the Airedale Terrier, American Bulldog, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Cane Corso Italiano, and Hovawart. Mixed breeds can and do compete in IPO as well.

Which breed is right for you? If you have not already determined this, then investigate several different breeds, research their characteristics , and talk with individuals who own that breed and who compete in IPO. This cannot be emphasized enough: find people who compete with the breed you like, and get the details on what it's like to train this breed of dog, compete with it, and live with it! Spend time around these dogs, and determine if this breed is ideal for you.

The Big Four

The four most popular breeds for IPO are German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Rottweilers, and Dobermans. The general characteristics, pros, and cons of each breed are discussed below. Of course, while these apply to many individuals in the breed, exceptions to these generalized characteristics can easily be found.

The working representatives of the breeds below differ from those found in the pet home. The working dogs have a more athletic conformation, a stronger temperament with natural aggression, and better energy and enthusiasm for the work. The individual dogs that excel in IPO typically come from bloodlines with a history of performance, and descend back over dogs bred to the European standards--even if bred in the United States. These standards require that numerous criteria be met before the dogs are bred, such as achieving a conformation rating, working title, breed survey, and standard health tests for the breed.


Beth Bradley's "Fyte" after his stellar performance that earned him the title of 2016 USCA IPO3 National Champion. Photo: Brian Aghajani.


  • Intelligent and trainable

  • Versatile, athletic and energetic

  • Natural tracker

  • Biddable, eager to work with handler

  • Well-rounded and balanced temperament, emotionally stable

  • Good family companion

  • Resilient and forgiving of handler mistakes

  • Doesn't bore easily in training

  • Body style allows dog to work in a wide variety of weather conditions

  • High stamina and endurance


  • Several different "types" of GSDs requires the buyer to educate themselves extensively prior to purchase

  • So much hair!

  • Can be strong-willed and push boundaries

  • Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia are common, even in litters from tested parents

  • The 'longer than tall' structure predisposes them to spinal injuries in the sport

  • Can have large variability in temperament within the breed, sometimes even within a litter

Common health problems (* = ones that can be tested prior to breeding)

  • Hip Dysplasia*

  • Elbow Dysplasia*

  • Transitional Vertebrae*

  • Degenerative Myelopathy*

  • Cauda Equina

  • Skin and allergy problems

  • Digestive problems (Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency, poor assimilation, Bloat)


Tim Karchnak's "Goose" with Weston Kester at the 2016 AWDF Championship. Photo: Brian Aghajani.


  • Intelligent and highly trainable

  • Very energetic with seemingly unlimited energy

  • Driven and motivated to work with the handler

  • Fast, agile, and athletic

  • Sensitive to the handler

  • Resilient and forgiving of handler mistakes

  • Doesn't bore easily in training

  • Body style allows dog to work in a wide variety of weather conditions

  • High stamina and endurance

  • High bite satisfaction, which makes receiving the "bite" an extremely strong reward

  • Has yet to gain favor as a "pet" dog


  • Nerve strength and environmental soundness can be an issue ("spooky" dogs)

  • Too sensitive, can lack resilience

  • Tightly wound and cannot relax

  • Can be difficult to live with due to inability to "settle"

  • Can be hectic in the work due to extremely high levels of drive with thinner nerve

  • Less balance in overall temperament

  • Barking issues in protection

  • High bite satisfaction often means food and toy are less-satisfying motivators

  • Can have difficulty with tracking

  • Emotionally sensitive, can be disturbed easily in times of stress

Common health problems (* = ones that can be tested prior to breeding)

  • Hip Dysplasia*

  • Elbow Dysplasia*

  • Skin problems/allergies


Kathleen Sanderson's "Warik" at the 2015 AWDF Championship. Photo: Brian Aghajani.


  • Strong and powerful dogs

  • Sensitive and affectionate

  • Intelligent

  • Perpetually smiling on the field, big clowns

  • Generally good-natured dogs

  • Natural defensive aggression

  • Good companions with an ability to "settle" in the home

  • Think they are your lap dog


  • Repetition bores them

  • Long memories for negative stimuli

  • Can be less forgiving of handler mistakes

  • Lower stamina and endurance

  • Body style puts them at risk of overheating

  • Willfull and stubborn

  • Slower to mature

Common health problems (* = ones that can be tested prior to breeding)

  • Cancer

  • Hip dysplasia*

  • Elbow dysplasia*

  • Cardiac problems*

  • Bloat

  • Cranial Cruciate Ligament tears and ruptures


Not a coonhound! Wendy Schmitt's Doberman "Asta" with Weston Kester. Asta has natural ears and tail. Photo courtesy of: Wendy Schmitt.


  • Highly intelligent

  • "Thinking" dogs

  • Biddable and sensitive to the handler

  • High trainability

  • Affectionate with their handlers

  • Good companions with a great "off" switch and ability to settle

  • Natural sharpness

  • High fight satisfaction - brings natural "fight" to the helper

  • Very little hair


  • Thinking dogs - sometimes it's easier to train a dog that performs a task without as much thought

  • Can be overly sensitive or overly sharp

  • Long memories for negative stimuli

  • Less forgiving of handler and helper mistakes

  • Can have a difficult time with change

  • Not as well-adapted for cold environment

  • Emotionally sensitive, can be disturbed easily in times of stress

Common health problems (* = ones that can be tested prior to breeding)

  • Cardiac problems*

  • Cancer

  • Bleeding disorders*

  • Allergies

Hopefully this guides you toward the right breed for you! Join us again next blog to discuss the decisions a handler faces when looking for the right dog. Puppy or adult? Male or female? Domestic or import?

< Previous Blog: Training Etiquette Next blog: Puppy or Adult? >

© 2020 by Cor Bellatore Press. All rights reserved.

Banner photo: Axel with Helper Mario Fernandez, photo by Tierney Bagley. Portrait photo by Brian Aghajani. All photos are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission.

The views on this page are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.