Decoys and Helpers are common in a wide range of dog sports and for tactical dogs. The term is used interchangeably, and in most dog sports regardless of name the function is the same.
For many people just starting out in either dog training or dog sports the function of a helper is not always well understood.
Many people starting on protection training tend to think of a Helper or Decoy as a target, this is not only incorrect but if it is in fact treated that way there is a significant downside to training and there are risks both to the dog and the decoy.
So what is the function of a Helper ?
A helper is there to assist you in teaching your dog all phases of protection work. This includes the basics when a dog is still a puppy all the way through advanced training. In the initial phases of training a good Helper will assist in helping a dog develop both a good grip , good targeting, building drive, a proper release from a bite, and correct positioning during an exercise. Remember even where a dog bites is not something a dog comes with automatically, it is taught. Grip versus chewing is also taught (although some dogs have a more natural full grip than others), as is retention of grip during a “fight with the Helper” or when the dog is surprised. This is really critical if you intend to compete in dog sports or if your dog is going to be an in service protection dog. A trainer alone cannot always cover all facets of protection work. A good Helper is invaluable in covering portions of training where the trainer is too far from the dog to be effective. An experienced Helper often knows more about certain key aspects of protection work than a moderately experienced trainer and can coach both the trainer and the dog. An experienced Helper also understands obedience training. Protection is not and cannot be a stand alone affair. To control and direct a dog in protection work requires that the dog has a high level of obedience training. Without obedience, control cannot be maintained.
Even the best dogs are not automatically trained, a good Helper knows how to build up a dogs confidence. This is more critical than one might imagine. Many dogs have been ruined at an early age by inexperienced helpers who could not read the dog and its stage of development. A confident young dog can be broken if handled wrong or with a Helper who is overly aggressive at an early stage. Conversely dogs that are tentative when young can be greatly assisted by a good Helper who can “build” the dog up to a level of confidence and performance that was not initially there. A good Helper knows how and when to reward a dog to reinforce desired behaviors.
A trainer working with a good Helper can gain insights into the character of his dog and adapt training to fit the needs and aptitudes of the dog. Experienced Helpers recognize when a dog may have certain issues, such as fear of a stick, or certain noises and can work with the trainer to build drive to overcome these weaknesses.
A qualified Helper also knows when a dog has too much drive and is on the edge of control, and can work with a trainer to bring the dog down to a practical and controllable level.
We have talked about the advantages of a qualified Helper. Let’s briefly touch on the dangers of an inexperienced Helper. As we said earlier some people think of decoys or Helpers as simple targets. An inexperienced Helper often does not know the exercises that the dog is doing, does not know how to teach a dog how or where to bite and without training in proper foot work, exercises and movements could get hurt. An inexperienced Helper is unlikely to be able to “read” a dog, and as such will not be able to assist with correcting developing problems or even identifying them. Finally an inexperienced Helper/decoy puts your dog at risk. A dog coming in on an attack ,including many well trained dogs is moving very quickly and is focused “in drive”. If the Helper is using a sleeve and does not know how to position and catch the dog the attack can result in a block. This can cause anything from mild to severe neck damage to the actual death of the dog. If the Helper is wearing a protection suit and does not know how to catch a dog, he may fall. Falling on top of a dog can cause serious injury to both the dog and the Helper.
How does someone become a Helper. The answer is relatively simple practice and training.
In our experience it takes a minimum of a year and often over two years of practice and training to become an effective Helper, and you really never stop learning.
To learn you either need to be taught by a very qualified and experienced trainer, or an experienced Helper, better yet both. To be an effective Helper, you basically have to be a reasonably good trainer, there is no other way to really understand the exercises, let alone intent and purpose. A qualified Helper knows all of the exercises contained within a given dog sport or tactical discipline. The Helper knows how the exercise should go and is able to anticipate the dog (and sometimes the handler). A Helper must learn proper movements, foot work, agitation work and how to catch a dog whether on a suit or sleeve. A Helper must also learn safety protocols and what to do if things do not go as expected. Panic is a disaster. A Helper must know how and when to correct a dog during an exercise when the handler is not near enough to do so.
Training to be a Helper/Decoy is often available through established Dog Sports Clubs and there are some professional trainers who offer training on a tuition basis. Always make sure that whoever trains you is truly experienced.
When considering the use of a Helper in protection training, hopefully you will choose your “target” wisely.
Credit: Siam Crown Kennel
Written Exclusively For Day One German Shepherd Dogs