Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Gaining Everyday Skills through Dog Sports

The majority of our training falls into two categories: reactive dog training and dog sports. This summer, we've spent almost all of our time in the dog sports world between barn hunt training with both dogs, scent league with Barley, and agility trials with Rye, so I was excited when we decided on the theme of dog sports for the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop this month.

When I first got into dog sports, Barley and I never had any intention of competing in anything. Our reactive dog trainer had suggested taking a beginning agility class as a way to get Barley's brain working in a new way when she was around other dogs. When we started noseworks, we had a similar goal--get Barley to think more with her nose than by scanning the environment looking for other dogs. Even though we've shifted our focus towards more competition, especially with Rye, dog sports still give us a great chance to learn skills that help us in our daily life and with our reactive dog work.

One of the first things our first agility trainer taught us is that agility is 85% obedience. Yes, the dogs have to learn to jump and use the other equipment, but it is impossible to complete a course with a qualifying score without a strong obedience foundation.

When Barley and I first started, we did very little work with actual agility equipment in class. We spent a lot of time practicing lead-outs by leaving our dog in a sit-stay and we spent a lot of time practicing come to heel and come to side after we'd walked away. As a result, Barley is really good at paying attention to my hands and my eyes and coming to specific sides. This makes running courses with her a breeze because I know if I stick my arm out, she's going to come to the exact spot I want her to come to.

This is right where you want me, right?

Rye's first trainer had a different approach. We focused more on learning the equipment right from the beginning. Rye is super confident on all of the contact equipment because of this, but she's not as good at reading my cues, so a lot of times she takes a slightly different path than I've cued, which has occasionally lead to taking off-course obstacles or having a refusal of jump because she's run past it. Now, we're having to work that obedience in, which is a little harder to do--at least for me--once you've got a dog that is very confident that she knows how to do what you're asking of her.

Agility gives us a chance to strengthen our stays, our comes, our leave its, and endless other obedience cues that make our daily life a little easier.

One of the biggest skills we practice in all of our dog sports is focus. When Barley and I started agility, the goal was to get her to focus on me and doing the tasks I'd asked her to do instead of focusing on the other dogs. When we started noseworks, the goal was to get her to think with her nose instead of always scanning the environment looking for other dogs. The more we've practiced those behaviors, the more focused she's become on me instead of on other dogs. She's always aware of where other dogs are and what they're doing, but she'd much rather watch me and hope she's going to get a snack than watch the other dogs now.

Dog sports give us a safe environment to practice reactions to distractions. In agility, there are bar setters, leash runners, and the judge moving around the course while you work. There are also timers buzzing and dogs barking. In noseworks and barn hunt, you have a ring crew and a judge, too. These different sports give us a chance to practice staying on task no matter what's happening around us. 

My favorite part of dog sports is the connection it helps me build with my dogs. When Barley and I started reactive dog training, our trainer told me that we were going to make a really excellent team. That changed the way I thought about our relationship. She isn't just something I own. She isn't my furry child. She's my teammate and we both depend on each other for different things, and when we work together, magic happens. When I first got Rye, I often wondered if she actually liked me. I knew she didn't dislike me, but it didn't really seem like she really cared if she had me or not. She's far more independent than Barley is and she's perfectly content to nap in a separate room or stay out in the yard watching squirrels by herself. Once we started agility training, though, things changed. When we're on the agility course or in a barn hunt lesson, Rye and I are connected.

That's when I know she likes me and wants to spend time with me--she just doesn't really want to show me she likes me by snuggling or gazing longing into each other's eyes like Barley does. If we didn't have dog sports, I'm not sure I'd ever have figured out that my little dog is glad I adopted her! It definitely would have taken us longer to get to that point.

Dog sports are also a great way to socialize your dog. We've had the same group of amazing agility classmates for years. That's gone a long way in helping Barley feel relaxed in the presence of other dogs during high energy situations. Barley might not want the other dogs to sniff her, but she's ok with sitting a few feet away from them and lets me give certain dogs in class a treat (as long as I give her one, too!) while they sit calmly near each other. Rye, who wouldn't let my brother (someone she'd met before) touch her when we first got to my parents' house last Christmas, wants to meet all of the other handlers when we're at a trial. She waits nicely while I talk to people. She lets people pet her. I'd think this was just because they had snacks, but when we first started obedience training, we were with the same trainer for 12 weeks and she ducked away every time our trainer tried to pet her during the "Can I pet your dog?" exercise where the dogs were supposed to sit calmly and not jump up to meet the person saying hi. There's something about the agility environment that makes Rye feel confident and the more positive interactions she has with people, the braver she's going to be in the rest of the world.

It was about 7 years ago now that Barley and I took our very first agility class. I'd never thought about doing dog sports before. I'm not sure I'd ever even thought about dog sports at all. I'm not even entirely sure how I knew what agility was or that it was something a shelter dog could do--I certainly hadn't heard of noseworks or barn hunt. Now, though, I can't imagine our lives without dog sports. They have given us so much fun and laughter, so much pride (with a little heartache and embarrassment mixed in), and so many opportunities to practice skills that we use in our daily lives.

Join us and our co-hosts Wag 'n Woof Pets and Tenacious Little Terrier for the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop. This month, our theme is Dog Sports, but we welcome any positive training posts. The hop opens the first Monday of the month and lasts all week!

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  1. I agree a ton. Dog sports really do help dogs be good all around, not just while competing. Flyball has helped my dogs develop a great recall, even around distractions- after all, they recall at flyball from 70+ feet away with 7 other dogs, running full speed past another dog. Rally has been great too, giving us a little something we can practice on days when Ptera comes to work with me, and has been something I've enjoyed way more than I thought possible.

    1. That is so impressive! Barley could never handle one dog running full speed anywhere near her like that, much less 7! I love the sports that are easy to do anywhere, too--we do a lot of noseworks practice when we travel because it's easy to throw the scent kit into the car and take it out for a few minutes.

  2. You have to be careful with dog sports as they are quite addictive. We love them, the variety is great. A nice mix of dog driven and human driven is lots of fun. It sure is a great way to work as a team and learn to work better with each other. Enjoy!

    1. Thankfully, the girls have both picked out their 2 sports--agility and scentwork for Barley, agility and barn hunt for Rye--so we've got a pretty manageable schedule. Barley hated rally when we tried it and Rye just loves the other two more, so that's what we're focusing on :)

  3. I love how much dog sports have helped each of your dogs, and how it has also improved your relationship with them! I never thought too much about how they also tie in with obedience, but it does seems like a natural progression from one to the other.
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

    1. I probably wouldn't have thought about the obedience connection until our trainer pointed it out, either! But after she did, it does make a lot of sense. I don't even want to think about what my dogs would be like--especially Rye--without agility!

  4. Love how far both of my little nieces have come! Y'all do make a good team!

  5. I think some rescue dogs take a while to bond with their humans. When I look back at Delilah, and all the issues I had with her, I can see that we were not connected. She did a lot of the same things Rye does/did. Slept alone, didn't care to be petted, etc. Now that we've bonded, she is right where I am, and when we cross people on our walks, she will approach and seek out pets. Not to the extent that Sampson will, but she will. I think you are on the right track.

    1. Rye is just so different than Barley--who has to be touching me at all times--that it's taken me a while to see that connection means something different with her. She always comes right when I call and she's always ready to work with me, she just doesn't have to smother me to tell me she loves me ;)