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Handler 101

Kjersti Dabakk and Amigo. Photo: Brian Aghajani. Courtesy of Kjersti Dabakk.

“Everything considered, one should be looking for these qualities in a good handler: a well balanced mixture of gentleness and firmness, patience, tolerance, empathy, adaptability, consistency, persistence, authority, open-mindedness, common sense, cooperation, willingness to learn and to share.”

–Dietmar Schellenberg, TOP Working Dogs

Being successful in IPO requires a dedicated handler. While a strong genetic foundation is crucial for the dog, what the handler does to then shape and build upon that foundation will determine their joint success in IPO. But who is the handler? What's their job? Can there be different types of handlers, and does it matter which type you are? It's time to give some thought to the human side of the team!

The Handler’s Job

The handler is the person who handles, or shows, the dog in the trial. They give the commands and direct the dog in each phase. They are the human half of the team, the one who leads the dance during the trial. There should be one handler for each dog, an important consideration when raising a family dog.

However, the handler is much more than the person who simply shows the dog on trial day. The handler also doubles as trainer, tracklayer, leader, partner, coach and more. Additional roles of the handler include:

  • Establishing rapport and relationship with the dog

  • Taking responsibility for the dog, his actions, and his welfare

  • Teaching the dog the desired behavior

  • Developing a logical training program and progression for the dog

  • Rewarding and reinforcing behavior at the right time

  • Correcting at the right time and problem-solving the behavior

  • Learning who the dog is – what they like, dislike, how they communicate, what motivates them

  • “Reading” the dog’s mood, emotional state, mindset, and body language

  • Making adjustment to improve the dog’s mood, emotional state, and mindset

  • Learning how to communicate effectively with the dog

  • Showing the dog the trial picture and preparing for the trial

  • Conditioning the dog and maintaining an adequate level of fitness for the sport

  • No doubt there's more!

What Type of Handler Are You?

There are different types of handlers, with an even greater variation in handling styles. Most handlers can be grouped into five basic categories based on their goals and purposes in pursuing IPO. These categories can also combine and overlap, with handlers falling into more than one category.

The Serious Competitor—This is the person who is serious about the training, who wants to succeed at high levels of the sport, and who shows that competitive nature. They are very driven, and work hard to achieve their goals. While many handlers have a bit of the competitive spirit, the Serious Competitor designation describes the handlers we find repeatedly competing for the top spots at our large competitions. They compete with their dogs with the primary goal of trialing at the national and international levels. They do not trial any dog just for the sake of trialing; they select the dog that will take them to the podium. They are dedicated handlers, and are usually excellent trainers. Their performances, methods, and selection of dogs tend to drive the evolution of IPO sport training.

The Status Seeker—While there are several variations on this type of handler, this is the person who trains in IPO so they can boast about it. Whether they want to earn trophies, import a pricey dog to gain bragging rights, or pursue protection work to boast of having a “real” protection dog, their goal is to make themselves look important. Their dogs are primarily used to fulfill and satisfy their ego, and they often treat the dog as a tool or possession. Status Seekers continue to perpetuate the negative stereotypes surrounding the sport of IPO and of the breeds used in this work; they are also the type of handler that most clubs loathe, and thus prevent from joining. Do not be a Status Seeker.

The Breeder—This is the person who utilizes Schutzhund in its original capacity as a breeding suitability test, training and titling their dogs in IPO for the purpose of furthering their breeding program. The Breeder uses IPO as an informative test of their breeding dogs. Their primary focus is to see what they are producing and to earn titles on the dogs included in their breeding program. This category can also be combined with several others, such as "Breeder/Serious Competitor". The Breeder group tends to work hard to protect the relevance of Schutzhund in testing breeding dogs.

The Professional—This is the handler who does IPO as part of their livelihood; they often work as professional trainers in addition to training and titling their dogs and client dogs. This category is often combined with “Serious Competitor”, and occasionally with the “Breeder” category. The purpose of the Professional is often mixed, with different personal goals and professional goals: training and titling dogs for oneself as a serious hobbyist or competitor, and then training and titling dogs because it’s their job to do so.

The Hobbyist—This describes most of the folks involved in IPO. They are working dog enthusiasts who enjoy IPO as a hobby, as something they do outside of their everyday normal work. Generally these handlers are involved in IPO because they want something to do with their dogs that uses their natural abilities. Their dogs tend to be part of their life and part of their family, and are not just competition dogs. Level of involvement ranges from the Casual Hobbyist handler who shows up every so often to work their dog at the club, to the Committed Hobbyist handler who trains consistently and intensely so that they can trial at the higher levels. The Hobbyist handler can be found at various levels of the sport: club, regional, and national. Hobbyist is often blended with one or more other types, such as “Hobbyist Breeder” or “Serious Hobbyist Competitor”. Just because IPO is viewed as a hobby does not mean that this handler can't be competitive! And of course, those of us in Schutzhund know that though classified as a “hobby”, it becomes a way of life!

Join me next blog for "What's Your Handling Style?"!

Unless otherwise noted, photos by Tamandra Michaels. Middle photo: Robert Johantgen during the SW Regional Championship. End photo: Tyler Pluss with Attack during the SW Regional Championship.


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