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Family Life and the IPO Dog

Schutzhund dogs with children

Best friends! Both of these dogs are IPO trained and titled. Photo courtesy of vom Haus Weinbrand.

Can an IPO dog also be a good family dog? How does the family dynamic work with an energetic, driven competition dog that has been trained in bitework, among other things? This is a legitimate concern for many new handlers. After all, many of us come from a background of having dogs as pets, which means that for most of us, dogs are a genuine part of the family. But what about your future competition dog? Can he still be in the house? Be allowed up on the bed? Come with you on family vacations?

The answer: Yes. With time and with training, most IPO dogs can become well-behaved, enjoyable family members. There are, however, a few differences to consider when raising a dog as both a competition dog and family dog. These will be broken down into what’s needed for IPO (The Need), where this conflicts with raising a pet dog (The Conflict), and a few of the many possible solutions (aptly named Possible Solutions).

Youth handler Kendall Maas with Dash, working toward their IPO3 at the Regional level. Photo by: Erin Easter Photography. Photo courtesy of Kendall Maas.


The Need: There should be one handler/trainer for the dog for IPO.

The Conflict: The family dog should respect everyone in his family and obey basic commands given from multiple people. This is especially important for families with children.

Possible Solutions: Train with two sets of commands. One set of commands is for family use, such as Sit, Down, Come, where the emphasis is on completing the behavior in a timely manner, not on precision and form. The other set is only used in training competition behaviors, such as Sitz, Platz, Hier, and are linked to a precise, fast, correct behavior. Everyone in the family should practice and use the first set of commands, but you, the handler/trainer, use the second when training.

Also teach basic manners. These can be trained early using positive methods, and can include a basic sit, down, and come command, along with “wait” when opening doors or the crate door, and an informal “walk with me” or heel cue for loose leash walking. These should be practiced with all family members.

Photo credit: Tamandra Michaels


The Need: The IPO dog must find great enjoyment in playing with his handler more than nearly everyone else (except maybe the helper, who dogs find irresistible), and must find value in motivators such as food, balls, and tugs.

The Conflict: Family members and friends also want to play with, pet, and feed treats to your dog.

Possible Solutions: Save the best motivators such as high-value treats, balls, and tugs for your special training time together. Reserve the dog’s best energy for your training times, and save the best games like two-ball and tug for training. Keep food rewards linked to performance. The dog should do something before getting a treat, such as sitting on command. Keep the high value food for your work together.

Decide if your dog will be allowed to play with others, with whom, when, with what toys, and how. Some handlers do not let other people play with their dogs until the dog-handler relationship is well-established. You don't necessarily have to deprive your dog of family play; just be thoughtful about how others will play with him. Save the best games for your time together, and don't allow uncontrolled play (such as turning the dog loose to run with the kids, with no rules and no boundaries).

Photo credit: vom Rebel Yelle


The Need: A free and happy dog in the work with tons of drive and enthusiasm.

The Conflict: With a high drive working dog, too much freedom results in a plethora of training issues, behavioral issues, and destruction, while too little freedom squashes behaviors and attitude we need for IPO.

Possible Solutions: A structured life can keep your sanity and home intact and keep your dog safe, all while capitalizing on the dog’s energy and drive for training. This involves a balance between restrictions and the freedom for your dog to just be a dog.

If you value your home and your possessions, then in-home freedoms should be limited for the first year, if not longer. Don't give the young dog full run of the home, even if supervised! Use management tools such as crates, leashes, baby gates, x-pens, and even outdoor kennels as needed.

The dog’s life should be a balance between confinement, exercise, play and free time, training time, family time, and alone time. Save the times when the dog has the most energy and desire for interaction for your training time. Structure meal times so that you can use them for a few minutes of training (don’t just free-feed the dog!). And of course, provide opportunities for your dog to just be a dog—safe romps in an enclosed area, sniff-and-pee strolls, walks in the woods, etc.

Photo credit: vom Rebel Yelle


The Need: The dog must be neutral toward other dogs, and must remain focused on the handler even in the presence of other dogs.

The Conflict: People want their dogs to be friendly and sociable with other strange dogs, and/or to run together with their existing pets in the household.

Possible Solutions: If you want a dog that can be friendly with other dogs, then start with genetics. Look for a dog from lines that do not display dog aggression. Then, ensure that he stays with his litter mates until at least eight weeks old so he learns appropriate dog-dog interaction. After this, maintain a balance between teaching him to ignore other dogs and allowing him time to maintain his dog-dog social skills.

Teach your dog to ignore other dogs. He does not need to play with every dog he meets, just as you do not need to become chummy with every stranger you meet. This requires having an alternate behavior in place (such as a solid sit with good focus), so that you can ask for this instead of letting your puppy lunge to the end of his lead.

If you want your dog to play well with others, select a few known, trusted dogs that have excellent obedience, and allow for controlled play. Say ‘No’ to dog parks; these encourage out-of-control behavior and extreme focus on other dogs, and can result in negative interactions that encourage anxiety and aggression.

If you want your dogs to all “pack” together, thoughtfully introduce your new dog to your existing dogs. Don’t overwhelm the new dog; slowly acclimate the dogs to each other first before allowing them to interact directly. Then, maintain a balance of controlled interactions and play time, separation, and individualized training time. Your IPO dog should not run free all the time with your other dogs; he needs to bond deeply with you, not with your other dogs.

Photo credit: vom Rebel Yelle

Social Interactions – Other People

The Need: The dog must be neutral around strange people. He must remain focused on the handler in the presence of distraction, but accepting of other people in close proximity and even of occasional invasions of personal space (such as with a microchip check).

The Conflict: People often expect their dogs to “love” other people and be sociable, envisioning a dog like a friendly Golden or Labrador Retriever. However, many working breeds are NOT this type of dog.

Possible Solutions: Understand that “being social” for many working breeds means the dog is comfortable being around people without necessarily interacting with them. He doesn’t need to be overtly friendly. Accept the fact that your dog may be aloof with other people.

Socialize your puppy, but do so appropriately and thoughtfully. Many people go overboard on socialization. They let everyone pet their new dog and invade his space, and force the dog into one stressful situation after another, which can create anxiety, mistrust, and reactivity.

Your goals to socialization should be the following:

  • show the dog what’s normal in life

  • build confidence in the dog as he faces new challenges and stress

  • teach the dog to ignore environmental stimuli

Let your puppy safely see a variety of people in a various environments, but do not force him to interact with everyone. Keep interactions safe and controlled. Don’t overwhelm the dog, and if people won’t listen to you, then be your dog’s advocate. Step in, be rude if you have to (but stay calm), and then leave.

Photo credit: vom Rebel Yelle


The Need: The dog should be energetic, free, and enthusiastic. He will need to bark, bite, jump, pull on the leash, tug, strike hard, and so forth in training the IPO work.

The Conflict: People typically want pets to be relatively well-behaved and calm in public and family settings. The energy levels and behaviors displayed by working puppies are often considered “unacceptable” or annoying.

Possible Solutions: Understand that high drive working dogs jump up, nip or mouth human arms, bark and whine, chase things that move, pick up anything they can possible get their mouths on, etc. But we don’t want to completely discourage or squash behaviors that we may need later on. There are several solutions that can be implemented together.

  1. Redirect and shape the behaviors into something we can use for training.

  2. Teach basic manners like “Sit” in a positive way, and use these to exercise some control.

  3. Utilize management tools to prevent unwanted behavior, and to avoid reinforcing the undesirable behavior.

  4. Keep your puppy out of situations where you will feel compelled to “correct” him for behavior he cannot control yet.

Family camping trip with Schutzhund dogs! Photo credit: Carissa Kuehn.

CLOSING THOUGHTS - Including Your Dog with Family and Friends

It’s possible! The time frame will vary depending on the dog—some fit in right away from the start, while others need time to mature before they can “settle in” with family and friends. Below are a few final guidelines, in addition to what was discussed above.

Work up to it. Gradually expose the dog to family events over short periods when things are calm. Don’t just throw him in the middle of a birthday party and expect him to be fine with it! But do expose him consistently and thoughtfully.

Control, management, and exercise are your best friends. The last thing you want is to promote out-of-control behavior in a high drive, untrained, under-exercised dog. Control the interactions, play, and socialization so your dog is set up for success. Manage the dog when you can’t control things. Provide adequate age-appropriate exercise and mental stimulation, in addition to "let him be a dog" time. Later on, once the dog has more training and has matured, he will be able to have more freedom (like actually hanging out in the living room off-leash!).

Maintain realistic expectations of your dog. Learn who your dog really is and work within his abilities. It is unfair to expect a working dog to be something other than what he is (i.e., to be a calm lapdog who is just naturally good in the house, when he's clearly not).

Teach the behaviors he will need to negotiate life in your family. Your dog doesn’t come knowing the rules, so you will have to show him. Yes, you don’t want to exert too much control at the younger stages, but you can still train good manners. A good sit can be one of your best management tools for your young dog!

Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Good family dogs—even pet dogs—aren’t just magically “made” after a few weeks of training. One day, you’ll look at your working dog and marvel at how easily he fits into the household. He may be two, he may be ten, but eventually, he’ll get there.

Join me next blog to discuss the question you will most likely get asked by family and friends unfamiliar with Schutzhund: Does IPO protection training make the dog dangerous?


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