I recently read an online discussion about the growth, or lack thereof, of the United Schutzhund Clubs of America and the IPO sport in general. As is typical in life, different people have different opinions on the issue. Some people said they believe that the organization is doing well and even showing improvement, while others wrote that not enough is being done to promote and preserve the sport.
If you step back and think about it, it’s easy to see why people disagree. Like with everything else in life, people form opinions based on their own personal experiences. To someone just starting out in IPO, there are new and fun things around every corner, so many undiscovered possibilities. With so much to learn and to do, it’s easy for a new competitor to become excited about their personal future within the sport. That excitement drives the newcomers to seek out better coaches, better helpers, better clubs, and more effective training methods. When you’re going through this process, it’s easy to think that things are getting better all the time, that the sport is improving. But the reality is that the only thing improving is you. The knowledge and methods that you are learning, these things that are helping you to improve, have always been there.
I went through this process myself about 35 years ago. If someone would have asked me, say, six years into my Schutzhund experience if I thought the sport was growing, my answer would have been, “Hell, yes. One day, this is going to be the most popular dog sport ever.” But my thinking was wrong – the sport it is at the same level today as it was when I started all those years ago. Personally, I have seen no substantial growth. The first national event I attended in the early 1980’s was as big a deal, if not more so, than this year’s event. In fact, I would say that the sport, or at least the organization, has been regressing in recent years. The new magazines have a quarter of the content that they used to. Many of my fellow trainers that have been involved in Schutzhund for decades are no longer members of USCA, or of a local club.
I may not think that the sport is improving, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been evolving. There have definitely been lots of changes over the years; even the name has changed. Unfortunately, the evolution hasn’t been a positive one. Not only have we failed to promote the test of Schutzhund, but we haven’t even managed to preserve it. The fundamentals of the past, courage and hardness, are rarely considered in IPO today. The focus is all on procedure and points – everyone wants to win a big event, even if that means sacrificing those fundamentals to create a competitive dog. Because of this, to me the average IPO III title doesn’t carry the weight it used to. Twenty years ago, if a dog achieved Schutzhund III, you could trust that it was a quality dog. At that time, the helpers had a real stick and a real sense of testing the dogs. As competitors, we hoped for judges and helpers that would separate the strong from the weak. The goal was to have a dog that was obviously tough and full of fight. The points were little more than an afterthought.
During a recent discussion with a young handler, I asked her what she thought this sport was about. Why do we train? After a moment, she replied, “Well, for the points.” I started to explain to her why her thinking was wrong, but then I realized that from her perspective, she was probably right, because that’s all she knows of the sport: the competition and the scores. To her, trying to win is all there is to this. And unfortunately, she’s no different than a lot of others out there. Not that I agree with this attitude, but I might at least be able to understand it if there was really something worth winning – prize money or serious notoriety. But let’s face it, IPO isn’t the NFL. Winning a trial is never going to make anyone rich and famous. So what’s so important about winning that is worth sacrificing the fundamentals that made Schutzhund great?
I feel that most of the training methods that have become popular in the last few years have all been geared toward creating competitive sport dogs. I’ve seen very few advancements that could help a beginner train a real protection dog that will also be a trusted family member, which should be our goal. In my experience, this is what most newcomers are looking for. If we don’t start doing a better job of teaching people the fundamentals, I don’t see how Schutzhund can survive without morphing into something that I, and most of my clients, no longer want to be a part of. I think this evolution, and our lack of growth as an organization, is a result of not doing justice to our novice members. We need to be doing more to help these people achieve their personal goals. They don’t want to win the National, they just want a stable, obedient protection dog. If they can make a hobby of being competitive in the sport, that’s just icing on the cake. We need to start growing from the bottom up, not from the top down.
Now, I know that most people doing IPO today would say that the sport has nothing to do with creating real protection dogs, and as things stand now, I would have to agree. It has definitely become more about competition and scores and less about training and promoting real protection dogs. That’s what some people are considering growth. In my opinion, our “growth” is only leading to our downfall.