It was the last weekend of summer and started in perfect Pacific Northwest fashion; cold, damp, and overcast. A small group of about a dozen people gathered for the Regional Helper Seminar hosted by Twin County Schutzhund Club. Mark Chaffin, a 30+ year vet of the sport of schutzhund was the Teaching Helper.
A helper is one of the most important positions in the sport of schutzhund. He, and sometimes she, is the one you see getting chased down and bitten by the dog. Not much to it, right? Wrong.
The caliber talent of your helper can make or break a dog, sometimes literally. A weak or slow helper can make your dog look sloppy while someone who is too intimidating can make a good dog look hesitant or nervy. A bad helper can jam a dog. That’s a term for being too inflexible in a catch or bite and hurting the dog by causing too much impact. In extreme and extremely rare cases, this can hurt a dog to the point that it must be put down or even kill it outright. There’s a lot of responsibility in being a helper.
It is also a mostly unrewarded job on the training field. Everyone knows how a helper should be doing his/her job, and none are shy about telling him/her how to do it, but few ever step up and put the sleeve on to demonstrate. Any problems a dog has or any points deducted during a trial will inevitably be blamed on the helper by disappointed or angry owners and handlers. IF the dog does well, the hard work of the helper is forgotten and all the glory goes to the dog and his handler’s amazing training skills.
All this is why the USCA (United Schutzhund Clubs of America) put together a program to help educate helpers. All over the country, there are seminars like the one I attended here to help teach people to be better helpers and to classify them into categories to better choose who is right for various competitions and training levels.
We spent the first of two days going over the basics. This was not a classroom lecture, this was hands on.
This was teeth on. Helpers of various skill levels, from beginners to very experienced, with several local clubs, including Cascade Schutzhund Club, German Shepherd Schutzhund Club, and Snohomish Schutzhund club, in addition to TCSC represented. Even the most experienced participants were able to learn something from Mark. He has been active in schutzhund almost since its arrival in the US and has seen many changes in the sport. He had valuable information and pointers for all of us, from the best to the absolute novice. He kept us on our toes and pushed our limits, challenging us to step up and do better. He used many entertaining stories from his decades in the sport to help put us all at ease, as well as to relay important points, most notably, that everyone was a beginner at one time. He also peppered the lessons with humorous anecdotes and even a few ribald jokes to make sure we were all paying attention.
Many of those taking part were also generous enough to allow others to work their dogs. This can be very touchy for many people.
Handlers put countless hours into working and training their dogs. The last thing anyone wants is to have some newbie step in and undo the effort they’ve put in. It is truly a sign of confidence in Mark’s ability that, in his words, “no dog will go away less than he came.” That is a promise which definitely held true. As a plus to the helper training, Mark tossed in a great deal of dog training and advice that everyone there could take to heart. He is the exception to the old rule that those who can’t do, teach. He can and he does, as a teacher, and as a current competitor on the trial circuit.
Day two allowed us to show off all we had learned. Many of us new to the sport had to fight off some stage fright and exam day jitters, but again, Mark’s easy manner helped us to relax, stay focused and remember that encyclopedia of knowledge he provided a day prior. Were we all A students? No. However, we all gave it our best shot, and all of us managed to somehow squeak out a classification, the USCA equivalent of a gold star for our performance.
Should you be interested in more information on the sport of schutzhund, check out their website, www.germanshepherddog.com.