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Power of Protection

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Comments : 22

BrunoNo phase of Schutzhund has received more criticism and been steeped in more controversy than the protection phase. Ever since Schutzhund’s introduction here in the U.S. in the mid-1950s, the bitework portion of the sport has continued to raise eyebrows and draw harsh criticism from “animal rights” advocates and even some breeders. Even the AKC bowed to this pressure in the mid-1970s, withdrawing their support of the growing Schutzhund movement by refusing to acknowledge Schutzhund titles and ceasing to host Schutzhund trials (which helped act as the impetus for the development of the United Schutzhund Clubs of America, or USCA). But despite the fact that the AKC has reversed their position on Schutzhund in recent years, many American German Shepherd breeders still refuse to participate. Why would the breeding of German Shepherd Dogs need a sport that includes a protection phase?

Protection vs. Other Sports

Many critics question the value of the protection phase. There are tracking titles, obedience titles, agility titles, AKC herding titles, and conformation titles. Why would protection be needed? These other titles already reveal much information about the dog—their willingness to work with man, their athleticism and skill, their natural aptitude, their desires and drive for the work, their structural strengths and flaws, their ability to work in different environments successfully. Other than conformation titles, these different sports show that working breeds can “do work.” What does protection reveal that is any different from these other working titles?

There are traits valued in working breeds like German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Dobermans, and Rottweilers that are not tested by these other sports. This includes traits like:

  • courage
  • fortitude
  • hardness
  • confidence under pressure
  • mental stability and fearlessness under stress
  • willingness to stand ground and confront a threat
  • strength of the dog’s true temperament (and not just ‘trained temperament’)

Other titles can show how agile a dog is, how willingly they come under the handler’s control to carry out a variety of obedience exercises, or how well they can use their nose, but there is no feedback about the other elements that make up the dog’s full character. These other elements include the inherent “ratio” of prey drive and defensive drive, and the levels of fighting drive, resilience, hardness, courage, sharpness, and yes, aggression.

Most importantly, however, is that the protection phase reveals the dog’s true character and genetic makeup. Dietmar Schellenberg, the first licensed, FCI-accredited German Schutzhund judge to reside in the U.S., put it best when he said:

“No other phase of dog training exposes so much of the true temperament, the working spirit, the strengths and weaknesses in a dog than properly conducted man work. Obedience tells us how good the handler is, protection work tells us how good the dog is.” (Top Working Dogs)

Eager, alert, committed. “No other phase of training exposes so much  of the true temperament, the working spirit, the strengths and weaknesses in a dog than properly conducted man work.” (Photo by: Kris Dakin)

Protection reveals more of the genetic makeup of the dog than any other sport, instead of solely revealing the talents of the trainer and handler. A dog cannot be “made” to successfully do protection training or the protection phase in a Schutzhund trial. Rather, the dog must have the innate genetic drives, desires, and aggression, coupled with the proper stable and social temperament. The dogs do protection work because they want to do it, and they enjoy doing it (one only has to watch a Schutzhund trial to see that this is the case!). Because of this, the protection phase simultaneously weeds out dogs that are too fearful, too sharp, too soft or afraid to engage, or overly aggressive. Fearful dogs and dogs that are dangerously aggressive cannot successfully do the protection phase of Schutzhund. Protection requires a stable, clear-headed temperament with a balance of drives and a natural confidence among both people and the environment. Schutzhund trials are structured to emphasize sound temperament, and to reveal the basic temperament and weaknesses in the dog’s character through the protection phase.

Protection and the Dog’s Character

But why does it matter if the German Shepherd Dog has a desire and ability to do protection work?   Because the assessment of the working dog’s full character is incomplete without protection. You can have a GSD that has excellent obedience, a happy work ethic, a stable and social temperament around people, and the alertness characteristic of the breed. But does the dog have courage? Is the dog resilient and unyielding when confronted with a threat? How does the dog stand up under pressure from a worthy human adversary? The dog may be biddable and compliant, but can lack the depth of character and strength of temperament desirable in the GSD. The dog may be an excellent obedience or agility or tracking dog, but may lack a crucial component of what makes the GSD one of the top working dogs in the world: a confident character that is unafraid to confront a threat and stand its ground. This dog may still be a nice dog, and is no doubt a great family pet, but should this dog be bred to produce more “nice pets?” No.

How do we know if the dog that barks at strangers coming up to the house and appears to be a good “guard dog” will not turn tail and run away when pressured, rather than stand its ground? How do we know if a dog that appears alert and vigilant is confidently alert and curious, or is slightly “edgy” and a little weak-nerved, feeling a constant need to assess the environment for a threat? How do we determine the full measure of a dog’s confidence and depth of character? We do this through properly conducted protection training and titling in Schutzhund/IPO, Ringsport, or the HGH (German herding trial, which also has a protection component).

If breeding were done based solely on titles in other sports without a protection phase, the elements that support the working dog temperament would slowly disappear, leaving behind dogs that may look like a German Shepherd, but are one in name only. The dog may be compliant, the dog may be athletic, the dog may be alert and vigilant-looking, but the confident temperament and willingness to stand its ground will be replaced with a dog that is nervous and afraid, lacking courage and strong nerves. One only needs to look at the American German Shepherd–bred mainly for the conformation ring without the quality control of a sport that includes a protection phase–to see that this has already happened! Where is the courage and confidence and versatility for which the breed is known? Without the protection work testing potential breeding dogs, we will not have police dogs, military dogs, explosives dogs, rescue dogs, search dogs—in other words, we would not have dogs that must have courage in the face of danger and have stable, unflappable temperaments. Working breeds like German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Rottweilers, and Dobermans need protection sports to help preserve the valuable traits and strength of temperament in the breed.

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  1. Susan A.LeClair Reply

    Truly a terrific article!! Informs general public a detailed account of why protection is important in character of a dog.I always appreciate ones ability to educate people and to give credit to a subject through professional input.I commend the author and publisher of this article.Thank you for your detailed account of protection and aggression and the impact and bearing it has on the working breed group.

    Susan LeClair

  2. Sherry Mathers Reply

    You make a good argument for the need for protection training as a method to choose dogs of good mental character, but it should be a pass/fail test, NOT a scored competition. This encourages people to forego other important qualities in pursuit of those high scores, and as a result many ring sport and schutzhund dogs are way to edgy or even downright dangerous to be trustworthy family dogs. Protection should be only one quality when choosing a dog to breed, not the number one criteria. And you go to far by saying protection work is needed for explosives dogs, and search and rescue dogs. Protection training has no part in their education . The last bomb sniffing dog I met was a beagle and I know several search and rescue dogs and , believe me aggression has no part in that business.

    • Carissa Reply

      You bring up some good points; thank you! Protection performance should be only ONE quality used to select a dog for breeding, but it is an important one, which was my intent with this article: that it should not be neglected or replaced by other titles. It is a necessary part of revealing the true genetic character and temperament of our working dogs like German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, etc., but it is not the only part. As you mentioned, breeding solely for sport (or for a ‘high points’ dog, as some call it) does happen and can result in what you described, but this does not describe all breeders who utilize Schutzhund or Ring-titled dogs, and it is not an acceptable excuse to not train and title in a sport like Schutzhund (which is an excuse we hear often from ‘breeders’ who do not train nor title their dogs, nor have ever foot on a Schutzhund field). However, watching the dog work and trial should help reveal these characteristics, and help breeders make informed decisions. An edgy, thin-nerved dog will work differently on a strong helper in a trial compared to a dog who is confident and stable, and we need the protection portion to help reveal this. It is valuable information to know.

      You are correct that protection work is not necessarily needed for explosives dogs and search dogs (in that they should also be protection trained, because many do not need it for their jobs), but when it comes to breeds like German Shepherds and Malinois (as opposed to labs, beagles, and other hunting breeds), the dogs that excel in these areas typically come from breeders who train and title their dogs in Schutzhund, and use this as one breed-quality test for their dogs (not the ONLY one, but as one important part of their breeding program). However, there are several very successful FEMA-certified German Shepherd Dogs that are also Schutzhund-titled, and that still compete regularly when not working in rescue (recently, one of these dogs competed with his handler in the 2012 AWDF Championship and in the 2012 USCA GSD IPO3 National Championship), so the two are not mutually exclusive. What I wished to convey was that in working breeds like GSDs, the dogs that produce good explosives dogs and SAR dogs should have had their temperament and character tested through a sport that includes a protection phase (for the reasons already discussed above). Explosives dogs and search dogs should have unflappable, brave temperaments, and one of the only venues that tests for this in dogs used for breeding is a sport that includes protection. But for a dog like a beagle or lab, yes, protection is unnecessary. Their temperament throughout their breed development has not been linked to protection. With dogs like German Shepherds, it has always been a component of their desired temperament, and thus should be tested in any potential breeding prospect. I was not clear enough in the article that I was referring to working breeds like GSDs and Malinois, so I will fix that.

      I will have to respectfully disagree with protection being a pass/fail test. With a simple pass/fail, there is no distinction between the dog with true courage, strength, power, and confident temperament that fights with the helper and seeks to dominate him, and the dog that is thin-nerved, less confident, and willing to only hang on the sleeve with a partial grip. Both may pass, but only the first dog should receive full points and a ‘pronounced’ rating. A pass/fail would water down the protection phase and create a very subjective test with a wide range of “passes”, as opposed to a more objective rating involving points earned, that should reward the dog who has the complete package. The current system is not perfect, as judging can sometimes be a bit subjective depending on the judge and where the dog earns its titles, but it is still very valuable in helping evaluate a dog’s working temperament.

      • Nona Luth Reply

        Thank you and well said. I agree that the Pass/fail system would let too many dogs in the “grey area” pass.

    • Marlene Ferguson Reply

      I take exception to the notion that Schutzhund trained dogs are often too edgy to make stable/suitable pets. (Or, dogs that are produced from such lines.). The dogs that excel in the sport are going to be the most stable dogs. Nervy, overly edgy dogs will not have great success in the sport, so are less likely to be bred. The dogs need to be confident and stable in order to get very far in the sport. That is not to say the dogs will lack drive, energy, and power. But, the working breeds are not suitable for all owners. A diligent owner will have an excellent relationship with their dog and an excellent pet will be produced. I write this as both of my IPO3 Rottweilers (one a regional and national champion and an international competitor) lounge on the furniture.

    • Norman Epstein Reply

      Pass fail does not assess the dogs willingness and hardness only that it had enough to either pass or fail.

  3. John Boykin Reply

    Great article. I wish people a wider audience could see it.

  4. Beth McDougald Reply

    Well said. It is all a part of what our amazing dogs were bred to do…….

  5. Diane Eisenhardt Reply

    I would like permission to send this to my e-mail address, and permission to put this article on my web page.

    • Carissa Reply

      Please feel free to share the article, but please be sure to include a citation at the bottom (such as “originally posted on germanwatchdogs.com”). Thank you so much!

      • Al Longoria Reply

        May I re post this on my blog as well? It’s a fantastic article!

        • Carissa Reply

          Yes, feel free to re-post with credit to the author, Carissa Kuehn, originally posted through germanwatchdogs.com. Thanks!

  6. Ken Nicholson Reply

    I have been involved in Schutzhund (IPO) for over 30 years, in Germany and the US. This is a well written article which explains what has gone wrong with the GSD. Without the proper working temperament the GSD is not the same dog. Breeding conformation dogs directly contradicts the working dog ethic. I saw this in this country back in the 1970’s. I am now working Belgian Malinois because of this breeding problem. Thank you for writing a thorough article explaining and detailing the necessity of this aspect of a dog’s temperament. Ken

  7. Glenn Murphy Reply

    Isn’t the purpose of the German Shepherd Temperment Test to see if they have the soundness of mind in many veried occasions. The aggressive stranger is to show if they will stand there ground or not.
    I don’t think anything should be changed in Schutzhund either.

    • Carissa Reply

      You are correct; the German Shepherd Temperament Test is a basic test that is designed to test the dog’s reaction to a variety of stimuli: neutral stranger, friendly stranger, aggressive stranger, opening an umbrella, walking across a tarp or other unusual footing, gun fire and can-rattling. However, the Temperament Test is a very basic certification that seems to primarily evaluate the dog’s response to environmental stimuli (including people). While this can be useful for exposing some environmental sensitivity or overall ‘nerviness’ of the dog, it does little to truly test and evaluate the courage, spirit, and true temperament of the dog under pressure.

      Take, for example, the aggressive stranger test. This is still a far cry from what a dog will experience in a Schutzhund trial. In the Temperament Test, the stranger is simply “acting weird” (according to the GSDCA website: http://gsdca.org/events/temperament-testing/527-purpose-a-objectives-of-the-temperament-test), and really does not pressure the dog very much other than advancing a little in a threatening manner (in fact, what the ‘helper’ does during this portion of the test is what many helpers often do in training when assessing an older dog for the first time.). Reacting in a ‘positive, guarding manner’ can be satisfied by the dog barking at the stranger, but there is no in-depth evaluation of the dog’s true temperament and courage. The dog does not have to actually engage the stranger, and has the “pack support” of his owner, which is communicated through his or her close proximity and through the leash. The dog can still be nervous and afraid, but with the owner there to encourage them, can be “brave” enough to show an acceptable reaction.

      Contrast this to the protection phase in a Schutzhund trial, where the helper is not “acting weird”, but is calm, confident, dominant, powerful, and aggressive toward the dog. He truly threatens the dog, even strikes him during the stick stress test on the drive. The dog must engage the helper in multiple ways and while under pressure from the helper himself, without the presence of his handler nearby at the end of a lead. The dog must seek out the helper, guard him convincingly, seek to stop him from escaping, respond to the helper’s attack with power and conviction in the grip, stay strong on the grip and unfazed during the stick stress test, and in the courage test fly down the field to engage an advancing, threatening decoy. Standing their ground while guarding a confident, aggressive helper in an open field without the handler nearby is very different from ‘standing their ground’ barking at a “weird stranger” while on lead with the handler. The former requires a much stronger temperament and much greater courage.

      The Temperament Test can be useful, but the depth of information it reveals is limited.

      • Sue Calkins Reply

        And the obedience in the protection phase of IPO, the willingness to follow commands while in a high drive state to fight the helper, is also indicative of correct nerve strength. The dog must maintain a clear head in the work. I agree with the protection phase as showing a dog’s true mental makeup. Thank you for this article…it is bookmarked!

  8. Jeynie Reply

    Hey Carissa,

    Great article! It’s thoughtfully written and an important read — especially for those who are just learning about dogsport. Brava!

    FYI, I have a website and linked its Facebook page.


  9. Debb Womack Reply

    The GSD was created to be a working breed. Some people don’t feel comfortable when I paste a pic of a GSD doing bitework on my Homeless GSD fb page. They don’t want people to get the “wrong impression” about German Shepherds. Truth is, they are often the ones that have the wrong impression. They think the dogs are smart or handsome or sweet. I do too, but I know that is not all there is. If they want a smart dog get a Poodle. If they want a big dog get a Great Dane. If they want a sweet dog get a Lab. This is what must be if the GSD is to survive. From two well rounded dogs should come 4 or 6 or 8 pups that should also be well rounded.Some will be braver, some will have better noses, and some will be more biddable for service work. A few will be pets but all pups from each litter should carry forward the traits of their breed lines. GSDs are calmer than Dobis, less stubborn than Rots, and more forgiving than Mals with an inexperienced trainer. The gentleman who started W States Canine Police Assoc and the SFPD K9 division in the 60’s, the late great Art O’Keefe, was once asked “Which dog he thought was best for K9 work?” He replied “the German Shepherd.” He said “They are not the best at anything but they are second best at everything. This makes them the best dogs for police work. I hope that more police departments will remember that.”

    In my mind, GSDs are not just pets and people should not interfere with the process needed to maintain the breed. It is necessary to train to control certain behaviors not to eliminate them. All GSDs used for breeding should pass a test that examines what the breed was created for – to work.

  10. Sol Chrom Reply

    Very interesting and well-argued article. I suspect the points you make could also be applied to other working breeds (my dog is a Black Russian Terrier, and I’m still waiting for his protective drive to assert itself).

  11. Cecelia Reply

    Wow. ..for a new Doberman owner (me!) this is an awesome article. It explains the sport very well! Sending to my email to save!

  12. Jan Eandi Reply

    Many years ago I read, “Dogs Against Darkness”, the story of the origin of guide dogs. It stated that the GSD was the only breed they found which had “educational disobedience”, i.e., they know when to disobey for the safety of the owner/handler (whereas, for instance a poodle might take a “forward” command and lead the handler into an open man-hole or traffic if there were no alternative and the command was insistant, the GSD would stand it’s ground until it was safe to obey the command). Whether or not that is still true only of GSD’s, I believe it is an excellent trait. I’ve owned GSD’s, Great Danes, Rotts, and Dobermans. All are wonderful breeds for my own purpose of a good, protective, obedience-trained, family dog each assured us of security and their love. We loved and enjoyed all of them. I’m very impressed w/the training required for Schutzhund (I have observed classes). There is a reason for each phase of the training. Keep up the good work!

  13. Dee Raiffeisen Reply

    Educational articles such as this helps defuse the ignorance of those that speak without knowledge.

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