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Strong Bonds: Schutzhund training, Dock Diving and A Furball of Love

When we get a puppy, most of us determine obedience training in some capacity is necessary. There’s those of us who do it because -- well, it’s a lot easier to have a dog that listens to you then a dog that rules the roost. There’s also a lot of us who enjoy doing obedience and training work and take it to the next level -- it’s pretty darn cool if you can teach your dog to open the fridge and bring you a beer, right? Yes it is. It can quickly become a hobby -- a way to create a stronger bond with your dog and also a way to relax and have fun.

When I first started talking to Lisa Williams, she referred to her interest in training and dock diving with her 7-year-old German shepherd, Fala, as just that: a hobby. She told me she works for a real estate agency and usually finds time for three 20-minute training sessions a day with Fala. Then I found out her “hobby” extends to Schutzhund training (more on that in a minute, but let’s just say if basic obedience training is equivalent to a 100-piece puzzle, Schutzhund is a 5,000-piece puzzle only of the color blue). Then I found out Fala has her “IPO III” -- the highest level of certification you can receive in Schutzhund training -- and has also won a more than a handful of dock diving competitions. That’s about when I started thinking Lisa is maybe a little on the humble side.

Lisa and Fala ended up together by chance. “A friend of mine already had a spayed female in his house, and he wanted to breed,” Lisa remembers. “He got [Fala] from a breeder, and before she was one, she was diagnosed with Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI).” Essentially, her pancreas doesn’t work and she needs enzymes for everything she eats for her whole life. Pancreatic inefficiency is a genetic predisposition in some German shepherds, so this meant Fala was not an ideal candidate for responsible breeding.

Lisa’s friend knew she was looking to get a German shepherd and contacted her about Fala. Not knowing if the treatment of the disease was incredibly expensive or not, Lisa did some research and found out the enzymes would cost less than a dollar a day. So that was that -- she brought Fala home and started training her for Schutzhund (at the point of getting Fala, Lisa had been doing Schutzhund training for 5 years).

Alright - so let’s do a quick Schutzhund (also called IPO) explanation because it’s pretty cool stuff if you don’t already know about it. If you do, feel free to skip the next couple paragraphs. According to the United Schutzhund Clubs of America,

“Schutzhund is a German word meaning ‘protection dog.’ It refers to a sport that focuses on developing and evaluating those traits in dogs that make them more useful and happier companions to their owners. Schutzhund is intended to demonstrate the dog’s intelligence and utility. As a working trial, Schutzhund measures the dog’s mental stability, endurance, structural efficiencies, ability to scent, willingness to work, courage, and trainability.”


Schutzhund focuses on three components: tracking, obedience and protection work. While the first two areas are pretty common to most people, the protection component is easily misunderstood. People often confuse this training as creating an “attack” dog, when in fact it trains just the opposite. Again, from the USCA,

“The traits developed in IPO protection work allow the dog to better discern the difference between threat and non-threat, and give him the ability to control himself appropriately during encounters that appear threatening.”

Fala at a training session for Schutzhund. Note: because Fala has pannus, Lisa trains with Rex Specs for Schutzhund, but they are not allowed during certfication tests.

It’s the ultimate test of a dog’s temperament, courage and self-control. The protection portion of the training includes being able to apprehend and “guard” a threat (for our example, let's say a burglar). The dog must be able to find the burglar first and then convincingly keep him from moving. This is where bite work comes in. The dog learns to begin by tracking down the burglar and aggressively and loudly barking to try to contain him and keep him from running. But if he does run or try to attack the dog, the dog then knows it must then contain and control the burglar with a “firm, full grip.” This grip is the key to the difference between an aggressive “attack” dog and a wonderful family pet that has the ultimate confidence and self-control. According to USCA,

“The purpose of the grip is to control and subdue the “bad guy”, not to ‘attack’, injure, or maim him. Additionally, the calm grip indicates confidence and strong nerves, and is tested during the stick hits [simulated attacks from the “bad guy” using a padded stick]. Here, a weaker dog will lose its composure under stress, and may shift, weaken, or even release its grip. A strong dog is unfazed. This is followed by “out” at the handler’s command once the helper submits; this exercise demonstrates the dog’s ability to think under pressure and to continue to respond appropriately to the helper’s escalation and de-escalation of aggression. The dog is expected to remain clear, courageous, powerful, engaged, and obedient throughout the entire protection phase. IPO protection work, when done properly, demonstrates a stable dog and reinforces the dog’s genetic judgment of knowing when to bite, and when not to bite. IPO protection work should create dogs that are confident, stable, and reliable.”

Fala demonstrating the importance and self-control of a firm, full grip in Schutzhund training.

And that’s why so many Schutzhund dogs are such great family companions -- most of these dogs live in family environments like Lisa’s home.

What’s really cool about Lisa is that she wasn’t content just doing Schutzhund training. She and Fala went for their master certification, which is called IPO III and is the highest level of Schutzhund training you can do. Getting this certification includes extremely difficult tests in 100% off-leash advanced obedience, tracking and protection work. There’s a great explanation of the three different levels and the type of testing required for each level on trainer and breeder Wayne Curry’s website, but in summing up IPO III he says, “The picture of obedience, strength, eagerness and confidence presented by an excellent Schutzhund III team is a beautiful illustration of the partnership of human and dog.”

Fala going with high drive to "contain" the "bad guy." Lisa issues voice commands from the background, demonstrating the high level of obedience work Schutzhund is based on.

Lisa and her husband have another dog, Cinder, who is the “pet” dog of the house, while Lisa got Fala to be a working dog (for Schutzhund training). Many working dogs, and especially in disciplines like Schutzhund, are crate trained - meaning they don't spend much time on the couch, or roaming free. Think of them like high performance athletes -- they're either training, eating, resting, or recuperating.  But once Fala got her IPO III, Lisa retired her (she’s going to be getting her next working puppy later this year). Now Fala has joined the ranks of the “couch” dogs out there. Although she’s got free reign of the house, Lisa’s husband reports that if Lisa isn’t home, Fala sits at the door until she returns (if that’s not the perfect example of “man’s best friend,” I don’t know what is). “She was bred to work,” Lisa says. “She follows my lead, she anticipates what's next, her drive is amazing. But yet I also love the moments where she’s realized she can fall asleep on the sofa with her head on my lap. Fala is it. I’m always going to be comparing every other dog to Fala.”

Fala demonstrating self-control and a high level of restraint now that she has the "bad guy" apprehended.

Though this could easily be the end of Lisa and Fala’s story, they’ve also gotten into the sport of dock diving together. As soon as Lisa brought Fala home, she continued to learn about Fala’s disease, researching natural approaches to help keep the disease at bay along with the medication. “I learned that exercise really helps boost the immune system,” Lisa explains. “I was looking for something I could do with her exercise-wise in the summer because in the fall and winter I run her alongside the bike. But it gets too hot for her in the summer.” Enter dock diving. Lisa stumbled across an event and figured she’d check it out. “Fala has a high, high toy drive,” she says. So she showed up, tossed a toy in the water, and “in she went.”

Fala going in for the bumper in a dock diving competition (note: Lisa has Fala wearing Rex Specs because of her advanced stages of pannus, so keeping the UV light away from her eyes is critical.)

Before Fala was two, Lisa noticed a brown thing on her eye. After taking her to the vet, she learned that Fala had yet another autoimmune disease, pannus.

Sidenote: If you haven’t read our comprehensive guide to pannus in dogs yet, make sure to check it out. This is a disease that not many people know can affect any breed of dog and is believed to be largely caused by exposure to UV rays. There are multiple approaches you can take to protecting your dog’s eyes from harmful UV rays, and we’re proud to say that Rex Specs were designed specifically to help prevent the development and further deterioration of pannus (it can eventually lead to blindness).

For Lisa, Fala’s diagnosis of pannus came long before Rex Specs were born. “My vet basically told me I shouldn’t have her out in the sun,” Lisa says. “But when you have a working dog that you train everyday, that’s impossible.” These days, Fala is rocking some pretty cool style with her Rex Specs when she goes dock diving, and according to Lisa, "If she’s outside and the sun is out even for a potty break she has them on."

Lisa and Fala do it all when it comes to dock diving -- the big air, the extreme vertical and the speed retrieve. And since at this point you know Lisa is no slacker, they’ve been out getting certifications and winning competitions as well. Fala has earner her Senior title at both the club and national levels, and last year she won the Iron Dog Warrior competition in Tennessee. “My goal for this year is to get an invite to the Worlds,” Lisa says. Given the bond these two have together and their shared love for work and play, we’d wager that goal just might come true.

Fala showing us the definition of "big air!"



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