Schutzhund is fun, crazy, demanding, strenuous, inspiring, heart-breaking, fulfilling, exciting, and sometimes confusing and overwhelming. How does one make sense of it all? Even when you ease your way into it, you may soon feel like you are in over your head. What's the best way to navigate it? While this will vary from person to person, dog to dog, below are a few tips to help the new or inexperienced IPO handlers stay afloat!
15 Tips for New or Inexperienced IPO Handlers
1. Find a mentor, one who can work with you and your dog in person. Go one step further, and find a club with a good mentor in it!
2. Respect experience. Respect and seek out those who have been in this work for a while, and have been successful at it. These people can be found at all levels and in all aspects of IPO, from training directors at the local club to national level competitors to seasoned helpers who have worked hundreds of dogs over the years.
3. Know your dog. Don't just learn about the coolest and hippest training methods; you need to learn about your particular dog, and how to best communicate with and train him. Be committed to your dog, not just to a particular training method or philosophy.
4. You learn about your dog by working with him, not by talking about him. We've all been guilty of talking excessively about our dogs at one time or another, but please don't bore friends and club members with non-stop discussion of your dog. Go out there and train him instead.
5. You learn how to train your dog by training him, under the guidance of your mentor. In other words, you learn to 'do' by 'doing'. Research and reading are great, but eventually, you need to practice what you learn.
6. You learn to trial your dog by trialing him. Every trial will teach you something different about your handling, your dog, and your training. Do your best to be prepared for trial day (particularly as it pertains to your role as handler), and go from there.
7. Don't make excuses or try to explain away or rationalize your dog's behavior. Do you like or want the behavior? If not, then figure out how to change it instead of making excuses for it, or instead of trying to psychoanalyze the dog to figure out why he did what he did. If you like it, keep it. If you don't like it, fix it.
8. Don't know how to fix it? Ask someone more experienced and wiser than you. Talk with your mentor, or find others who have faced a similar problem and successfully overcome it.
9. Everyone has an opinion when it comes to IPO training, trialing, and the dogs involved in IPO. Seek out and listen to the people who have the experience and knowledge to back it up. See #1 and #2 again.
10. You will make mistakes. Even the best handlers make mistakes. The key is to learn from your mistakes and not make the same mistake over and over again.
11. Don't idolize popular trainers or become their latest groupies. There's nothing wrong with admiring popular trainers and learning about different ways of training behaviors, but remember that no single trainer or training method is the best for every dog. Just because a popular trainer trains something a particular way does not mean that it is the best method for YOUR particular dog (see #3). You can respect the trainer's experience, but this doesn't mean you should follow them blindly. Be committed to your dog, not to a trainer's persona. If you commit to their program, be certain that doing so is in the best interest of your dog.
12. Don't get caught up in all the endless terminology (prey drive, aggression, fight drive, R+/positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, etc.). Go work with your dog, and keep it simple, clear, and consistent. Learn what to reward, how, and when. If you correct, then learn what to correct, how, and when. See #1, #3, and #4.
13. Don't listen to the "Peanut Gallery". These are the folks who always have something to say about every dog, every trainer, every performance, every handler. They sit in the stands and critique the dog and handler, and "armchair quarterback" it on the Internet. Ignore them, as most of what they have to say is completely unhelpful. They only talk, but never do.
14. Get out there and enjoy your dog! This is probably THE most important tip. Enjoy your dog, and stop comparing him to others. Work with and enjoy the dog you have in front of you!
15. Find what it is that you love about IPO and about your dog. This will keep you going when the times get tough. It will get tough, and messy, and even ugly. But stay strong and steady, and focus on what you love; you'll get there, and if the training is good, then it will be beautiful!
IPO has two uniquely embedded aspects: the training and the trialing. The training provides an incredible amount of information about who and what your dog is, as well as about who you are as a handler. The trialing allows you to prove your training and to compete with yourself (trying to better your performance), and with others. Both aspects combine to create this journey we call Schutzhund/IPO. Enjoy the journey, not just the end result!
Good luck, and happy training and trialing!
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Waybright-Kook Photography, Shelley Fritzke.