Why Competition Counts

June 23, 2004

 

As anyone involved can tell you, dog training has gone through a lot of changes in the past two decades. While some these changes have been positive, many of them are not. A new emphasis on the owner "feeling good "has overshadowed the more important goal of the dog being reliable. One of the casualties of this new mindset is the concept of competition as a viable means of measuring the effectiveness of a training program. Although one can see happy and seemingly well-trained dogs in "fun" sports such as Agility, there is a trend among modern trainers to downplay and even castigate the more serious and impressive dog sports such as AKC/UKC Obedience trials and working dog tests such as Schutzhund or the Ring Sports. Some other trainers frown on all formal tests as being irrelevant and dismiss their more competition-minded peers as out of touch with the needs of pet owners. We find that this mindset is misleading but haven't seen much in the literature that refutes it, even though we see the negative difference in the dogs whose owners have been convinced of it.
  Let's look at how training for competition relates to the expectations of our pet owning clients.

TRAINING AROUND DISTRACTIONS

Nearly everyone who owns a dog will tell you that "he's great except for..." The "exception" is usually around other dogs, when the kids are playing, if a skateboarder goes by, when there's food around, et cetera. In other words, when there are real life distractions involved. As trainers, we understand how dog owners can get discouraged when they spend a lot of time and money on "training" that only works when the environment is unnaturally quiet. Even in the unlikely event that the owner lives in the middle of nowhere and never plans to bring the dog anyplace, this is an unreasonable definition of "training". 
     A good dog trainer knows that the time you need your dog to obey you the most is the time when he is least likely to obey you. If a group of guests arrives at your house, can the dog sit quietly and behave in a mannerly way as the visitors mill around?  If you are walking your dog in a public place and a group of little kids out for a stroll with their daycare supervisors passes by on the same sidewalk, will the dog walk calmly past them without causing any kind of alarm by jumping up, barking or being nosy?  If the clip on your leash breaks while you're walking through the parking lot of a busy pet supply store at a shopping center, can you get your dog to come back to you and proceed quietly to the car? If you see a friend with an out of control dog at the park, and you wish to go and help him, will your dog stay in a reliable "down" position  even as you walk fifty or a hundred feet away? Will he remain there even though a bicyclist rides by, or a couple of people play Frisbee near him?
    By now, many of you reading this are shaking your heads, perhaps having already seen your dog's manners and reliability put to the test with less than impressive results. Believe it or not, you are in the company of many obedience instructors and "dog trainers" as well! 
    Those of us who train our dogs and the dogs of our students for matches and trials are preparing them for artificial simulations of situations like the ones above, all in the noisy and confusing venue that a Schutzhund or obedience trial can be.
    If you've never been to a good-sized dog event, you are missing out on a lot of excitement. In the parking area, there are usually vehicles of every description, hatches and windows open, full of crates which are full of dogs who are full of beans.  There are dogs being walked, puppies in ex-pens, and everywhere (at least to your dog's sensitive nose) the scent of the dogs' "little yellow business cards".
   Crowds of people, distracted by the sights and sounds, walk by at close range. Vendors selling everything from sausage subs to gourmet dog food to squeaky toys have set up shop, their wares right at large-dog nose level. Flashes go off as pictures get snapped, and over the tinny loudspeaker, announcements get made at a volume that is annoying to the humans present, so it must be even more so to canine ears. And you haven't even walked onto the competition field yet.
   Out there, the leash comes off and it's you, your dog, and a stranger (the judge) who doesn't want to know that Max didn't get his run this morning, or that Abby doesn't like working in wet grass or that Heidi is distracted because the field retained the scent of some deer that ran across it last night. There are no excuses.  Either your dog trusts you to guide him successfully through this high-pressure situation or he doesn't. You have either suitably trained him or you haven't. And if you haven't, you are about to embarrass yourself and set your canine partner up for failure.
     Doesn't it make sense that a trainer who regularly and successfully subjects himself and his dog to this high level of distraction will be able to help you get your dog's focus when you need it most?

 

 

CHANNELING THE ENERGY OF HIGH DRIVE DOGS
    The owners of young, athletic dogs make up a large percentage of our basic training student body. When the adorable fluffball they brought home from the breeder grows into an unruly adolescent with the strength of a linebacker and the attention span of a gnat, most sensible owners realize that it's time to intervene. The art of channeling huge amounts of energy into positive behavior is not easily accomplished, especially if one relies too heavily on bribes or brute force. The former will only turn the dog into a demanding, impatient treat-fueled machine and the latter will only teach the dog to use his considerably faster reflexes to avoid or even confront his bullying handler. A balance of encouragement (to keep the dog's interest on the handler) and reasonable sternness (to rein in hectic or pushy behavior) is a requirement. So many of the dogs we see who are characterized as "hyper" are simply high energy and in desperate need of this behavioral framework provided through balanced training. With a proper approach, they tend to be the fastest learners and most rewarding students. But to their frustrated and sometimes physically exhausted owners, they are nearly impossible to deal with.
     Enter the competition trainer. If his sport of choice is Schutzhund, you can guarantee that he is accustomed to dealing with (and even seeking out) the highest energy, most physically robust canine athletes available. A typical "sport dog" is comparable to a performance machine: an F1 car versus a family sedan. Even a souped-up Mustang isn't as sharp, responsive and powerful as a real race car, and even the pushiest, most obnoxious pet dog can't compare to the drive and determination of the Schutzhund athlete. Picture a dog whose natural levels of drive are so high that he literally trembles with anticipation when in the presence of whatever "turns him on". Then picture him working around those same enticing situations with the supreme off-leash control described in the prior section about training around distractions. That is a typical, entry-level Schutzhund dog. As a dog and handler team makes its way up the ranks from club, to regional, to national and even international levels, the dog's level of energy must remain intense even as the training requirements become more and more demanding. Do you think that you could control a young, "hyper" German Shepherd off leash in a stadium full of people, without losing any of the dog's natural spirit? A seasoned Schutzhund trainer can, and because of this, he can teach you how to similarly channel your own "wild" dog's energy in a way that is effective and immediate.
     Consider, also, that much of the Schutzhund and AKC/UKC Obedience routine is based on the concept of control without restraint. While energy (a fast recall), agility (the meter jumps and A-frames in Schutzhund and the broad, high and bar jumps in Obedience) and spirit (the heel off leash) are all required, so is a tremendous amount of self-control. The Schutzhund dog at the earliest level of competition must hold a down/stay at least 30 paces away from his handler, while the handler's back is turned and another dog does his routine on the same field.  In AKC/UKC Obedience at the higher levels, the same high energy dog who sails over the jumps and heels with great animation through the routine must now sit in a line of other dogs while his handler leaves him completely out of sight. He cannot leave the lineup, sniff the other dogs, or even lie down. When his handler returns after several minutes, he is not allowed to lose control and jump up in greeting. Instead, he is put into a down/stay and left again, for an even longer period of time. All of this happens in the noisy venue of the trial grounds, where life goes on with all of its noises, scents, and sights. When the handlers re-enter the ring and the judge lets them end the exercise, the sense of relief is almost tangible. We call the combined sits and downs out of sight "the longest ten minutes of your life" for good reason!
     Doesn't it make sense that a trainer who either competes himself or successfully coaches his students to success in these venues will be able to help you control the energy of your own canine athlete with happy results?


JUDGMENT BY YOUR PEERS
       While there is certainly some merit in not caring too much about the opinions of others, when a dog is involved, others' negative opinions about his behavior can cost the owners friendships, money and even the life of the dog. Dog owners are under more scrutiny than ever these days, as can be reflected in more restrictive insurance policies, public access and rental availability. Every badly behaved and poorly controlled dog who starts a scuffle at the park, or who jumps up on an unwilling visitor, or who menaces passersby while out on his walk is a black mark against all dog owners. In this seemingly animal-friendly age, you'd think everyone's dog would be better behaved, but it seems that we confuse our concepts. After all, the majority of dog owners will protest formal training by claiming they "just want Fido to 'be a dog'", but then will complain about Fido's lack of human perspective about running away, destroying things in the house or ignoring the long, meaningless strings of words that people think are reasonable commands. Add in modern, popular training methods which play into the denial of canine nature by treating dogs as mindless lab rats, dolphins at Sea World or human children and you can see why it's tough to convince non-dog people that dogs are OK. When even self-proclaimed "dog trainers" tell clients that they would NEVER take their own dogs off leash for lack of control, it's easy to understand why so many people look at dog owners with a jaundiced eye. After all, even the "experts" say dogs are basically uncontrollable in public if not restrained physically.
     What does this have to do with competing? Plenty. While there are no universally accepted criteria or certifications for dog trainers, the most obvious test of a trainer's skill is the performance of his dog under distraction. When that performance is judged against a scorecard which lists an acceptable range of responses for each exercise, you can even assign a number to a trainer's efficacy.  And when the sport he is being judged in is about objective, tangible results rather than speed or attitude alone, it becomes even more meaningful.
     There is an old saying in the dog business that "The only thing two dog trainers can agree on is what the third one is doing wrong". This is true, up to a point, but when a group of them meet on a trial field, there is an understanding that the judge's opinion will rule the day. Requirements for judges vary from sport to sport, but you can be sure that the person holding the clipboard in the ring is someone who has achieved great things with his own dogs and who has been accepted by a governing body of his own peers in the sport as having the necessary experience and wisdom to critique others.
    A trainer who is willing to put his own work up for this type of objective critique, whether it is his personal dog or the handler/dog team he has trained and coached, is a trainer who cares about his reputation. And he is going to take the successful training of you and your dog just as seriously, because he doesn't want anyone out there with a poorly behaved dog dropping his name anymore than he would walk into the ring with an unprepared dog of his own. 
    Doesn't it make sense that a trainer who is willing to put his own work under the objective critical eye of a colleague is the same trainer who is confident in his ability to train you and your dog to a level that meets a real standard for the real world, where potentially everyone is your judge?
 
YOU BE THE JUDGE
    With all of these things in mind, it might sound like you should allow anyone who has titled a dog to become your trainer. But remember that just because someone has competed successfully with one or two dogs of their own, it doesn't translate into a great deal of experience with others. Instead, look for someone who has competed successfully with a large number of dogs over a period of time, and who can refer you to students who have found the same sort of success in the competition ring. In the same way that many professional athletes are incapable of becoming successful coaches due to their lack of teaching ability, many dog hobbyists who have put one or two titles on their own dog are not necessarily capable of dealing with a different dog, or with explaining to the owner the concepts of training and handling that come so naturally to them. A seasoned competition trainer has put himself and his work to the test multiple times in multiple venues. He has most likely had success with a variety of dogs and has adapted his methods and techniques to bring out the best in each one. This is exactly the trainer who can help you and your dog succeed with even the seemingly most basic obedience training. And who knows, maybe you'll even get bitten by the competition bug yourself!
     You may not be interested in blue ribbons and shiny trophies. Your dog certainly isn't! But every day that your properly-trained dog lives successfully as a trustworthy family member, a predictable and unobtrusive neighbor and a friend who you can be proud of, you have won something more valuable than any trophy. And your companion has earned the most impressive title of all: GOOD DOG.


     Doesn't it make sense?

 

by Julia V. McDonough and Michael Pinksten

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