Sunday, May 29, 2011

Some thoughts of mine on training and competitive dog sports...

From a client who has brought four of her five dogs to our classes.  Three for behavior work and one for Rally Obedience (and is continuing with this as you'll see when you read this).

I know that training to compete in dog sports doesn’t appeal to everyone. Many people just want a well mannered companion animal, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I have yet to enter into a competition, but I’ve got my eye on obedience, Rally-O, and weight pull. Training with the intention of competing is quickly becoming more than just a hobby for me – it’s becoming more like a way of life in my home. I’m not very competitive by nature, so I’ve spent some time thinking about just what it is that appeals to me about dog sports. I can only come up with one answer. Dogs thrive on work. For every moment that I invest in teaching my dogs new behaviors, or polishing old ones, I see incredible positive change in them, both individually, and as a pack. They are more balanced and seem to carry themselves with a sense of purpose. It’s not just my working breeds either, I even see a little extra pep in the step of my Chihuahua when we’re out working. Training fulfills dogs. And I’ve found training for competition a useful way to direct both my energy and theirs towards a goal.

I don’t have special, handpicked dogs. I didn’t select them for their sound temperament or their working aptitude. I have second-hand rescue dogs, all but one of which were acquired as adults with behavioral issues. I’m also not some incredible dog handler. I’m dog savvy, but I can be a klutz. I’m not always the best at following direction, or being aware of the non verbal cues that I’m giving my dog. Despite these facts, I know that my dogs and I can succeed. It doesn’t take a stellar dog from proven working dog lineage. It doesn’t take a master trainer. Succeeding takes patience and commitment, and an awesome relationship with your dog. And the cool thing is, the more time you put into your dog, the better that relationship gets. I now know that my dogs are capable of incredible things, and that they are only limited by the time in which I have to teach them. As a result of this new perspective, I cringe when I see dogs left out in yards, not being stimulated and challenged. Dogs are intelligent creatures and depriving them of learning is cruel.

I bring all of this up to make one point. If you watch weight pull competition videos on YouTube, you will see countless ignorant comments from self-professed animal lovers calling the sport and training cruel. Working a dog is not cruel. My experience in training thus far has shown me that my dogs love and are fulfilled by the process of learning. They beam with pride when they are well worked and know they’ve pleased me. And even when they are well exercised, I can grab the leash and they are rearing to go again. Certainly there are cruel people in the sport of weight pull, but most of them aren’t very successful. The people and dogs that are winning competitions have spent countless hours together working, conditioning, and bonding. Perhaps a dog will pull for fear of punishment, or with the frustrated energy of trying to get to a toy or other bait, but champions have proven that a dog will pull MORE for the sheer joy of pleasing you and satisfying their intrinsic desire to work.

I guess I’m just venting a little, but I’m also justifying the hours I put into my dogs. I hear so many excuses from people about why they can’t get their dog out for a walk, or put even 10 minutes a day into helping a dog through a behavioral issue. Somehow I manage, and it’s on top of working a full time job and working to establish a non-profit pit bull advocacy group. It’s about priorities. And the unconditional love and devotion I get from my dogs can trump the temporary amusement from watching T.V. any day. It’s easy for those sitting on the sidelines to judge, but I know that my relationship with my dogs has improved as a result of working with them, and alongside them. Dogs truly are man’s best friend – and training can take that relationship to the next level. I hope that my boy will one day pull some ridiculous amount of weight for me. If he doesn’t, I won’t love him any less. If he does, I know he’ll have done it for me, and because he WANTS to.

RM