Even the AKC Folks are Learning from the Schutzhund Masters
Reprinted with permission from Media Hound, Front and Finish: January 1995, by Heather L. Nadelman
This month we're going to take a look at two videos and a book, all of which explain in detail the training techniques of a well-known Schutzhund trainer whose method is becoming rather a hot topic in competitive obedience circles: Gottfried Dildei. Written by Sheila Booth with Gottfried Dildei, Schutzhund Obedience: Training in Drive is a clearly-written and extremely informative (albeit a bit overpriced at $24.95) paperback. The two videos (produced by Susan Barwig's Canine Productions, the same outfit that brought you the AnneMarie Silverton videos) are professionally done and a veritable bargain at $49.95 each. All are available from Direct Book Services (1-800-776-2665).
First, I'd like to talk a little bit about who Gottfried Dildei is and what his training philosophy entails. Dildei retired from active Schutzhund competition in the early 1980s to become a full-time coach, and his students have done consistently well in the obedience portion of Schutzhund. Running throughout the videos and the book is nothing less than a moral imperative: Dildei question whether we as trainers have the right to inflict pain on our animals for the sake of a competitive sport without having explored every motivational method thoroughly and completely.
His response was the development of a training program which utilizes a dog's natural drives without giving up the quest for accuracy. Dildei isolates five basic drives in a dog: food, play, prey, fight, and pack. Our goal as trainers is to "train in drive," that is, to activate the dog's drive which will allow him to work and learn with a calm, focused, joyous intensity.
Dildei uses different drives for different purposes, the two most powerful being food and play. His method utilizes corrections only for genuine disobedience rather than for errors while the dog is learning. (Errors are simply glossed over while the dog is helped to succeed.) In addition, corrections for disobedience are only given while the dog is in drive. If he is not, he must be excited into that state, probably with food. In this way, the corrections do not demoralize the dog; he is able to learn from them and focus even more intensely on his ultimate reward.
The introduction to the first tape explains that the obedience portion of the Schutzhund exercises has become the arena in which champions are made. The narrator explains that the more current methods of Schutzhund training have utilized play and prey drives rather than the older methods of compulsion. Dildei believes, however, that play and prey can often excite a dog so much that the precision needed for the obedience exercises becomes increasingly difficult, forcing the trainer to use more compulsion.
In the hands of all but the best trainers, Dildei argues, play training will lead to what he terms a "hectic" drive, in which the dog barks, wriggles, jumps up on the handler, and engages in other displacement behaviors that inhibit the learning process.
Dildei believes that the manipulation of a dog with food produces a calm, powerful, and focused drive which is every bit as reliable as manipulation with a leash and collar and which also helps the dog retain a love of obedience, since corrections are few and far between. The benefits of food training, according to Dildei, are many: you can reward without interrupting the exercise, which you can't with play; you can more precisely control the dog's emotions (steady, continuous feeding will calm an animal, while teasing him with the prospect of food will excite him); food rewards are less fatiguing than play; and the food drive itself is extremely powerful in most dogs.
At the core of Dildei's method is the notion that the dog must "drive" the handler: the dog must initiate training (and the desire to be fed) by pushing at the handler's hands, looking expectant, or barking. The goal is to create calm, focused attention on the part of the dog, the sort of attention in which the dog's eyes never leave the handler, in expectation of the rewards which will come from working.
Accordingly, Dildei has no special command for attention, since it must be something that the dog initiates and is responsible for, rather than the handler. In the end, the dog believes that he himself is in control of both the handler and his training. It is he who makes the rewards come about, rather than the handler simply giving commands for the dog to follow. Dildei argues that the dog's sense of control makes the dog happier and allows for more efficient problem-solving throughout the learning process.
It should also be noted that Dildei's system is based upon the notion of pattern training, which he freely admits. Booth writes: "In football, you tell your team members which play you are running. It's only the other team you want to fool! The same applies to dog training. Let Champ know what you want, and then reward him for doing it. This fosters a reliable, enthusiastic team member. You'll be way ahead of the other team, too! Does pattern training cause anticipation? Certainly. But anticipation is merely the start of learning. Working it through is a simple matter of further training."
In Schutzhund, where the heeling pattern is basically the same every time, pattern training is easier than it is in AKC obedience. Dildei wants the dog to know precisely at what point a turn should occur, so he can begin to anticipate that turn and drive the handler toward it, in the process making him even more attentive and intense. For this reason, Dildei always makes his heeling patterns in practice a bit shorter that they will be in competition, to cause the dog to drive ever harder in the ring. The dog must know every turn and change of pace intimately, so that he can move with and not after the handler.
It is successful practice, allowing the dog to know what to expect and to drive toward that end, which is critical in Dildei's method. Successful practice creates an imprint of the exercise in the mind of the dog and is a much more powerful tool than either punishment for errors or even reward for correct behavior.
Anyone sincerely interested in motivational training, particularly the effective use of food, should add both the book and the two videos to their library. It should be noted, however, that Dildei's method is aimed at a Schutzhund audience. You'll need a flexible mind to convert some of his advice into AKC obedience, where, for example, the heeling pattern changes all the time. But it's not impossible: proper, consistent footwork will help a dog "drive" into his turns just as much as if he absolutely knew that the turn was coming. (In fact, that's the goal of footwork, too!)
Of course, building drive with food becomes more complex in AKC obedience, where trials are more frequent than they are in Schutzhund. But that's all part of the challenge!
The book is well written; in particular, the chapter on "happy heeling" is one of the best and clearest explanations of a motivational approach to heeling that I have seen anywhere. The excessive use of boldface and italics can be irritating at times, but this idiosyncratic style is a small price to pay for the rich training detail that the book provides. The videos are exceptionally well done and detailed, and, as are all the Barwig-produced tapes, much more professional in appearance than the typical training video.
In particular, several interesting camera angles showing what heel position and focal points look like from the dog's point of view underline how helpful video as a medium can be for dog training, and how it might distinguish itself from the written word. The video also (inadvertently) shows that following the Dildei method slavishly may not be appropriate for AKC obedience: the dogs in the tape crowd and bump far more than would be acceptable in the precision heeling of competitive obedience.
Both the tapes and the book are for trainers who enjoy thinking and who want a taste of something which is potentially truly exciting, rather than who wish to follow a neatly-laid-out schedule. The Dildei method contains ideas that are of tremendous importance to any competitive obedience trainer who wants to understand how to use food effectively to build drive in a performance animal. The fact that the author is addressing an audience primarily interested in another competitive canine sport makes it all the more intriguing.