Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Wonderful World of Dog Sports

It might surprise you that I never seriously pursued dog sports. Many of my trainer colleagues and friends do, but I, as an introvert, am not always comfortable in groups, and I am also not competitive, at least not recreationally. Professionally I am – nicely competitive, not ruthlessly competitive. At least that’s what I tell myself.
Medals mean nothing to me, and I don’t feel collective pride when a national athlete runs a tenth of a second faster than the fella from another country. I really don’t give a rat’s tail about who scores what goals in whatever sport, with the exception of soccer. Every four years I’m rooting for Germany to win the world championship. But all in all, I don’t get what the point is regarding the world of human sports, and I don’t get it regarding dogs either, especially because success doesn’t necessarily mean that pooch or person function well in other social settings.
That said, professionally working with dogs makes me naturally curious about all aspects of behavior and the human/dog relationship. In the past, I hung my nose in Rally O’, Freestyle, Herding, Tracking and a little Agility and Flyball.
Of the above, I liked herding and tracking the best, perhaps because I participated with dogs that had a natural aptitude for it. Watching them shine was incredibly rewarding for me, and I like to believe equally pleasurable for my poochies.
Will was a fantastic people finder in the Canadian Rockies, and still gets to track regularly because it can be done indoors and outside, on walks and in the yard, with objects and people, and for life. A search can be orchestrated in a way that not strenuous for an older, and perhaps physically compromised dog.
Regular herding is more of a challenge. Sheep or turkeys in need to being controlled and collected are harder to come by for the average dog-owning city slicker, and that’s why many dogs belonging to the herding group – dogs that are becoming increasingly more popular with the general public, never get to do what they were born to, and that is a shame. But thanks to brainy Germans there is an alternative now: a new dog sport called Treibball. “Treib” means to drive, to propel, to impel forward, and “ball” is ball. Treibball, which is spreading in North America like wildfire, is also called urban herding, and perhaps the next best thing to the real thing, even though the dogs aren’t taught space balance, an aspect I quite like about the real thing.
For Treibball, all one needs are inflatable balls, a field or hall, and a net, or even just a couple of pylons will do to visually mark the space the dog is meant to push the balls in.
The easy set-up makes this sport very attractive, and I see a bright future.
But presently it is the agility ring where you find many border collies, and increasingly more papillons; the beautiful looking and brilliant little dogs with big ears I like to call the collies of the toys. Agility is possibly the most popular sport, at least where I live, but requires a ton of equipment: jumps, tunnels, A-frames... you are probably familiar with it. It also requires quite a bit of handler coordination, which is something that is also not in my nature, and part of the reason why Davie and I quit after one course. The other part was that Davie was losing her mind in that highly charged up environment. We did Rally O’ instead.
Rally O’ is obedience, but in a much more positive way. Dogs learn all the common commands and then navigate a set course similar to agility, but instead of obstacles each station requires to perform the command it says on the sign. It is a lot of fun, slower paced than agility, but what I love most is its real-world application. Who doesn’t need a solid down drop and come around distractions, or a good heel.
Despite the title “Fun and Games”, advanced obedience was also the objective of the course by that name one of my friends offered regularly. We did distance work, down drop on a dime – literally - we still have the paper dime we won because Davie landed on it perfectly, position stays while other dogs played, and much more.
Next to herding and tracking, I’d say that was our favorite class, and I wondered for a while why we loved it so much, and the answer is because there was zero pressure. I should point out that Davie was our first dog entirely trained and treated without force and corrections, but still, depending on fellow class participants and/or instructors; depending who was watching, the performance pressure I felt was very real. It was not that anybody ever laid that on me, but I felt it anyway, and subsequently my sensitive and perceptive dog did, and responded with losing focus, barking, and fooling around. The anxiety I exuded, she absorbed.

Pressure in the sport circuit is quite common. For people and dogs. One might expect that such activities are automatically pleasurable for the dog, but that is not always the case. Some folks, after accolades and ribbons at all cost, train with force and pain, choke and prong collar. Others deprive their dog of all other social interactions to build drive. But even caring, positive and relationship-oriented owners can fall prey to pressure and, even if just temporarily, lose sight of the “dog” part in dog sports. Impressing others is human nature, and that can be especially true when competitors are also trainers, and even more so when they deliberately selected a “dog sport puppy” and cognitively “done-everything-right-from-the-start”. Folks who own rescues at least have the excuse that  insecurities stemming from the pooch’s past are to blame for less than stellar performances, but even then their colleagues and clients are watching - and judging, cause that is also human nature. Being under critical surveillance, even if it’s just imagined, creates the kind of stress that lead to actions that are not necessarily in the dog’s best interest.
That is the reason why some people choose to not compete at all. Me in the past, and a man in Lithuania whose video clip of his amazingly schutzhund trained Malinois I saw last year. I wish I could find it again to share with you, but no luck locating it, not even via superb and positive dog trainer Jonas Valancius’ site - the person the Mal owner trained with. If any of you have it, forward the link please, will you?
Schutzhund is protection work: precision obedience, agility, tracking, retrieving and attacking, all wrapped in one. It is incredible to watch, but sadly often harshly trained. Especially in North America it’s the rare Mal spared the shock collar. Anyway, that fellow opted for clicker-free positive reinforcement, with permission to bite being the reward, and his dog looked as sharp as Malinois on video clips typically do. Yet, he refuses to compete. He says that having fun and working daily in partnership with his dog is his priority, and feels that it would be in danger of getting lost. I admire this guy for having such a clear vision what he wants, and sticks to it. I also admire my friends who are owners and trainers, and do compete while never losing sight of that teamwork.

Lately, thanks to a few deeply in dog sport involved clients, and thanks to friends who opened up opportunities for me to get a closer look into agility, I am beginning to understand what the attraction is. Recently I spent a weekend at a trial helping a friend with her gorgeous border collie, and it was a weekend being engulfed in a community that has a collective purpose that includes dogs; a weekend filled watching skilled performances, and I felt the excitement, and it left me pumped. The energy was palpable and contagious. I felt I needed my own new dog and participate – be a part of the wonderful world of dog sports.
Perhaps I’ll slip out of my comfort zone and compete with our, still obscure, next pooch. But foremost I want what I always wanted, and what the majority of my clients envision: The companionship of a well-mannered canine I can take anywhere dogs are allowed to go. My absolute favorite pastimes that trump anything else are off-leash walks and hikes in multi-use parks, trails and beaches, and road tripping and sightseeing with a dog in tow. Exploring my Umwelt makes no sense to me without one.
Hence, it’ll be acclimatizing to all things part of our pup’s world first, obedience commands useful for successfully functioning together second, and dog sports third. What we will pursue depends on what she likes and has talent for. Treibball looks appealing to me, disc does as well. Especially hubby Mike seemed keen when we watched a trial not too long ago. Perhaps agility as well at one point, for the simple fact that I have friends I like and would love to train with and learn from. Although I trust their knowledge and experience explicitly, I might add some of my own variations. For example, I am a reluctant tugger and believe it arouses many dogs too much – not all, but some are so charged up that the brain shuts down.
Based on hearing about, and watching dogs leave the ring and equipment to either snarl at a nemesis or greet a friend, I would also teach and enforce, from the very beginning, a solid “ignore anybody whenever we are working”, behavior. Socializing, greeting and playing I’d allow everywhere but the facility or around equipment, so that NOT paying attention to any dog in particular circumstances becomes a habit.
I will also make sure, despite all the fun we will have, to supply sufficient rest periods. That is also based on experience, seeing some dogs doing so many structured activities that they can’t truly chill out anymore, but are either on or crash, and when on are restless and fidgety like micromanaged children.
Whatever tickles your fancy, whatever your pooch enjoys, dog sport can be a fabulous way to stay in shape, mentally and physically, especially during winter in colder climates. Just make sure that your dog, the other half of the team, has a say in it.


  1. An excellent blog and yes we will have lots of fun doing what ever she wants to do.

  2. Nice post. It's funny, but your thoughts mirrored mine. I also never head any interest in sports (who wins or loses) or in dog agility, etc. But then I got my second Sheltie and he has a drive like none I have ever had and we tried sheep herding (the one thing I was interested in because I love dogs doing what they were bred to do) and he took to it. We were told he could compete, but it takes a lot of time and commitment. We're going Sunday to see how he does on his second try.
    I also attended an agility trial recently and I have to say that I see the appeal too. I never did before. It's amazing to see dog and human work together. I may explore it with my Sheltie, but I am leaning towards herding.

  3. I participated in a herding workshop a few years ago in Alberta, and amongst all the different breeds - mostly Australian shepherds and some border collies, was one Sheltie - and he was awesome. Good luck with yours.