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Relationship Matters

It's all about relationship! Photo: Louise Jollyman/Brimwylf German Shepherds.

“Let him off.”

“What?” My dog stood barking next to me instead of sitting at heel position, so I thought I heard Joel incorrectly.

“Let him off,” Joel Monroe repeated.

“Um...But he thinks we're doing protection, not obedience,” I replied sheepishly, as if to explain my dog's disobedient behavior. I unsnapped the lead, and Axel took off around the enclosed Schutzhund field. He barked, ran up to Joel, darted through the other seminar attendees, ran up to the pile of sleeves, then gallivanted off to go everywhere except back to me.

I could no longer hide. In this one moment, it was glaringly apparent that when it came to work, my dog would rather be anywhere else than with me.

Enthusiasm wasn’t the problem. Drive wasn’t the problem. Work ethic wasn’t the problem. Discipline wasn't the problem (perhaps just a little bit!). The problem was a dysfunctional working relationship.


Having a dog naturally draws us into relationship with another living creature. For many of us, our connections with our dogs are much deeper and more highly prized than our relationships with other people. We have dogs because we enjoy that connection. So perhaps you are wondering: I already have a relationship with my dog. Isn’t that enough?

Well, that depends. Is it the RIGHT relationship for Schutzhund?

There are two different types of relationships we can have with our dogs: personal, and working. Most of us already have a personal relationship. This is what we develop from the time we bring our dogs home and begin to bond. This grows naturally as our dogs live with us. In this personal relationship, we enjoy each other’s company, play together, explore the world together, and live together.

The other type of relationship is a working relationship. This is what we have when we are training and trialing our dogs. It flows out of the personal relationship, but it is also separate. How is this relationship different? A personal relationship is more relaxed, less structured, and less demanding. But a working relationship requires intensity, focus, drive, engagement, and energy. The dog must want to work with us, not just hang around with us. Behaviors must be performed quickly, accurately, with great attitude and precision.

When training a dog for Schutzhund, everything flows out of a good working relationship. It is the very foundation of our training. How to we create that connection?


We cannot force the dog to want to be with us, no more than we can force someone to love us. Using the leash, pinch collar, flat collar, electric collar, or even food and toys to force or hold the dog in a relationship is a recipe for failure. As soon as these props and tools are gone, the façade of this relationship crumbles, and you are left with a dog that wants to be anywhere else but with you, when it's just you.

In a relationship, both parties take the time to learn about each other. What are their interests and hobbies? Favorite movies? Favorite foods? As the relationship develops, they learn more meaningful things about each other. How does this person handle stress? What’s it like to work together to accomplish a task? What’s their work ethic like? How do they view life?

Unfortunately, we can’t just sit down with our dogs and talk with them, ask questions, and hear their responses. Instead, we must find other ways to get to know our dogs, their likes and dislikes, how they view life and work, how they handle stress, etc. So how do we do this? We can develop a working relationship through Interaction, Play, Good Communication, Trust, and Engagement.


To develop a working relationship, we must do stuff with our dogs. Spend quality time with the dog, engage in play and personal contact, as well as training. Take the dog on walks and car rides and errands. Include the dog in daily life, and develop that connection with him. Through interaction and play, we learn his likes and dislikes, his mannerisms and behaviors, his body language cues to his particular moods. Just like in relationships with people, the more you do together, the more you learn about each other.

Teach interaction and play early! Photo: Louise Jollyman/Brimwylf German Shepherds.


Play is an excellent way to build a relationship with your dog, because play is a way to bond. But be purposeful in your play. Use play to shape and reward behaviors needed for working, while also teaching the dog the rules of the games (such as not running off and hoarding the toy, but returning to engage with you instead). Boundaries are important to any relationship, and these can be introduced during your regular interactions and during play (and then further developed in training).

Play should always be interactive, and should encourage connection. So what should you play? There is a wide variety of games out there. We eventually want our training to be an extension of play, so the proper games can lay that foundation for work later on. Regardless of the games you play, there are two guiding principles to follow:

  1. Both you and your dog should enjoy the activity!

  2. It should be interactive with you.

Several examples of games include: Box games (all the different things your dog can do with a box like stand on it, stand in it, sit in it, place front feet on it and pivot, etc.), Two-ball, Tug, Targeting (teaching the dog to target your hand or an object with his nose), Personal interactive play, Focus games, Meal time “games” (using his meals to train behaviors), and more. There are lots of different ways to play with your dog, so experiment and have fun!

Good Communication

This develops as a natural extension of your play time. Good communication involves excellent timing, a good read of body language, responsiveness, and listening skills (even when what the dog tells us isn't verbal!). Many of the fun little games we play with puppies serve the purpose of fostering good communication. We teach the dog how to have a conversation with us, while learning ‘how to learn’. We also learn how to respond to each other through these "training" sessions.

How do you know if you have good communication? There is a connection between you and the dog, he is responsive to you in training (as you are to him), and he demonstrates a clear understanding of the behaviors. With good communication, there should be little conflict and little confusion.


Trust develops naturally as you bond, interact, and play. But what is “trust” between dog and person? Trust means your dog has placed his confidence in you. He is willing to follow your lead, believes you will keep him safe, and looks to you for guidance and direction. To earn trust, you must be a trustworthy person to your dog. You must be confident, in control of the situation, and appropriately protective of your dog. Don’t put him in situations where he may be overwhelmed, scared, or left without your guidance. You must also be consistent with cues, rewards, and corrections; inconsistency can quickly erode trust.

As you spend more time with your dog and do more together, his trust in you should grow, and your relationship should deepen. If this isn’t happening, then you need to re-evaluate your relationship and your training.


This is a critical part of the working relationship, and was the piece I lacked with Axel in the story at the beginning. In order to even do work, we must have an engaged and focused dog. The dog must choose to be with us, and must take some of the responsibility for that engagement. We want active, not reactive, engagement. So how do we develop this? Engagement needs a more in-depth explanation of its own, so this will be the topic of the next blog!

So where does your relationship stand with your dog? Great, so-so, or needs a major overhaul? No matter where we are in our relationship with our dogs, there's always room for a little improvement!


< Previous Blog: Developing a Training Program

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