One of the first pieces of advice given to those new to Schutzhund is: “Find a club.” I’ve written previously on how to find a club, what clubs look for in members, and misconceptions about clubs, but this blog will focus on the inner workings: how do clubs in the United States really work? From club organization and membership to how training times actually work, this blog covers it all!
Training clubs are structured as non-profit organizations, organized solely for recreational purposes under the auspices of a parent organization (USCA, DVG, AWMA, etc.). They are not dog-training businesses seeking to make a profit from clients or members. Instead, they are social groups formed for the purpose of training dogs in Schutzhund. All funds taken in go toward running the club, hosting trials, paying for bills and facilities, replacing equipment, etc. None of the club officers are paid, and the helper may or may not receive some of the training fees from the club in exchange for working the dogs (it depends on the club and on what region you train in).
Clubs will have a volunteer-run Board of Directors that includes a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, and perhaps a Sergeant-at-Arms and a couple Directors At Large. These individuals are elected from within the membership, often on an annual basis. There should be an elected Training Director (TD). This individual may be part of the Board of Directors, but has additional responsibilities related to organizing the training that occurs within the club. At many clubs, it is the TD who essentially runs the club, and then the other board members take care of the administrative side of things. The TD may or may not be the helper of the club. Clubs may or may not have a set helper; in some regions, helpers are shared among clubs due to the lack of qualified helpers. Other clubs have to bring in outside helpers in order to work their dogs. It just depends.
The takeaway – the club is not a business, but a volunteer-run social club organized around the common passion of Schutzhund.
Most clubs offer annual memberships that provide some sort of benefit to their members (such as reduced training fees, access to the club field, etc.). There are membership dues and often training fees when joining a club. Clubs differ in their membership dues and training fees, so ask about their policy. Most clubs fall under one of the following fee structures:
Annual membership dues, plus training fees that are reduced for members, higher training/field fees for non-members/guests
Annual membership dues, no additional training fees for members, training/field fees for non-members/guests
Semi-annual membership dues (either quarterly or every six months), with or without additional training fees for members, training/field fees for guests
Clubs may set their own membership dues and training fees; because clubs are operated as non-profit organizations, these dues and fees should be used to fund the club’s purpose in training dogs for Schutzhund (such as club insurance, field rental and upkeep, utilities, club trials and events, etc.).
Additionally, new members are typically required to join the parent organization of the club (USCA, DVG, etc.). This will be a separate expense the new handler must pay to the parent organization, not to the club.
The takeaway – club membership and training cost money, so the handler must budget accordingly!
ADDING NEW MEMBERS
Clubs differ in how they add new members. Some clubs readily accept new members, particularly if the club is seeking to grow their membership and promote the sport. Other clubs can be more aloof, which requires interested guests to make an effort to show they are committed to the club and to the training. Most clubs can tell stories of new members who were gung-ho when they joined, took up a lot of the time and resources of the club and helper, and then either jumped ship to a different club/helper, or simply stopped doing Schutzhund altogether and disappeared. This happens often enough for many clubs to be very careful about adding new members; they want someone who will stick around for the long haul and be a valuable, vital, involved club member who gives back to the club.
Most clubs have an application and vetting process of some kind, such as attending the club as a guest for a period of time before applying as a member. This is because club dynamics are extremely important; clubs seek individuals who mesh well with the membership and who won’t cause problems or drama. Once a prospective member has filled out an application, the club must vote on the new member. Some clubs can do this at any time; others have set times during the year to add members. The way a club votes to approve membership can differ. Some clubs require a simple majority. Other clubs require a unanimous decision from all members in order to add a new member; this is done to protect the integrity of the club and their existing members.
Additionally, clubs have limited resources for their membership. There are only so many people that the TD and helper can handle, and still ensure that members receive quality work. Thus, clubs may be full and not accepting new members at that time. The key words are “at that time”. Just because the club is full now does not mean they will always be full. Some clubs seem perpetually full; this may be a way for them to wean out those who are just showing a passing interest in Schutzhund from those who are truly dedicated and willing to come work as a guest for as long as it takes to become a member.
The takeaway – becoming a member in a club will require patience and dedication; it’s not just about expressing a desire to join, but about contributing to positive club dynamics.
Clubs designate certain days and times as training days. This can be anywhere from once a week to five times a week. Many clubs meet twice a week: once on a weekend, once on a weekday. But it varies by club. For example, Club A may meet Wednesday nights to train protection, and then meet all day Saturday to train all phases. Club B, on the other hand, meets Monday nights, Friday nights, and all day Saturday. Club C may block out both Saturday and Sunday as training days. It just depends on the club, and often on the availability of the helper and TD. Because most clubs only meet a couple times a week, the handler must also spend time training obedience, tracking, and possibly secondary obedience for protection on their own throughout the week. Training the actual protection work requires skill, knowledge, and training, and is best left to experienced helpers!
The takeaway – do your best to attend club training days, but club training won’t be the only time you train! You must “do your homework” and train your dog between club days.
ACCESS TO TRAINING FACILITIES
Some clubs have their own training field. Others have to rent facilities, or have their club hosted on private property. This means access to the training facilities varies depending on the club. If a club is lucky enough to have a separate field owned or rented by the club, then members may be allowed to access the facility as needed for training. Members may have their own keys or know the gate combination, and can go train whenever they want. Club facilities on private property or shared facilities may mean that access to the training field is only allowed on set days and times. Members are responsible for finding their own places to train on non-club days, and can only use the field or facilities during club days. Almost all clubs have a policy that guests/non-members may not train on the club field without a member present; doing so would be considered trespassing, and you can be guaranteed that you will not be invited back to that club!
The takeaway – most clubs won’t have 24/7 access to the club field, so the club won’t be the only place you train your dog during the week.
TRAINING STRUCTURE AND INDIVIDUALIZED TIME
Clubs are not set up like a private dog-training business. They do not offer classes or private sessions, but meet as a group to train. Many clubs just train B and C phases together: obedience and protection. In this case, the handler is responsible for tracking, and for continuing the obedience work on their own at home (can’t just train obedience once or twice a week!). Some clubs train all three phases together, meeting for tracking and then continuing on to obedience and protection.
The amount of individualized time each member or guest receives is highly variable among clubs. Some clubs offer a lot of support and focused training time, instruction, and feedback, while other clubs expect members to be more independent in their training, and to be proactive in asking the TD for help.
When it comes to obedience, clubs may either have open field obedience (with multiple handler/dog teams working on the field at once) or may have a structured time where handlers pair up in a trial-like situation to work directly with the TD or spotters. It just depends on the club. If you are a guest, ask what the protocol is. If they work in pairs, do you need to sign up? Where and how? If it is open field training, can you just go work your dog on the field? What are their rules about doing send-outs, jumps, and retrieves? Even during open field training, there is etiquette that applies, such as waiting your turn to do jumps and retrieves, waiting your turn and warning others when you are doing a send-out, paying attention so as not to cross center line or be in the way while a handler is doing a send-out or recall, etc.
When it comes to protection, clubs give members and guests an individual session on the field alone with the helper and TD (unless they have puppies and are doing a puppy circle). Other club members help out on the field during that time, watch the training, or get their own dog ready for their turn. The time allotted to each handler in protection should be consistent among members and guests, but there will be a few instances when some handlers receive more or less time than others. This includes:
Handlers preparing to trial - they may receive longer training times or multiple sessions in order to get their dog ready for trial day. Don’t stress; when you are there with your dog, you will receive a similar amount of attention and time in prepping for your trial!
Puppies and young dogs - they cannot work as long as adult dogs, so they are worked until the helper determines the dog is getting tired or is at a perfect place to end the session.
Handlers working on a specific issue - if they have to problem-solve out there on the field, pause for discussion, or work on one specific behavior, then time allotted may be either less (if dog can only handle so much before needing a break) or possibly more.
Working to the limits of the dog - a good helper is going to read each dog, and sometimes a dog might be “done” mentally or physically even though they haven’t worked as long as others. Dogs should be worked within their limits, and not pushed beyond their mental and physical boundaries just to give equal time on the field.
Typically, the protection work will last about 15-20 minutes for each dog. But clubs do not time how long each dog/handler team is out there on the field. The duration is done at the discretion of the helper and the TD. The helper works the dog and remains sensitive to the dog’s state of mind and physical condition, and should end the session at an appropriate time.
The takeaway – expect to train protection at the club, and to do your own training for obedience and tracking outside of club days. Request individual assistance from your TD if it is not regularly given. And be flexible in protection if it seems one person is receiving more time than another; there is usually a valid reason, and your time for extra attention will come!
SIGN-UPS AND WORKING ORDER
Clubs must organize their training days; many utilize a sign-up board of some kind to do this. Each club has their own sign-up policy, so it is best to inquire when you arrive (or even in advance). Some clubs have members sign up on one part of the board, and guests under a “Guest” section. Others are on a first-come/first-serve basis, where members and guests simply sign up as they arrive. Regardless, with most clubs you must be present in order to sign up on the board; you cannot have someone else put your name on the board before you show up to training. If you have multiple dogs, ask about where to place your second dog. Some clubs require a certain number of dogs between a second dog, while others require all first dogs be worked once before moving on to second dogs. If you have a female in heat, be prepared to work last after all other dogs, unless you are at a club where they just don’t care about such things.
The working order also varies by club. In some clubs, the working order is set by time of arrival; the order in which you arrive and sign up on the board is the order in which you train. Others work member dogs first, followed by guests. And in some clubs, the TD or helper sets the working order, regardless of when people arrived.
Working order can change! It is standard in many clubs for the TD and/or helper to vary the working order as needed. This means he or she may shuffle the working order to place trial dogs first, for example, or to group dogs together based on similar training needs. Working order can change for other reasons, too. Sometimes a member has to jump ahead in the working order because they have to leave early for a prior engagement. Or handlers may switch spots in order to watch friends work their dogs, or to share equipment with another handler, etc. Always keep an eye on the board and keep track of when you will be up, and if the order gets switched around, assume there is a valid reason for it rather than jumping to the conclusion that others are getting preferential treatment.
The takeaway – ask about how sign-ups work, keep an eye on the order, and be flexible and accommodating if the TD or helper has to change the order!
RESOURCES FOR NEWBIES
This is extremely variable among clubs. Some clubs are very welcoming to new handlers and have the time and resources (i.e. people) to devote to training up their new members. Others do not have many resources (i.e. people) to devote to training up new handlers. Either way, new handlers will have to show initiative. They need to be an active participant in their own Schutzhund education by asking questions, requesting help, watching other handlers, etc. In many clubs, help is available to new handlers IF they ask for it.
The takeaway – take initiative, ask questions, and ask for help!
Depending on the amount of help available to members, the number of days the club trains, and the resources allocated to new handlers, private training may be required in order to achieve one’s Schutzhund goals. New people need to be prepared for this; in many parts of the country, being successful in Schutzhund means going to club AND going to private lessons, particularly for obedience. Not all clubs have time to instruct handlers one-on-one in obedience, necessitating private sessions—often with the TD or helper. Also, when a club is currently full or unable to allocate enough time to a new handler, sometimes private lessons may be the only way to get involved in the training for the time being.
However, some clubs are very strict about training outside the club. The new handler must evaluate the rationale behind this. Is it because the TD or helper are overbearing, controlling, or insecure and don’t want to let members train with other, better individuals? Or is it because they are investing in you and your dog, and don’t want to see their work get messed up by someone else? Private training should be undertaken with care, and with the knowledge/approval of your TD and helper. Hopping around from trainer to trainer will not do your dog any good.
The takeaway – you may have to pursue private training (an additional expense) in addition to club training, but do so wisely!