Which Sport Should I Do?

A comparison and contrast of the various protection sports (suited) available in the United States.

On a regular basis I see people posting on social media, asking "what are the differences between the various protection sports" and "which sport should I do?".  The first question is fairly easy to answer.  The second question takes even more variables into account.  So let's hit the second question first πŸ™‚

When someone asks which sport they should do, my response is generally "what clubs are in your area?", "Have you visited those clubs yet?", and "Which one did you 'click' with in terms of personalities and training styles?" Whatever sport(s) that club does, that's what I would start with. You are going to be spending a LOT of time with these people.  And if you are new to protection sports, these people are going to become your mentors. If your personality doesn't click with them, or your training styles are at odds, there is the potential to be quite a bit of conflict/drama, and its not going to be very much fun. It's hard enough to do protection sports without adding unnecessary baggage.  I would also ask what your level of experience is with dog training in general.  If you find a club where the personalities mesh well, but the training styles are different but not at odds, then you might still fit well in that club if they are comfortable with you doing things your own way, as long as they are seeing results.  If you are a complete newbie, you will need a lot more mentoring from your club, and that is going to be in the training style they use.  If you think more than one sport looks like fun, and you feel you might want to cross over later, keep in mind there is a lot you can do in your foundation that will be compatible with all the sports. French Ring (FR) and MondioRing (MR) may not require focused heeling, but there are plenty of Ring handlers that teach it. FR may not have environmental stuff, but anyone raising a puppy for FR that isn't including environmentals in their upbringing is making a mistake IMO. You may not have a PSA decoy hit your dog 30+ times with a clatter stick in a trial, but that doesn't mean you can't expose your dog to FR style stick work. Take all the pieces from each sport, show the dog each of them and you are training above and beyond what the dog will see on the trial field. And that's never a bad thing.

As far as French Ring vs. MondioRing vs. PSA, they are all bite work sports that include obedience and agility. πŸ™‚ After that they start to diverge fairly quickly. I'm going to ignore Belgian Ring (BR) since it's not really available in the US.  In French Ring (FR) and MondioRing (MR) the dog walks on the field and does the entire routine, obedience, jumps and protection work.  In PSA the dog does the obedience and jumps, then if they pass that portion they will go on later to do the protection work.  This may also include some obedience and jumps at the higher levels.

In the protection portion, FR and MR do not judge on grip quality, because the decoy is not going to make it easy for your dog to get a preferred target. MR only has esquives (where the decoy makes the dog miss the bite on entry) in very limited situations.  In FR at the higher levels if the decoy can esquive your dog the entire 15 seconds they will. In the lower levels they will also esquive, but not as many times. The whole point of the esquive is to remove the dog’s forward momentum, so now they have to turn around and come through the decoys pressure without that buildup of speed they got from running down field. Plus if they can only just barely catch the decoy, they are going to be worked HARD (level appropriate) to see if the decoy can make them loose that grip.  So while MR and FR dogs have preferred targets, they are taught a "target of opportunity".  A dog who keeps trying to get just one target is easy to esquive over and over again, or block with accessories.  PSA judges grips, so assuming the dog comes through the pressure they will give the dog its target (left bicep or left leg) so the dog has the chance at a full grip.  The one caveat is some of the PSA3 scenarios, where the dog may not end up biting a preferred target or the decoy may be actively trying to fend off the dog. This “allow a preferred target” concept is true in all the protection sports that judge grip quality, i.e. PSA, BR, IGP/IPO. You can't judge grip quality if the decoy is doing everything they can to only let that dog catch them with 2 teeth. 

If you are doing FR at a competitive level, you will spend a lot of your bite work foundation teaching the dog technique. This includes how to read a decoy, counter an esquive, scoop, go over/under a barrage, etc. For PSA and MR you will spend a lot more time exposing the dog to environmentals/accessories and scenarios. All the sports have the same basic skills, i.e. bite, out, guard, escort/transport, search, call off, etc. but PSA also has muzzle attacks and PSA and MR have much more difficult scenarios then FR. FR and MR also have the “guard of object” exercise, where the dog is told to guard a specific object, the handler goes out of sight, and the decoy has 5 minutes and 3 attempts to steal that object which the dog must prevent by biting them.  Unlike the scenario aspect of PSA and MR, the exercises in FR are basically the same for each trial, with the only difference being the "flair" each decoy brings. IE one decoy is super-fast on those escapes, one uses a lot of hands in the dogs face, one has wicked stick work (an FR dog can easily be hit 30 or more times in one attack with a stick), etc. In MR the base exercises are also the same in each trial, but the scenarios will change. For example you will always have a defense of handler but what the decoys will be doing before and after the handler is hit varies widely. And PSA at the 3 level is pretty much a free for all. Not only will the scenarios change in every trial, but the skills required may also change.  For example in one trial the dog may be required to do a muzzle fight for one scenario, in another trial the dog may not use a muzzle for any scenario, obedience or protection.  In one trial the dog might be required to do a search of the field for a decoy, in another there may not be any form of search.  The “out” is also different in the 3 sports.  In FR and MR the decoy does not freeze up until the dog has actually be commanded to “out”.  So in theory the dog is outing off a still decoy, but in reality for full points the dog is outing from an active decoy.  In PSA the steward will tell the decoy to freeze up, and once they have stopped moving, will command the handler to “out your dog”, and then the handler will command the out.

In obedience PSA has a requirement for attention heel, while FR and MR are more focused on the dog’s body being in a very specific location compared to the handler’s leg. And I'll just throw this out there; contact heel and focus heel are NOT mutually exclusive. πŸ™‚ The retrieve items for FR are handler’s choice from 3 possible items.  In PSA and MR it is pretty much skies the limit, within reason. PSA has hands down the most distractions in obedience, with both decoys and “crap” (balls, stuffed animals, tarps, etc.) on the field. MR has stuff all over the field, but no decoy distractions.  The obedience exercises in the FR and MR routines are the same in each trial in terms of what exercises you will do (heeling, thrown retrieve, send away, etc.) but in a MR trial you will run into some scenario influence.  For example the heeling may be a very odd pattern around numerous stuffed animals.  The obedience exercises in the lower levels of PSA are basically the same from trial to trial, with some variation in the distractions on the field, but in the level 3 once again it’s a free for all that is created by the judge prior to the trial.  Not only will there be heavy decoy distractions during the obedience, but there may even be a protection scenario tossed in to get the dog in “biting mode”.  In PSA a dog who bites the decoy during the obedience routine is immediately disqualified.

The last main part of the protection sports is the agility, or jumps. FR/MR obstacles/jumps are much higher/longer than PSA obstacles. But there are the same 3 jumps each time, a hurdle, long jump and palisade. And it's stylized, i.e. leave the dog here, handler stands here, tells the dog to jump, etc.  The handler also chooses what order to do the jumps in, and what height or length they want to do them at, understanding they will not get full points if the dog doesn’t do each one at its maximum height/length. They jumps are also made following a fairly rigid set of criteria in terms of materials, height, width, etc.  The PSA jumps aren't as high as FR/MR, but you can run into a much wider variety of them. There are maximum heights, and some jumps such as the window jump have specific dimensions they must follow, but there is also a lot of leeway.  While the hurdles might all be 36 inches, one might be made of pvc lattice, one might be a blanket being held by two decoys, one might be solid wood, and one might be an FR or MR style hurdle.  A “tunnel” might be your standard agility tunnel, but it might also be a row of hoola hoops.  How your dog does the obstacles will also vary. IE you might send them over it, you might call them over it, they might go over one on the way to a bite, or a retrieve or they might have two side by side and have to differentiate which one to take.  You may have to send the dog over a jump, stop them, do a change of positions, send them further out through a tunnel, stop them, do another change of positions, then call them back through the tunnel and have them retrieve an item a decoy dropped, which they will then carry back to you while jumping the initial jump.

The final, but one of the biggest differences in MR vs. FR vs. PSA, is commands and scoring. In PSA you have much more leeway in your commands, mainly because of the scenario aspect. You can eventually zero an exercise by giving repeated commands, but in general an extra command or even changing a command is points off. In FR and MR an irregular command, or an extra command in some areas, is an immediate 0 for that exercise.  PSA also gives more leeway to handler help.  If you are starting an exercise in one spot, but feel it would be helpful to the dog to move to another spot, you have that option.  If you need to go downfield to help the dog through a scenario, you can.  You will lose some points, and depending on how the judge designed the scenario you may even fail it, but it’s not an automatic failure.  In FR and MR, your line, start cone, etc. are not optional.  That is where you start, and unless the exercise calls for you to follow the dog/decoy around the field, that is where you stay.  If you leave that area, you automatically 0 that exercise.  When it comes to scoring, FR and MR are more rigid than PSA in their deductions, in that the rule book outlines each thing that can go wrong, and how many points will be lost.  There is no “judge’s opinion”.  Heel is a very specific position in relation to the handler’s leg, and deductions for lagging, forging, or going wide are the same each time.  The dog has a certain amount of time to perform a retrieve, and as long as they do it within that time limit, they are “fast enough”.  If the dog does not out immediately, they lose a certain amount of points per second they are slow.  While escorting a decoy, if the decoy escapes the dog looses a specific number of points per meter the decoy is able to get before the dog apprehends them.  And this is the same in every trial. In the Brevet a team must earn a certain percent of each protection exercise, plus a certain percent of the total possible points to pass.  But in the higher levels a passing score is based strictly on the overall points possible in an entire routine, there is not breakdown by exercises.  PSA is based more on the IPO style of scoring, where there are certain deductions that are consistent, but there is also quite a bit of leeway for each judge’s ideal picture.  The judge determines if they feel a recall is fast enough, or could be faster.  The same is true for the level of focus in the heeling.  The judge decides if they feel the entry to a bite is fast, slow, hesitant, etc. and once on the bite if the feel the dog’s grip is full or not.  In the upper level surprise scenarios, the entire scenario has been made up by the judge, and therefore the scoring for that scenario has also been determined by that judge.  They have a total number of points to work with, but how they weight the various parts of the scenario is up to them.  They may even choose to not weight certain parts, ie no points can be earned or lost in that section of the scenario.  This scoring however is not available to the competitor ahead of time.  PSA is also broken up into two parts, a team must past obedience/jumps to move on to protection.  And in protection they must pass a certain percentage of each individual protection exercise to pass protection, it is not just based on the overall score.

For more information on each of these sports, check out the websites for their national organizations.

PSA – https://psak9-as.org/psa/
MR – https://www.usmondioring.org/
FR – http://www.ringsport.org/

PSA3 obedience routine
PSA3 obedience (Q) and protection (NQ) routine
MondioRing 3 routine
French Ring 3 routine

For more videos of each sport, hit YouTube and search on strings such as "PSA3 trial", "French Ring Trial", "FR3 trial", "MondioRing Trial", etc.  For some fun French Ring videos check out this link for some FR Championship highlights videos put together by myself and Erin Suggett.  You can also check out the videos on this website.

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