At the age of 12, I participated for the first time in a working competition for Boxers: trying to pass the BH trial with Last Tango van Sapho’s Hoeve. In the German BK-gruppe Wickenrath. After a short free heelwork soon Tango decided to part and to explore the world. It took a few of the organisers, including the judge, to explain Tango that this was not the moment to go running. After a second try the judge needed to help me out of my misery: he told me I failed.

It could have been the start and the end of my SchH/IPO career but the opposite happened: since that day I couldn’t stay away from the training field. What shocked me most that dreadful day in Germany was the fact that some empathic person tried to comfort me by telling he would find some other nice dog for me to train with! The chocolates and other sweet things that were offered me in abundance – that poor little guy from Belgium – couldn’t make me feel better: the gesture made things worse. Probably from that moment on I wanted to prove that dogs can do much more than their owners and/or trainers believe.

Some years passed and with the very much appreciated help of some nice and experienced people around me (Ursula and Heinz Menghissen, Ivo van Bets, to name just a few), I did compete with Night Van Sapho’s Hoeve: his first IPO 1. Mine too. Once again a trial in Germany. This time in BK-gruppe Heepen-Bielefeld. Night succeeded: he was my first IPO 1 dog, he was not my own and the certificate made him International Champion.

Soon people started asking me for help. At the age of 16, I was teaching other people how to work their dogs. In the meanwhile, I was accepting dogs of other kennels to build them up for IPO 1. At that time not one penny was charged. The owners did thank me each in their own way, which was ok.

More importantly however, was the fact that it felt good to me. For throughout these early years, in different clubs in different countries, I had felt growing inside me this terrible frustration. It was eating me. I simply could not handle the fact that Boxers were given into the hands of trainers who stretched the dogs’ behaviour so far that the dogs withdrew into themselves and became mere shadows of what they once were.

So, I made training Boxers part of my professional life.

The years that followed were hectic to say the least, as I simply accepted all the inquiries and did not return the Boxers until I achieved my goal. With a feverish motivation and with a lot of ups and downs, I was training dogs at a speed and intensity that I would not be able to do anymore now.

At one moment I was presenting in one single trial four dogs for IPO 1 (at that time there was no entry limit, as there is now). Four different personalities, each with his strong points and his weaknesses. And yes … all 4 of them did pas. Even to me, writing these lines, it sounds crazy – but I was young, full of energy and I had a mission.

Continuing this training work and the subsequent trials made me happy more and more every day that went on. It gave me the opportunity to adapt to no matter what dog that was presented to me. Yes: I learned to adapt to the dog that was with me, not vice versa! And along the way I learned how to guide each specific dog in the best possible way – his way – through the competition.

People around me – luckily not only ‘working’-people – came up with the idea to organise a party after the trial of the 25th IPO 1. I was amazed and quite nervous (more than on the trial!) when I noticed the large number of the people that were present. On the wall were big banners with the names and pictures of each of those twenty-five Boxers. I was overwhelmed. If I would have known at that moment what was lying ahead, I would have gone mad I think. I managed to give a speech – mainly about Boxer behaviour. That speech drew the attention of a famous, important and – at that time – very controversial person: Geert Debolster. He was the man who introduced on the continent the clicker training method and from whom I had learned a lot. He took me aside and told me he never heard a speech so correct and valuable in a working club. Of course I was flattered and it is a moment I will never forget.

Increasing Pressure

Somehow I slowly slipped into a spiral. A rollercoaster. With some of Europe’s most valuable boxers in our kennel for training, and occasional handling when schedules fitted, the pressure was constantly high and on occasions I barely could handle it.

Knowing that this or that Boxer was a serious contender for the most important show titles of that year, that for that aim he or she absolutely needed to succeed IPO1, that the future of this dog could depend on it, that his owner was counting on me, trusting me… .

Staying neutral in those situations was impossible: I was in the middle and I wanted these Boxers to succeed so badly for I knew they disserved it. Daniela D’jandilla (once she got close- and that took me a full month – she lived inside of you), Périco Du Val d’Europe (his determination was absolute), Franklin Django Van De Matenhof (his cleverness drove me to the edge of my knowledge), Brahms Van Sapho’s Hoeve (giving up never crossed his mind). Just to name a few of them.

As high as the pressure would mount, I never used strong force on the dogs as my main motivation was still to preserve the natural behaviour of the dogs, to strengthen it as much as possible and to return them to their owners with a positive experience.

I am not afraid to admit that in those years I cried more than once, not only because this or that exercise went wrong, over and over again, shortly before the trial date. So many things could go wrong. I used to go and sit down, the dog next to me, do nothing, letting time rebuild confidence and motivation. Somehow I always found a solution. Very often, looking at (paying attention to) the dog was what helped me. The dogs’ behaviour showed the way: if I got in trouble, mostly it was because I used a technique that did not fit the personality of that dog. ’Technique’ is only a set of behaviours of the trainer; it is important but not crucial: trust between Boxer and trainer is. So I had to change my behaviour in such a way the dog would understand it and we would be able to go on. I cannot ‘listen’ to dogs and I certainly do not ‘whisper’ to them, but I know for sure that each of those Boxers was constantly observing me (“reading me”) – I “simply” had to do the same. Each of those Boxers educated me; they taught me how to read. Patiently, willing to understand, trusting.

Cold Rain, Snow and Mud

Along the road I started to hate the fact that the dogs needed to be ready before the annual Atibox-world championship show. Don’t understand me wrong: I love Atibox … it provides us with the most important show and with the best working competition our breed has.

My problem was that the owners nearly always send me the dogs in winter time, which in Belgium means cold en wet weather conditions. Coming out of the family life made it extra hard on the short coated Boxers. On the training fields I was amongst real sports people – ‘real’ meaning here ‘only interested in IPO competitions’ – who would wait for better weather to return to the tracking fields or to continue, for example, the exercises involving ‘down’ commands. This makes sense if you are building up a dog. And those were mostly German and Belgian Shepherds. Meanwhile I was training my ‘show boxers’ from scratch to a full IPO 1 program in rain, mud, snow ….

I remember coming back from the training field some morning with Daniela and having to face some strong words from my mother:”this is a female that does not belong on some stupid muddy field! It’s like throwing a diamond into the fire just because you want to prove that it’s a diamond. You cannot do that to her!”

Of course she was right, it didn’t make sense; now I know that, but at that time… well, we had left so and so many days to the trial and I wanted her to succeed that damned IPO1 so badly, so she could compete for the ultimate title at the Atiboxshow.

Daniela did succeed and she ended up being the Queen of the Atiboxshow but on many an occasion in those winters and early springs I felt so angry, so frustrated. For amongst all those hard boiled working (shepherd)dogs – precisely these gorgeous Boxers had to work the hardest.

Disbelieve, some remarks

As I was getting so many Boxers in such a short time (three to five months normally) ready to complete their BH and IPO 1, it came as no surprise that some people showed disbelieve (which was ok!) and a few – always the same – started rumours or even full-scale slander attacks. Open critiques can be countered with facts. Rumours can never been refuted without feeding them.

I mostly choose to be quiet – I had enough at my head – and after all: all the trials were public events that were announced officially about 10 months in advance. Everyone knew what Boxers resided in our kennel and everyone could attend our club and the trials.

It is true that I didn’t like – and I still don’t like, although I have made it a condition this last year – the owners to be present at the day of the trial. I had my reasons – which were obvious. In these months, this many hours, we developed a bond – that particular Boxer and I – and on that one day, these 3 times 20 minutes, exactly this bond and this absolute focus were essential to get us through the exercises with success. The last thing I could use at that point was the dog accidently smelling, hearing or seeing his owner!

By the way, speaking of a ‘short’ period: people tend to ignore the fact that these months represent about 250 – 300 hours of intense and extremely targeted training. Given the best of circumstances and training your Boxer in a good boxer working club three times a week, would provide any particular owner with a 2 year window to achieve the same. Frankly, 3 years would be a better guess. For you don’t always have the right circumstances or the right people at the right time and you don’t train your Boxer for an hour each time you go to your club. Anyway: I hope you don’t.

All that said: everyone who has spend enough time up and around working fields and who has seen his bit of competition will understand that now and then I got help from the judges. I never have denied that and the people I mentioned will fully agree with me that this happens on any trial where beginning dogs are involved. And I don’t just mean IPO1 dogs. The “real stuff” only begins when a dog has passed his IPO3 and enters a competition on that level. What happens before is considered “preparation” by working people – and rightly so.

Most judges – certainly the most experienced ones and the ones judging the highest competitions – will show some form of ‘consideration’ for starter dogs. Although I sometimes experienced the reverse, as some of them not only knew about my way of training but also knew about the top-ranking competitions (both within the Boxer world as in the all breeds circle) I was participating in with Quapo, Sultan or Ursu – my own Boxers.

On one occasion I had a serious discussion with a well respected international judge because he failed a dog in IPO1. This dog was not trained by me and he was not of my breeding. I had assisted his guide, especially on the attack work, but I had no direct interest.

I didn’t understand the judge’s decision, for the dog had gone through all the exercises, not with flying colours but still with just enough points to pass (I was sure of that). His explanation left me behind, wondering: “Ingmar, the dogs you presented to me, were all happy coming on the field, looking up, showing motivation and the will to do the job. This dog did not! “.

What he really said was that if he sees a combination performing at the thin line of lower points during the trial, the motivation of the dog (his ‘happiness’ on the field, if you wish) will decide between a 69 or a 70 (or 79 and 80).

Looking back, I only had one dog not looking up to me with the will to please when stepping on the field on the date of the trial.

Of course, none of them was perfect but all of them showed they were intensely trained and liked to perform. Each of them went through the exercises his or her way and I assisted when needed. After the trial we (including the judge!) often had a good laugh on how this or that particular dog smartly- but not quite as it was meant – managed to complete an exercise. Nice moments, for sure, but the emphasis is on the word “after”.

Some surprise results came up as well, once we got a full 100 on tracking and several times an “excellent” (95 or more) in the other parts. In each of those cases the reason for these high scores was the exceptional aptitude of that particular Boxer.

Credit to our magnificent breed

Writing these lines I am close to my 70th IPO 1. In all these years I returned three Boxers to their owners after the initial testweek. Each time a painful decision for everyone involved and I will never reveal their names. These three I found lacking the basic strength of the Boxer. The others I was able to train to their BH and IPO1 in a relatively short span of time.

Based on this simple fact – that one person is able to accomplish this with 70 different Boxers – one can only conclude that the average quality of the breed is amazingly high. Quality, in this context, should be understood as the combination of health, correct body structure, behaviour patterns (‘drives’, if you want) and temperament.

The achievements of these Boxers should only be attributed to me in a minor part. The bulk of the credit needs to go the earlier and the actual breeders. The Real Breeders, those that created and still create the bloodlines to work on. So, a very big Thank You to these people whose lives are often fully dedicated to our Boxer – with all the highs and downs this includes.

And hey! No, I am not a shy guy (no more anyway). I know I played a part in these achievements and I know I often find ways were others get stuck. It’s a strange thing this ‘ability’ but there is no magic and there are no tricks: it was given to me by the dogs, they educated me.

It is time.

I have been thinking this over and over. These past 20 years, training with and living amongst Boxers, were a wonderful time – with ups and downs, naturally – with intense emotions and great moments that will remain in my mind, forever.

The 2011 IPO-season has come to an end: with Kaiser the BH-IPO1 counter turned to 70.

From 2012 on I will not accept dogs in training anymore.

Some people have known this for quite a time for I had to explain why I could not take their dog for the next year. I thank them for keeping their promise and keeping quiet about my decision.

I need to say ‘Thank You!’

First and above all to the Boxers, for all these nice moments, for the lessons they taught me and for being true to me, no matter what. They don’t need to be told this: they all know.

Secondly, to the owners for entrusting me with their precious and often awesome Boxers for several months and believing in my way of handling them. I understand it was often difficult for them and I hope their efforts were rewarded, one way or another.

Thirdly, to all the “working-people” around me. The trainers, home and abroad, who spent endless hours discussing techniques and methods, in general or for that specific dog in that specific situation. The attack-men, who were there when I needed them, often in appalling weather and on godless hours. The judges and the experienced guys who taught me how to guide my Boxers the best possible way through their (our) final test; leaving a point here to win two at the next move. Oh yes, knowing the point scale by hart and knowing the weak and strong points of your Boxer are very important in terms of result – this holds true for high level competitions as well as for that one-time IPO1.

Finally, to my parents and to Vicky for all the support. Sometimes I was not the easiest person when things didn’t work out on the field. ‘Thank you’.

All my seminars I start by telling that motivation is everything.

The last year was hard in that respect. Realising that most of the information absorbed by the dogs and probably all of the newly acquired behaviour (in terms of new ways of communication) would vanish, once they were back in their own familiar environment… Well, I know this does not harm the dog in any way and I know it is quite natural but this awareness eroded my motivation and that is fatal. You have to be able to be there 100% for the dog. I have felt for some time the day would come this wasn’t the case anymore and I don’t want to live that day.

On the other hand I cannot simply dismiss of all what I have learned amongst ‘my’ Boxers and helped by all the people I mentioned above. Neither should this experience be used solely for the purpose of bringing dogs to their IPO1.

So, for one thing, the seminars will get priority. For this I believe for sure: IPO is a wonderful branch of dog sports and it should be given credit and be respected more than it is now. As said before: this is a sport, an exciting one and it starts the moment IPO3 level is reached. IPO1 should only be considered a first step that helps starter duo’s on their way. Nothing more, nothing less. And, with the emphasis on ‘sport’.

For the moment however I have found something different, another drive, another motivation and I am ready for it: to spend hours and hours with my own Boxers, walking, playing, cycling, swimming, training and … enjoying.

Ingmar Sioen