Things are changing in the sport dog world. We are suddenly immersed in activities to do with our dogs. We can participate in scent work, dock diving, barn hunt, and more. Just having one measly agility class a week no longer needs to cut it; we can now attend a dog-related function, be it class, seminar, or competition EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK. So, should we?
I feel that dog guardianship falls on a continuum these days with most pet dogs still not getting enough in regards to mental stimulation or exercise and most sport dogs being run utterly ragged. Yes, I said *most* sport dogs. If you attend a dog-related sanctioned activity that requires enormous amounts of mental stamina from your canine companion every single weekend and one or more nights a week, you might want to reconsider. Why is it harmful to do too much? Besides the risk of physical injury, burnout is hugely common in these dogs. Burnout often comes across as lackluster performances, missed criteria on course, or ring stress.
A far too common example of this is the many people who have very exciting young dogs. These dogs can jump and tunnel and run VERY fast but often can’t eat on the course, give up a tug toy, look at their handler when there’s equipment around, or hold a stay. I’d call this a lack of impulse control on the part of the human–just because your young dog is willing and eager doesn’t mean you should skip those fundamentals like flatwork and toy skills. Teaching them later, when the dog has learned how fun it is to play this game, if much harder. It reminds me of all the children in this country glued to screens, playing very stimulating video games, who don’t see the joy in running around outside or reading a book. When you let your dog learn that the game is about equipment and NOT about connection, that is a major error.
My clients who are guiltiest of doing too much are always the ones who are having some sort of performance issue with their dogs. Either the dog is missing weave poles, stressed in the trial environment, knocking bars, misreading cues, or even lashing out at other dogs at trials. These are the most dedicated wonderful clients. These are the clients who are always doing more, in the hopes that the more they practice or train the better their dogs’ problems will get. The unfortunate thing is that the opposite is usually true. A well-known European dog trainer who is not involved in dog sports once said that the trouble with Americans is that we are constantly doing and never being. She is right on so. many. levels. If you have lost connection with your dog on course, trust me, the answer lies not in the 108th repetition of the dogwalk–it lies in doing less and being more.
When was the last time you decided to just “be” with your dog? Do you really know who she is? When was the last time you two went on a walk without the aid of a leash and simply enjoyed each other? The competitors I admire most consistently show up as these people–the ones who choose the hike over the seminar, the ones whose puppies may not know a thousand tricks but do know how to swim and run up a rocky hillside, the ones whose old dogs are cherished because of their very special life; not because of the ribbons and medals on the wall.
I made these critical mistakes when Kelso was a young dog. He was terribly aggressive toward unknown dogs as a puppy and so I dove in. If he couldn’t be a “nice” pet dog he would be the best sport dog ever! He was in the agility ring by 18 months of age and had his CD at age 2. He was never a puppy, and rarely just a dog. He was constantly in class, always training, and competing many weekends of the year. It wasn’t until I went to college and spent some time not competing or training that I realized how neat of a dog Kelso is; just as himself, titles aside. We spent a lot of time hiking. I worked seriously on his dog aggression. I transitioned away from “balanced” training methods and decided I’d ditch the nasty stuff and go a positive-reinforcement-based route for everything. Kelso and I got to know each other, and went on to achieve more in the sports of Agility and Obedience than most people (including myself) thought possible, given his issues. When I got Idgie, I vowed not to make these mistakes. I trained her a lot, of course, but she didn’t see a piece of formal agility equipment until she was a year old and she didn’t get into the ring till she was over two. I let her teach me, and when she decided some stuff she’d eventually have to cope with were very scary, I dedicated myself to helping her feel safe (which, surprisingly enough, involved a whole lot of being and barely any doing).
So, if you’re struggling with some sport-related issues you might decide to relax a bit. Go on a hike. Ask your dog what she needs from you. Take a break from all events (not just agility, but all of those other doggy-centric things you love) and see if your dog doesn’t come back fresher for it–I’d bet on it.
Idgie and I, just being. Photo by Tori Self