With a sharp command , Vernon Crowder sent Chico rocketing across the training field to confront the bad guy. Later, the German shepherd put his nose to the earth and led Crowder briskly through a radish field, where he located three small objects.
And during an obedience drill, Crowder and Chico worked together as if they were a ventriloquist-and-dummy team, their actions synchronized as Chico ran and stopped and sat and stood and responded with unblinking perfection to Crowder's every move and command.
The work of the sleek, dark dog was a beautiful sight. Crowder, however, will never see it. He is blind.
Crowder, a 36-year-old vice president of Security Pacific National Bank, and Chico left their Burbank home this week for Switzerland, where they will compete in the 1987 European schutzhund championship beginning Friday. It is an elite test of the intelligence and courage of men and women and their dogs. Crowder and Chico are one of seven teams representing the United States in the international competition.
Crowder's image of a dog is etched in his mind from his childhood days of romping with the family German shepherd. At age 12, he was blinded by cataracts and glaucoma. He began to rely heavily on German shepherds to guide him through the hard and unmoving world of curbs, streets, trees and buildings. And he found that German shepherds are unusually devoted to their masters.
"The whole being of a dog, and, especially of the German shepherd, is to work for the man," he said. "Their whole being is to please you. Nothing else makes a German shepherd very happy."
From that discovery, Crowder became interested in the schutzhund competition, the ultimate test of a dog's ability and willingness to serve.
The German name for these dogs reflects not the breed but one of the animal's tasks--to protect.
German shepherds that serve as guide dogs for the blind, such as his guide dog, Klodi, are different from shepherds who are trained for schutzhund competition, Crowder emphasized.
'Anything in Its Path'
"Guide dogs are trained to be cautious, to carefully maneuver around anything in their path," Crowder said. "But schutzhund dogs are trained to go right through anything in their path."
Beginning in 1980, he bought and worked with three dogs that turned out to be unsuitable for schutzhund competition before purchasing Chico, then 2 years old, from a German breeder in 1985. In two years, Crowder has transformed Chico into one of the top schutzhunds in the world.
The tracking phase of the schutzhund competition showcases a dog's ability to sniff out objects and follow a track. Crowder is aided by his wife, Marilyn, as he works with Chico at the end of a 20-foot leash. But Crowder said he and Chico often function well without hearing Marilyn's descriptions.
"I feel Chico at the end of the leash," Crowder said. "The vibrations, the weight at the end of the leash, those things tell me all I need to know. If Chico hesitates at all, I can feel it."
The trainers are under intense pressure during competition, but occasionally, Crowder finds a way to alleviate the strain. In the southwest regional championships earlier this year, Chico glanced up as he approached one of the objects--a glove--he was to locate and was penalized for using his eyes instead of his nose. As the judge informed Crowder of the penalty, Crowder offered his opinion that the glove was an unfair object because it was so large that it caught the dog's attention from a distance.
"I told the judge that even I could see the damn glove," Crowder said. "He laughed. And then he deducted the points."
The obedience phase of the schutzhund competition consists of exercises, including heeling, sitting and staying and the feat of going over a six-foot wall, retrieving a three- or four-pound dumbbell and bringing it back over the wall. All of the exercises must be performed precisely and without a leash.
When they walk together, Chico appears more like a 75-pound piece of lint hanging from Crowder's left knee. The dog seems to anticipate each move and seems never to stray from a correct position.
"What the judges are looking for is not whether the dog can do these things. All of the dogs at this level can do these things," Crowder said. "What they look for is how they do it and how they look doing it."
In the protection phase of the competition, the dogs search several wooden shelters for a concealed person, who wears heavy leather bib-overalls and a bite-proof arm protector. When the dog locates his quarry, he sits and begins a steady bark. But if the person makes even the slightest move, the dog attacks, clamping down on the protected arm with its powerful jaws and not letting go until the person ceases struggling or the handler issues a command to stop.
In dozens of competitions, judges have never shown him favoritism, Crowder said. And that's exactly the way he wants it.