Schutzhund is a dog sport and training program, which has been developed and utilized since the early 20th century. Its rigorous standards determine a dog’s proficiency across a range of physically demanding tasks. The process of training for and completing Schutzhund trials involves both a dog and his owner, and requires discipline and cooperation between both canine and human. Most of all, it encourages a sense of fun, enjoyment, and a profound relationship on both sides.
Schutzhund competitions drive dogs and their owners to develop a kind of synchronicity and understanding that, in spite of all my research, is difficult to describe. It combines obedience, strength, scent, and agility training in a system with aims that have changed over time. Originally, Schutzhund trials were used to isolate those German Shepherds best suited for optimal breeding lines. Today, Schutzhund is far less breed exclusive, while it retains an emphasis on overall excellence in performance.
Schutzhund’s origins are as involved and complex as the process and competitions are. At the start of the 20th century, industrialization was in full swing. Herding dogs were no longer as essential to the business of daily life, and what people needed from working dogs was changing. Schutzhund began as a method of evaluating and selecting the ideal representatives for breeding the dog who became the German Shepherd. In its original formulations, the process was utilized to identify and train those dogs that best exemplified the breed’s capacities for work, composure, scent tracking, protection, strength, and agility.
Contemporary Schutzhund is undertaken under a variety of auspices. It is engaged in by dogs and owners as a hobby and as a competitive dog sport. Schutzhund is not for every dog, and one of its larger purposes is to filter out dogs who are not ready for it or who are unable to withstand its rigors. Not making it in Schutzhund is not a negative thing; just as all minor league baseball players, talented as they are, won’t make it to the big leagues, neither do some of the strongest, quickest, or most able dogs succeed at Schutzhund.
Dogs can begin participating for the first Schutzhund title at the age of 18 months. There is a behavioral pre-trial that dogs must pass to qualify for Schutzhund; this test examines the dog’s sense of calmness and self-control under pressure, around strangers, and when confronted with sudden or startling sounds. The dog must be able to show it can follow basic commands and be responsive to his owner both on and off the leash. This stage passed, Schutzhund involves a total of nine tests. There are three phases to each level, and these increase in difficulty.
Just qualifying for Schutzhund is an achievement for a dog and handler. Earning a title — Schutzhund 1, 2, and 3, with 3 being the ultimate — means a dog and owner are almost completely in accord with each other and have spent many, many hours training. Each title requires passing a trial in tracking, obedience, and protection over the course of a single day. Qualifying for Schutzhund is difficult enough. A dog who can earn the Schutzhund 3 title is the best of the best; an all-around champion with an astounding array of talents.
Each trial comprises a variety of complex tasks under adverse conditions. These conditions may be related to weather or terrain, involve the application of noise or other distractions, as well as introduce the dog to a stranger. This last, seen in the photo above, is encountered during the protection phase. Most of my research shows that this is the part of Schutzhund least well understood. Schutzhund protection trials do not test aggression, but discipline and aptitude for defense. The bite or grip that you see is to be relinquished immediately upon command.
Once used exclusively to sift German Shepherds, today Schutzhund training and competitions are open to any breed or mix capable of performing its particularly physically demanding tasks. While, in theory, a Pug could train for Schutzhund trials, it would take a truly remarkable Pug to jump over a six-foot wall while carrying a heavy object in her mouth.
The most common dog breeds that participate in contemporary Schutzhund include the Airedale Terrier, American Bulldog, Australian Cattle Dog, Belgian Malinois, Belgian Sheepdog, Beauceron, Black Russian Terrier, Bouvier des Flanders, Boxer, Cane Corso, Doberman Pinscher, Dutch Shepherd Dog, Giant Schnauzer, Great Dane, Mastiff, Rottweiler, and the Belgian Tervuren.
In Jean-Claude Van Damme’s magnum opus, Bloodsport (1988), the action star’s teacher explains that martial science “brings mind, body, and spirit together.” The same could be said of Schutzhund, though the relationship between dog and owner involves harmonizing these elements across species. Schutzhund is and has been many things over its history; one thing it is most certainly not is a program in honing or encouraging dog aggression. It is a discipline, and one that demands precision.
As the pre-Schutzhund trial illustrates, a dog’s self-control is a precondition for participating in the major Schutzhund evaluation phases and certainly to earn any of the three titles. Owners and their dogs can undertake Schutzhund training for a variety of reasons — for fun, for sport, or as a kind of life commitment to each other.
Have you ever participated in or observed Schutzhund events? Share your experiences in the comments!
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About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.