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Creating the Trial Picture

Vadim Plotsker and Woody set up at basic position under the watchful eye of Judge Michael Caputo. Photo: Carissa Kuehn.

When training for Schutzhund/IPO, the end goal usually is to trial the dog in the future. But how closely does your training mimic the trial? How do we create the trial picture?

It starts with understanding the full trial picture. Watch an event in person, and really pay attention to what happens. Don't just watch the performances of the dogs on the field, but focus on the entire trial picture presented on trial day, from how handlers show the dog's ID to how they check out with the judge and receive their critiques.

This alone is eye-opening, because a successful trial involves so much more than just performing a routine out there on the field. Watch carefully and observe: How does the judge handle the temperament test and ID check? How do handlers set up for a microchip or tattoo check? How are handlers staging their dogs and preparing them to go on to the field? How does the trial run? When are the competitors on the field, off the field, with their dogs, without their dogs? When does the leash come off and go back on? What comments does the judge make in the critiques about handling or competitor behavior? How do the handlers set up at the long down? At basic? For the blind search? For the jumps? How do they walk out to their track on the field, and set their dog up at the start?


The way we train our dogs should begin to mimic the trial picture. But what are some of the key differences between the "training" of each phase, and the "trialing" of each phase? Check out the lists below of the major differences in each phase during a IPO trial.


  • Judge and tracklayer on tracking field and track with you

  • Other people, vehicles, and dogs around or even on tracking fields

  • Temperament test, ID check, and line check at tracking field

  • Reporting in and out to judge before/after the track

  • Full length tracks with no rewards

  • Stranger-laid tracks (IPO2 and IPO3 levels)

  • New, fresh, and lightly scented articles

  • No rewards at the articles

  • Dog is 33 feet from handler at all times

  • Minimal handler help and no talking/praise from the handler

  • New field/strange location

  • Different tracking surface compared to training (even when we try our best to match them!)


  • Empty field except for the judge and other dog/handler team

  • Checking in and out with another dog/handler team that may be unknown to your dog

  • Could have either long down or field first

  • Gunfire both in the heeling pattern and during the long down (IPO titles only)

  • No rewards other than light praise from handler

  • No corrective equipment on dog

  • No/minimal handler help during all exercises

  • Group of strangers moving on and off field for the group exercise

  • Handler standing in the blind for the long down in the IPO3

  • Tracking-like flags on the obedience field to mark the long down for male/female dogs

  • Waiting in basic position or at the long down for a long time

  • Brand new dumbbells that may be different from what you trained with

  • Nervous handler!

One of the biggest changes will be in yourself. When a handler is nervous, everything changes: heart rate, breathing rate, posture, tension, even the smell of your sweat. Dogs can smell, hear, and see the change in their handlers, and may also amp up their own behavior accordingly! This can lead to a dog that is overly excited (and in some cases, overly aggressive), and to a few of those "My dog never did that before!" moments.


  • Empty field except for the judge (helper is hidden already in Blind 6)

  • No equipment on dog to enforce control and the out

  • No assistance from the helper in the blind or on the field—their job is to help the judge test the dogs

  • Pressure on the dog from the helper – trial pressure, not training 'pressure'

  • Judge on the field walking around the dog, often in the dog’s line of sight

  • Check in/out with the judge at the beginning and end of protection

  • Different blinds and blind set-up compared to training (could be left to right, right to left)

  • Handler cannot touch the dog except to hold collar on long bite, and attach leash after checking out

  • Dog ends trial without a final grip/bite/reward (no slipping the sleeve or giving a reward-bite)


How do we begin to create this trial picture for our dogs?

Create consistent pre-tracking, pre-obedience, and pre-protection routines. These should be the same no matter whether you are training or trialing, so be sure to create a routine that will be in compliance with trial rules. This helps get you and your dog in the right mindset for each phase.

Check in and take basic position in the same way you will do it in a trial. Teach the dog how they should enter the field and wait in basic. Many of us let our dogs drag us to the field enthusiastically, and then suddenly expect them to heel with focus and in a controlled manner once we go to trial. Build focused heeling at the start into your tracking, obedience, and protection work when you have enforceable obedience (meaning the dog understands his task thoroughly and while in different drive states).

Wean away from handler help. Train with a spotter! The importance of a spotter during obedience cannot be emphasized enough. They will notice if you are turning your shoulders, giving extra cues with your hands, providing strong body language on the motion exercises, etc. They can also tell you how your dog is responding to your cues.

Build the trial picture into each exercise. This goes for the handler's behavior as well as the dog's. As handlers, we need to have the proper posture before, during, and at the end of the exercises. This also means we need to practice in front of people, where we will be a little nervous. Let the dog see that trial picture of the handler being a little more nervous than normal, BEFORE the actual trial day!

Keep cues consistent. Cues should be consistent in training and trialing. Practice giving your commands in the same manner and with the same tone of voice, even when nervous or excited. If you give subtle "cues" to indicate about turns, left turns, etc., then keep these consistent as well.

Train the exercises to trial level. Have a clear picture of what the exercise should look like on trial day, and work toward that picture. This is where using a spotter or mirrors can help you, as you won’t have to look at or watch your dog to ensure his position is correct. Build the exercise correctly from the beginning, when you are first laying your foundation.

Train in a trial-like environment. Set up the environment to accommodate all the differences seen above in each phase. This is where a club or training group is invaluable in providing a “judge”, an obedience group, another dog/handler team to report in with, a group of people for the temperament test and ID check, etc. Take the time to train on the field in a trial-like setting, to give the dog that picture of the near-empty field where the judge and his movements become much more noticeable!

Problem-solve and expose your dog to a variety of ‘problem’ scenarios. This can include things like difficult turns in tracking, fresh and lightly scented articles, articles turned on edge or partially buried, dumbbell standing on end over the jump or wall, increased pressure in protection work, increased and unusual distractions on the long down, distractions on the send-out, etc. Be thoughtful and creative, but also be kind to your dog. Don't throw too many problems or difficult distractions at him beyond his current ability to handle them!

We owe it to our dogs to prepare them for what they will face at a trial. The better prepared we are, the smoother the trial will go, and the greater the likelihood of success!

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