• Toni Miller
  • Dog Nutrition and Member Service Specialist

  • 5 mins read time
  • The Basics of Protection Dog Sports

    Photo: My Schutzhund Life

    IPO/IGP (Schutzhund)

    Schutzhund in German means “protection dog,” but this translation hardly even begins to describe what the sport is all about. Schutzhund originated in Germany in the early 1900s as a way to evaluate whether any particular German Shepherd had the appropriate traits and characteristics of a good working dog. This allowed breeders to evaluate character, temperament, trainability, and mental and physical soundness of their dogs before breeding. It was eventually adapted for other working breeds (e.g., Rottweilers, Dobermans, Malinois), and later turned into a sport, and is now more commonly known as IGP.

    Today, there are three levels of titles that can be earned in the sport - novice (SchH1), intermediate (SchH2) and expert (SchH3). Each title requires passing three distinct phases with varying difficulty: tracking, obedience, and protection. Let’s go over these one by one!

    Phase A - Tracking: this phase tests not only your dog’s scenting ability, but also their mental and physical endurance. A “track layer” will walk across a field and drop several small articles along the way. It is your dog’s job to track the path and indicate the articles to his handler by stopping and laying down with the article in between his front paws. Depending on the title you are working towards, the track age, length, and shape can vary in difficulty. A perfect score is 100 points, and you need a minimum of 70 to pass.

    Phase B - Obedience: this phase takes normal obedience to a whole other level! It tests your dog on several well-known exercises like on and off leash heeling, recall, and sit/stay, but it is also important that the dog shows enthusiasm and an interest in working, along with precision, control, and accuracy in following commands. This phase also requires that the dog walk through a crowd, remain in a “down” for 10+ minutes with another dog working nearby, and heel, stay in a “down,” and show no adverse reaction when two blanks are fired from a gun. A perfect score is 100 points, and you need a minimum of 70 to pass.

    Phase C - Protection: this final phase tests the dog’s temperament, character, and most importantly, control. In this test, a “helper” wears a heavily padded sleeve on one arm. There are several “blinds” (6 ft tall walls/structures) on a field that the dog is directed to search one by one by the handler. When the dog finds the helper, they indicate it to the handler by barking. The dog must then guard the helper, preventing them from moving, until they are recalled by the handler. At specific points in the test, the helper will either attack the dog or handler, or will try to escape. The dog must stop the attack or escape by biting the padded sleeve, and MUST release the sleeve when he is commanded to by the handler. Handler control over the dog is essential in this phase, as the dog is rated on his responsiveness to the handler and willingness to take direction, as well as his ability to work under pressure, self-confidence, and steady nerves. The dog will fail if he does not release the sleeve, or if he shows fear, lack of control, or inappropriate aggression.

    PSA (Protection Sports Association)

    PSA stands for “Protection Sports Association” and is an American organization that was developed in 2001 as a way to provide a competitive outlet for obedience and protection training in a scenario based program. PSA includes only obedience and protection at three different levels - unlike Schutzhund, tracking is not a part of this sport.

    Though they share some similarities, PSA obedience routines differ from Schutzhund in one major way! A suited decoy is present on the field during all obedience routines for PSA 1-3. The main role of the decoy is to act as a distraction to the dog. This can include tossing distractions past the dog, walking or jogging around the dog/handler team and interacting with the handler, providing food refusals, and more. The distractions change depending on the competition level, and increase in difficulty. Dogs are typically tested on things like recall, heeling, climbing, jumping, retrieves, stays, and more.

    In the protection part of the sport, dogs are tested on various real-life scenarios, all with a decoy in a full bite suit. Additionally, there are surprise scenarios that the judge picks on the day of the trial at random. One example scenario you might see in PSA is a carjacking scenario. The dog is expected to bark and alert the handler to the decoy while they have a short conversation, and the dog should grip and hold the decoy when he fires a shot from a blank pistol and attacks. Upon the handler’s command, the dog should release his bite and guard the decoy until the exercise is complete. The dog is expected to react a certain way during the scenario, and is assigned a number of points depending on how well they perform. To earn titles in PSA, dogs must earn a minimum number of points to qualify.

    Additionally, there are several other real-life scenarios that your dog may be tested on, and the difficulty can increase as your dog progresses in the sport from PSA levels 1-3. Some other scenarios may involve components such as: calling off multiple decoys, water distractions, and tests of courage and commitment to pursue a decoy despite distractions.

    French Ring

    Similar to Schutzhund, French Ring is a protection dog sport based out of France that originated in the late 1800s as a way to test a dog’s suitability for breeding. The Bouvier des Flandres is the breed most well known in France for protection work, but the Belgian Malinois is now regarded as being the best breed for the sport.

    Just like Schutzhund, French Ring has three levels: French Ring 1, 2, and 3. As you can expect, the levels increase in difficulty the further you go. Before starting work in the sport though, dogs must pass an initial temperament test that demonstrates they have the correct mind and body to continue with the rest of the sport. This is called the CSAU, or Certificat de Sociabilité et d’Aptitude à l’Utilisation. After the test has been completed, a Brevet must be completed to advance to the other levels of the sport.

    The Brevet is a 15-minute routine that consists of basic obedience and protection exercises. This includes heeling, agility jumps, and more challenging exercises such as refusal of food thrown, changes of positions (sit/down/stand) with the handler at a distance, and broad jumps and palisades (shown below). After passing this test, dogs can move forward to Level 1 of the sport.

    Just like other protection sports, French Ring involves a handler and dog team and an aggressor (the decoy) wearing a bite suit. There are several different exercises the handler/dog team are tested on. One example of this is defense of the handler. In this exercise, the dog walks with the handler and keeps an eye on the decoy. When the decoy strikes the handler, the dog bites. Sometimes, the dog will be sent to attack but then called off before biting. In another protection task, the dog must bite the decoy while he shoots blanks out of a pistol, and must show courage in spite of the gunfire.

    Other protection tasks don’t involve the handler at all, forcing the dog to think for himself and act appropriately in the situation without guidance. For example, in the routine called “object guard,” the dog is left alone in a field and tasked to guard an object from a decoy who is trying to steal it. The dog must bite the decoy only when he comes within one meter of the object, and must out (release the bite) on his own without a command once the decoy retreats so that he can return to the object and continue guarding. As I’m sure you can tell, this is a very challenging task for a dog to complete, and it requires a high level of intelligence and discipline from the dog.

    All the exercises are scored on a point basis, and teams must have two passing scores under two different routines (“legs”) in order to move to the next level. The Brevet and Levels 1-3 contain 100, 200, 300, and 400 points respectively. Points can be lost very easily if teams aren’t dedicated to training in both obedience and protection, as the sport can be very challenging and requires lots of training for both the dog and the handler.

    In the end, the purpose of French Ring is to test a dog’s suitability for guarding and protection work, and dogs trained in the sport and used in real-life protection scenarios are selectively bred for these demanding tasks. Breeds that typically excel in the sport include Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherds, and German Shepherds. Dobermans, Rottweilers, and American Bulldogs can also excel in the sport, but are less common.

    Mondioring or “Mondio Ring”

    Mondio Ring is an international dog sport developed in the late 80’s and it is a combination of French Ring and Schutzhund. The intent behind the sport was to create an international competition that combined the best aspects of the already existing sports - plus, it makes Mondio Ring titles internationally recognized.

    Mondioring tests a dog’s obedience, agility, athleticism, and his ability to protect in a mock up scenario, and often includes extreme distractions. No two trials are ever the same, as this prevents the possibility of the dog memorizing the sequence of events/responses (rote memorization). The obedience section of mondioring requires various behaviors including heeling, holding a sit/down/stand position, and food refusal. Handlers are only allowed to signal once - more than that, and faults will be given during scoring. The agility section tests the dog’s dexterity, and it includes three jumps the dog must master - the palisade, hurdle, and long jump. Finally, the protection section of mondioring tests the dog’s ability to determine when and where it should attack to defend itself or the handler. Decoys will try to distract the dog while it is biting. There are often recall tests during these tests, and if a dog fails to recall or cease biting when told, points will be deducted.

    Some examples of mondioring exercises can include things like: heeling off leash, changing/holding positions, scent discrimination, face attack, and defense of handler to name a few. Let’s go through them one at a time!

    Heeling off-leash sounds simple, but in mondioring, there are a lot more aspects to it. Dogs are required to stay in the heel position with multiple stops and starts and turns. They may also require the dog to go through different obstacles, carry things, or pick things up. This requires a lot of focus and attention on the handler.

    Position exercises involve the handler giving commands for the dog to change positions from at least 15 meters away. They will be asked to sit, stand, or lay down. If they creep forward during the exercise, points are lost. This exercise is made extra difficult for the dog by being on uneven ground or next to strange objects or distractions.

    During scent discrimination, the handler is given a small dowel before the competition begins. They will place it 30 meters away from the dog, and there will also be 4 other dowels placed in the vicinity. The handler will send the dog to retrieve the correct dowel - this requires the dog to remember the handler’s scent to discriminate it from the other dowels.

    In face attack exercises, the dog is told to attack a decoy who is 50 meters away acting menacingly with a stick. The dog will have to go through obstacles to reach the decoy, and must not go around the obstacles to attack. Typically, recall is not tested in this specific exercise, but calling off from a bite is an important skill for the dog to know.

    Defense of handler exercises are a little more complicated for the dog than face attacks! There will be two decoys in the field. They may be walking around, arguing with others, jumping, or doing anything they can that might set the dog off and encourage it to bite the wrong person. At some point, a decoy will shake hands with the handler, move away, and then eventually come back and attack the handler. The second decoy will try and keep the dog’s attention away from the attacking decoy, and may try to lure them away from the handler. The dog’s task in this scenario is to bite the attacking decoy and fight them until commanded by the handler to release or “out,” and must then guard the decoys before being recalled to the handler.

    WHAT BREEDS ARE BEST FOR PROTECTION WORK

    Though there aren’t explicit restrictions for which breeds can participate in protection sports, it is clear that some dogs excel more at it (and are better suited for the sports) than others. Protection sports are a test of not only the dog’s ability to defend their owner in mock attack scenarios, but also their immense self-control, courage, athleticism, and agility. It just doesn’t really make sense to compete in the sport with a breed like the French Bulldog!

    With that said, some breeds that are bred for protection work and that seem to dominate the world of protection sports include Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Bull Mastiffs, Cane Corsos, and even Bouvier Des Flandres. Typically, dogs that have a strong love for their owners, an innate instinct to guard the home, and a large, muscular build seem to be the best fit for the sport.

    Should You Get a Working Breed?

    Working breeds, such as Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds, require a lot of training, exercise, and mental stimulation to lead healthy, happy lives. Regardless of whether you decide to train your dog in protection sports, it’s important to remember what the breed’s original purpose is and how that impacts their behavior and needs, and whether or not they fit into your current lifestyle.

    To start, let’s consider the difference between working and show dogs. Working dogs are bred to work - they are still being used for the work they were meant to do, such as German Shepherds in police work or Siberian Huskies as sled dogs. In contrast, show dogs are bred for the conformation ring. Working and show dogs are both selectively bred for specific characteristics - working for a higher prey and defense drive, and show for reduced drive and higher cooperation/obedience. Show is often a better fit for the average dog owner, as they will have a lower working drive and will be easier to handle and train. Show dogs could also train in protection sports, but it might take a bit more effort to hone their drive and natural instincts compared to a working dog.

    Now with that distinction in mind, are you cut out to handle a working-line, working dog breed? Working breeds in general are a lot of work. They often require extensive training, hours of exercise, and mental stimulation. On top of that, working-line dogs are bred to have stronger protection instincts and a high working drive to help them succeed in protection work. And while both those things make for great protection dogs, it can lead to a very independent, protective, and potentially aggressive dog that is much harder to handle for the average owner! It’s important to remember that a dog’s genetics impacts his behavior, and it’s equally important to recognize that proper training is a must to direct and control it appropriately. So if you are wanting to pursue protection sports and raise a properly trained protection dog, be 1000% confident in what you are getting yourself into. Working line dogs are not your typical pet or companion, and should not be treated as such. If you aren’t able to put in the work to control and direct your dog’s drive and instincts, you would absolutely be better off getting a dog bred specifically for companionship.

    Is Your Dog Stable Enough for Protection Work?

    Before pursuing protection work with your dog, it is important to ask yourself if they are mentally stable enough for the work they would be doing. Protection sports require the dog to think on its own, not flinch or run away under pressure, and be highly biddable and have a high level of obedience training. Dogs who have anxiety or fear issues, high defense drives, or issues with impulse control may not be a good fit for protection work.

    MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT PROTECTION SPORTS

    Your Dog Will Become More Dangerous

    A common misconception about protection sports is that dogs who go through the training and learn how to bite people in bite suits will become more aggressive as a result. However, this isn’t the case! Although bitework is an important part of protection sports, there is also a huge focus on obedience and control of the dog. For example, many sports have “call off” exercises where the dog is sent to bite someone and then told to “stop” and return to the handler. Dogs that would bite just to bite can benefit from being taught when it is and isn’t appropriate, and the handler can learn to read their dog better and will get a better understanding of when it is considering a bite. When dogs receive protection training from professionals, they are simply learning new skills and given an outlet for their instincts and energy. Some dogs may never be cut out for real-world protection and may participate in the sport for physical and mental exercise, while others may transfer the discipline and training over into the world outside the ring. All in all though, it would be a mistake to assume dogs involved in protection sports are unstable, aggressive, and dangerous, when they likely have more discipline and self-control than most dogs!

    The Best Protection Dogs are Male

    Although female dogs are often smaller than their male counterparts, there is no distinguishable difference in drive or willingness to work between genders. A dog’s drive to work, willingness to please, and suitability for protection sports will vary with each individual, but both male and females can be successful protection dogs.

    Protection Dogs Bark a Lot

    It’s an unfair stereotype to assume that working/protection dogs are the source of your neighborhood’s noise pollution. Many dogs who receive protection training are able to discern the difference between a threat and a visitor. They are trained on when it is appropriate to sound the alarm, and when to remain quiet!

    The world of protection sports can be complicated, but I hope this article can help you decide which sport is the right sport (if any) for you and your working breed! Remember to consider your dog’s mental stability and drive - not all dogs are a good match for protection sports due to the amount of self restraint, control, and clear-headedness required of the dog. And if you do choose to pursue protection sports, be sure to go through a reputable trainer or dog sport club to ensure you both receive proper (and safe) training!