Dog Behavior I : Trained Guard Dogs

This picture is of a dog and its handler working on Schutzhund obdience; they are preforming an off leash heel. (This is an open source picture from Wikipedia.)

Schutzhund is comprised of three areas: obedience, tracking, and protection. While Schutzhund began in Germany with dogs like shepherds, and rotts, in the U.S. it has become a sport with handlers bringing many different kinds of dog into the training.

I once took an introductory Schutzhund obedience class with my shar pei, Sha T’an. The trainer who offered the class — at the request of a friend — had recently retired from the Calgary Police Department’s K9 unit where he had been in charge of dog training. The man took his training very seriously and his dog of choice was always a shepherd. Which is why I really had to talk my way into being allowed to even attend the first few classes with my shar pei. Also, Sha T’an was underage. In Schutzhund dogs are not supposed to start this level of training until they are 18 months old. Since we weren’t going to get as far as the big obstacle course work, and since shar pei were a “new to North America” breed and I’d heard and informed the trainer that they could be aggressive if not trained properly, I managed to convince the trainer to allow myself and my funny little dog to attend the first night’s class. The understanding was we could be dismissed from the remaining classes after the first night.

Schutzhund is meant to encourage intelligent obedience and disobedience in a dog. One of the examples the trainer used was that he should be able to order his dog to wait in the vehicle, with the windows open and expect that the dog will not react to anything — unless the handler would be suddenly attacked, in which case his dog needed enough sense to come to his aid.  This was what the trainer called “intelligent disobedience.”

One of the things I took from Schutzhund training is the knowledge that given a stable temperament in the dog and trainer, a dog can learn to turn certain kinds of responses on and off. Again, an example from the trainer was the need for a K9 unit to be working on public relations by being friendly with a crowd one minute, and respond to a person with a gun, without missing a beat — and vice-versa. A dog and handler had to be able to deal with the adrenaline rush and then get right back to regular behavior.

Now if you watch some “reality” television then you’ve noted as I have, not all police dogs or handlers are as stringently trained as this Calgary police officer had trained his people and dogs. Expectations vary from training program to training program according in part to the personalities of the people involved.

Dog personalities also vary, as do breed characteristics. While my little shar pei did end up earning the respect of the trainer this gentleman made no secret of the fact that he thought German shepherds were the best all round dogs. In the world. For pretty much anything — including one of their original tasks, herding livestock. Being from a farm and having seen the other side of shepherds I disagreed, but quietly. In order to illustrate his point about the different natural instincts of breeds the trainer told us about an incident he witnessed on the job.

A couple (with some very valuable things) left town for several days. They had a Rottweiler who was left as an outside guard. A lone thief had been casing the house and when he arrived to rob it, he brought a pit bull with him and left it outside to fight the rott (I have no specific details, just the raw bones of the story.) The burglar then made it inside the house and headed straight for the master bedroom to look for jewelry and money. What he didn’t realize was that the couple also had a Doberman. For while the Rottweiler had tried to keep the bugler out, the dobe had quietly waited for him to get in. Somehow the thief managed to make it up into the top shelf of the closet with only minor injuries. The dobe then proceeded to lay at the entrance of the closet patiently waiting for the thief to come down. When the owners arrived home that is how they found the dobe and the man — they called the police to come and remove the thief from their upper closet shelf.

Now if you think about it this is a rather grim story, and since he chose to tell the story to a group of primarily women the trainer got an unexpected reaction; we all wanted to know what had happened to the pit bull, the Rottweiler and by the way — did the criminal actually “you know” in the closet? The trainer shook his head, “The point is,” he insisted, “that a Rottweiler is more likely to try and keep someone out while a Doberman is more likely to wait for them to come in and then attack.” All of which underlined his ultimate point that for everything, including protection, a German shepherd was best… because a well trained, properly temperamented shepherd could “be turned on and off like a light switch.”

Of course, obviously there are exceptions to all of these statements; not all shepherds are good around other animals or can be flipped on and off; there are individual characteristics among all breeds including Dobermans and Rottweilers. But I do agree with the trainer’s ultimate point:  if a dog is going to be used for a guard animal it should be trained to be a guard; it should never pick and choose on whom and when it will potentially use physical force. And that is one of the key differences between a guard dog and a watch dog. A guard dog should be trained using a method — Shutzhund protection is one method — to protect its handler when absolutely necessary. The Doberman was actually a trained guard dog; he did not use excessive force on the intruder and rather than crazily trying to attack the intruder he patiently held the intruder in one location and waited.

A watch dog is an alert dog and any sized dog can do this job — bark or otherwise indicate that something out of the ordinary is happening, or that someone/thing is on your property. I have had many watch dogs. I’ve also had one dog that was completely uninterested in who came and went. I have never owned a guard dog because I do not need that kind of protection. I just want to know if someone is in my yard or on my porch or trying to open my front door. Any watch dog can tell me that. The next topic in this series then will be a more detailed discussion of what makes for a “watch” dog as opposed to just a barky dog and why this kind of dog is very different from a trained guard dog.

Remember, a dog that shows aggression towards people and is not under the handlers control is not a guard dog — it is a potential biter and a potential law suit. We will also discuss this kind of agression towards people/other animals in a future posting in this series of discussions on dog behavior.

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