It seems like there are more dog sports today than ever. Whether your passion lies in the more traditional sports like tracking, field work (i.e., hunting/retrieving) or protection sports or some of the newer sports like Rally-Obedience, Freestyle, or Treibball, there are plenty of opportunities for you to get out there and have some fun with your dog. Each weekend will likely offer you a chance to compete in some sport with your dog.
Competitors prepare rigorously for events with their dog. Frequently these sports refer to their organized competitions as “trials” that offer an opportunity for humans to show what they have taught their dogs and how well (or poorly) they can perform in the skill tests of the competition. Depending on your sport and the level at which you compete, this can be a pretty serious affair. There is recognition for achievement at stake and, in some cases, even cash prizes, trophies, and other awards. There may also be a certain amount of personal notoriety at stake for the handlers.
Dog sports, remember?
Regardless of which dog sport we are talking about, I think it’s important to remember that these are games that were invented by humans essentially to evaluate the abilities of other humans to demonstrate specific skills they have developed with or in their dogs. Given the cognitive abilities of dogs as science currently understands them, it might be interesting to consider if our dogs even have a sense that they are competing at all .
Our dogs do know that they are following our direction, no matter the sport. We work on training specific behaviours appropriate to our sport. We rehearse those behaviours for speed, accuracy, and fluency under various conditions and, when we feel we have what we need from our dog, we go off to a competition to test our skills against the sport’s performance criteria and our fellow competitors.
Through it all, I have to wonder how our dogs view our very human passions as we strive for excellence in sports. It’s likely that they see it only as responding to a series of cues to offer us practiced behaviours. Other than the crowds and noise and sometimes the unique equipment, directing our dog around an agility course or through an Obedience exercise is no different than asking our dog for a “sit” or a “wait” or a “come” around the house or out at the park. At least from the dog’s perspective.
I’ve competed in the sport of Dog Agility for the last 10 years. Every trial offers different courses through which I must direct my dog successfully. If I manage to do so without exceeding the allowed number of faults and within the time limit, I earn a “qualifying run” (also called a “Q”) for my efforts. I have passed that test. If I accrue too many faults or take too much time, it’s a non-qualifying run. I have failed that test.
And this is where things can get strange for the dog. There are any number of ways to “fail” a trial at an agility competition. My dog could not respond to one of my commands and elect to run past a piece of equipment like weave poles. My dog could not jump high enough and knock a bar down with a toenail on the way over. My dog might even respond correctly to my physical signal to go to a certain place when I accidentally send her to the wrong place!
So it’s possible for a dog/handler team to fail to qualify even though the dog responded perfectly to all of the signals given by their handler. This is where I think the competition model becomes a challenge for us. We prepare ourselves and our dogs to the best of our ability and we put ourselves to the test. When it all works, we are justifiably proud of ourselves and our dog. But what about when it doesn’t work?
The one thing that our dogs definitely know is that they live with us. We provide for them. And, I suppose in the larger scheme of things, when we are not happy with them, things are generally not going to be fun. When things don’t work out when we compete with our dogs, what do they make of our reaction to that disappointment? Is the handler upset at the dog for their failure to perform or at themselves for not providing what their dog needed to succeed? Most importantly, would the dog even understand the difference in those reactions?
Our reaction to success or failure can have a profound impact on the relationship between the dog and their handler. Dog are social creatures and they are always concerned about maintaining a good relationship with us. Human psychology might consider this in the realm of Social Validation Theory where one looks to the reactions of others to help them assess the status of a relationship and to choose how to behave to make things right. But our dogs are not human. They may not understand that we are upset with ourselves and not with them. What do they make of this and how do they respond?
Dogs are remarkably observant creatures and, in a very real sense, their well being depends on maintaining a good relationship with their humans. Sports like agility can offer multiple opportunities to “screw up” even in running a single course. That means that my displays of frustration and disapproval at my own poor handling skills might be apparent to my dog several times in a matter of only a few seconds. To make matters worse, in that moment, it’s likely that I’m not really focused on my dog’s “feelings” at that moment, only on the pass/fail test in front of us.
One of the agility venues I have competed in has rule about approaching an obstacle and not performing it on the first try. It’s called a “refusal.” In that particular venue, a single “refusal” can result in a non-qualifying run – a “fail” for that run. If this “refusal” should happen early on, the handler’s disappointed reaction can have an effect on the dog’s performance on the rest of that course. The “Sudden Death” nature of that particular fault might invalidate all of the other good work the dog does. All hopes for the qualifying run are lost in that moment.
That disappointment may very well be read as “disapproval” by the dog. And if it happens a lot, that can’t be fun for the dog. It can be even more frustrating if the dog is just following the direction that they are being given although that instruction is being performed badly by a nervous, unprepared human. Over time, our reactions to what happens during competition can take a toll on our relationship with our dog.
It’s a game
Agility, Tracking, Rally-Obedience, Conformation showing, IPO (protection sports), Freestyle, and many more activities are sports that we have invented. Each offers it’s own unique opportunity to teach our dogs a variety of skills and to test those skills in a friendly spirit of competition. I have chosen to approach these competitions as a means to judge myself against myself. A way to evaluate the work I have done as a trainer and working partner with my dog. Our roles are clear, my dog is the athlete/performer out there and I am the teacher/coach helping her to be successful.
Every success my dog and I enjoy is a point of pride that we have worked together and that she has learned all that she needs to be successful at that activity. Every failure is an important indicator that there are skills that are not quite where they need to be- whether that means my skills as a handler or that I need to do a better job teaching the skills to my dog. The important thing is that my dog never fails. She was either improperly directed or didn’t have enough training to do the job I asked. In both cases, the responsibility is mine to make it work.
Maintaining a positive relationship with my dog is important to me. The fact that she will show up and be willing to try each time we practice or compete tells me that she is enjoying herself. Her excited bark and broad smile as she runs from jump to jump is my proudest achievement. At 10 years of age, she shows all the enthusiasm to play agility that she did at 10 months. As I developed my skills and she learned hers, I tried hard not to show disappointment or frustration at our failures in competition. Putting the relationship first has paid off for me and my dog.
It seems that not everyone that competes with their dog shares this point of view. I have seen handlers angrily stomp off the course dragging their dog behind them. I have seen handlers verbally berating their dog for “blowing them off” and not responding the way they should. I have seen the disappointment, frustration, and anger in the faces of handlers mirrored in the behaviour and body postures of their dogs. The same dogs that they will take home and cuddle with in bed that night. And I wonder what the dog must make of that contrast in behaviour.
Sure, it’s a competition. But it’s a game. And ultimately it’s just life with our dogs. I think that’s the way they see it.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The NEW Canine Nation ebook is now available –
“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
Photo credits –
Sit – James Raynard copyright 2012 from Flickr
Obedience – Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfaltz copyright 2008 from Flickr
Weave Poles – Matt Drobnik copyright 2012 from Flickr
The Team – Jorge Arcas copyright 2010 from Flickr