People have been selecting and breeding dogs for a long time; some argue as long as 16,000 years. One of the most fascinating and unique traits of the domestic dog as a species is its diversity; the Great Pyrenees and the border collie are the same species, and yet their roles when it comes to livestock could not be more different. Any person who has a dog has a piece of history in their home; for ours is an ancient partnership.
While some dogs still work for a living, today that old kinship is celebrated in the form of dog sports. Agility, obedience, and other companion events are how dogs and people cooperate on a large scale now. But what happens if the dog and person have different ideas about how they should spend their time? What if the dog is simply incompatible with the human’s game of choice? As evidenced on any given weekend, some dogs like agility more than others, and still more dogs might like the game but seem bothered by the environment.
If you are in the position of selecting a dog for yourself, and you know what sport you’d like to participate in, you have the chance to choose wisely, and you should. I do not mean to imply that everyone should run out and buy a sport-bred border collie (if you know me, you know the opposite is true). I mean that picking a dog that fits into your lifestyle AND is likely to enjoy the sports you enjoy seems like common sense, and just isn’t that common. Most dog breeds have different types within the breed; a whippet from racing parents will be quite different from one out of a long line of conformation champions, for instance. When selecting your next sport dog, take breed into account (perhaps you can have your breed of choice and have success in agility, but perhaps not, and that’s actually ok!), but also take type within that breed into account. There is an ideal structure and temperament for any task we might ask our dogs to do, and it is time we admit that sometimes when we insist on having “versatile” (highly titled) dogs we are going to run into incompatibilities in those areas.
Fill in the Gaps with Training
So you’ve picked your dog. Your heart is sold on the a South African Boerboel and you’ve found one from performance lines. Now is the time to be the best trainer you can be, because you know what kind of people have success teaching animals to do tasks they are naturally incompatible with? Excellent trainers. Crappy training is responsible for a lot of the frustrations people experience in dog agility. When selecting a dog, know some breeds are simply more tolerant of subpar training. These are the breeds that are touted as the most “biddable” the most “trainable” and the most “willing to please.” In reality, they’ve been unintentionally selected for tolerance of and ability to learn through poor training. They are hardwired to want to work through that confusion and stay in connection with their person. On the flip side, dogs billed as “stubborn” and “untrainable” or even “not very smart” are probably none of those things. They just require the human half to step up to the plate, be clear, and make the task worth their while.
Dogs Are STILL Not Machines
The bad news is that sometimes we do everything “right” and miss the mark. Your border collie from fill-in-the-blank sport kennel might be too overwhelmed by all the sensory input agility involves. Your sheltie out of world champion parents might be afraid of the banging teeter. Your imported Belgian might be too reactive to function within the crowded trial environment. Training does not undo temperament, and behavior problems are not solved by better performance training. In these instances we’d all do best to ask the tough question: “is my dog simply not suited to this game?” Speaking as someone whose career revolves around helping dogs overcome behavior problems in order to compete, I know how far a dog can come with some solid behavior modification work. I also know that sometimes underneath the behavior problems lies a dog who wouldn’t have any daily troubles were he not a square peg being forced through a round hole. A little honesty in these scenarios, honesty with oneself, goes a long way.