More Fun and Games: Dog Sports

Very often, I am called to work with dogs who are “destructive” – rummaging through trash cans, pulling toilet paper off rolls, chewing favorite shoes and household items, damaging furniture and destroying gardens.  As with children, boredom can often lead to problems in dogs, and idle minds are, indeed, the devil’s workshops. And if you happen to have a high drive dog, then mental stimulation is even more important.

Evidence of a bored high drive dog (from client files)

While doggy day care, running and fetch games can offer great physical exercise, many dogs, particularly highly active working breeds, require more than just physical work outs. They also need regular mental stimulation in order to remain well-adjusted and happy.

As I’ve previously written, there are a variety of fun games that you can play with your dog at home to stimulate both mind and body. But if you are looking for something more interesting, there are also a growing number of dog sports available today to suit most every personality – human and canine. The idea is to give your dog’s brain a workout as well as the body.

Among the most popular and perhaps best known of dog sports today is Canine Agility. This involves a variety of obstacles, including jumps, tunnels, contact equipment such as a teeter-totter and A-Frame, and even poles through which the dog can weave. Competitors try to finish courses in the shortest time and with the fewest mistakes. Agility can be truly competitive or simply an amusing pastime with your dog, but it is always a great way to build a stronger and more enjoyable relationship for both of you.

Claire and Cecilia run a course together

Another fast growing and exciting sport is Flyball, a high-speed four-dog relay race. Each dog runs over a series hurdles, hits a spring-loaded box which pops out a tennis ball, and then returns over the line with the tennis ball in his mouth. The team with the fastest time to have all four dogs finish running without mistakes, such as dropping the tennis ball or going around instead of over the hurdles, wins.

For those who like music and choreographed performances, there is a sport known as Canine Freestyle. Commonly known as “dancing with your dog”, competitors here are judged on style rather than precision and creativity is encouraged for both dog and human. Competitors from every walk of life choreograph elaborate routines and compete to all kinds of music, from classical to country to the most modern.

Novice Freestylers: The Tail Tappin’ Dancers

My all-time favorite freestyle performance, Carolyn Scott and Rookie

Also fun is the sport of Rally Obedience. This is like traditional Obedience set to a sort of par course. Competitors heel the dog from station to station and perform the exercises listed on each sign along the course. One of the biggest differences between this and traditional obedience is that competitors are allowed to interact more with their dogs, giving verbal praise and encouragement as needed.

One of the fastest growing new sports on the scene is Canine Scent Work, also known as “Nose Work”. This sport is based on the scent work that is performed by the narcotics and bomb detection dogs, but it does not require the use of illicit drugs or explosives. The dogs are taught to “detect” and find essential oils of birch, cloves and anise, and compete in tests across the country. This is another great sport that can be practiced by virtually any dog with a nose!

Flash Finds the Hidden Scent

Another new sport is Treibball. Based on herding, Treibball involves pushing large balls around a course. The advantage over herding is that no livestock is needed, and virtually any breed can play, making it far more accessible than traditional herding.

Disc dogs, popularly known as Frisbee, actually has various different divisions in which people can compete: Toss and Fetch and Freestyle are the most common, and some others fall within these categories. Freestyle is the most popular to watch, involving sometimes elaborate choreography to music, along with fancy tosses and jumps to retrieve a multitude of Frisbee discs.

Herding, while originally an actual “job”, is now a popular dog sport as well. Competitors herd livestock through a variety of obstacles on a course, competing for time and precision.

Claire drives the sheep

And there are a wide variety of additional dog sports including Cart Pulling, Sledding, Hunting, Tracking, Lure Coursing and traditional Obedience, any of which can also keep your pooch mentally and physically stimulated.

Today, there are increasing numbers of local competitions, trials and tournaments in all of these sports. If you are interested  in trying a dog sport, but don’t know which one, check out the comprehensive sports listing at the High Drive Dogs resources page. If you’re not certain whether your dog is ready for a sport and you are in the South Bay Area, consider trying my Obedience for Dog Sports class, designed to teach you and your dog how to work through the high levels of distraction often experienced at dog sports events. And if you are not local to the Silicon Valley, you can look for a Control Unleashed course near you.

Do you have a favorite dog sport? Which one and why is it your favorite? Let me know!

Music to Calm the High Drive Dog

I had the privilege of meeting Lisa Spector a couple of weekends ago at the Tervuren Fanciers Agility Trial in Palo Alto. I recognized her and her dogs, camped just up the field from us, and introduced myself as a big fan. For those who do not recognize her name, she is the musician and composer behind the Through A Dog’s Ear series of music designed to calm dogs in a variety of settings.

Music, you ask, to calm the beast?

Well, it’s not just a myth, but has been demonstrated to be effective in studies conducted by the team at Through A Dog’s Ear and by others with doctorates in psychoacoustics, psychology and animal behavior. More recent studies continue to support these findings.

Relaxing on a rainy afternoon

So, how does this music work, and how is it different from any basic classical music? In the preliminary studies that they conducted, they found that the “instrumentation and tempo of the classical music can produce marked differences in results. Solo instruments, slower tempos, and less complex arrangements had a greater calming effect than faster selections with more complex harmonic and orchestral content.”

Lisa Spector writes the arrangements for optimum calming effects, using slower cadences and lower tones, aligning with what they learned in the studies. The result is music that is not only beautiful, but has the effect of calming those who listen to it, in particular, the dogs.

Real Life Experiences

Over the past several years, I have used Through A Dog’s Ear music in a variety of ways to calm my own pack, as well as recommended it to help calm my clients’ their nervous or high energy dogs.

  • My first experience with their original CD was as a test. I had a lovely client with a very nervous, recently rescued cattle dog mix, with whom we’d tried a wide variety of exercises and treatments to help her relax. I heard about this music through a colleague, and recommended it as an adjunct to our training. My client was a fan of classical music, and open to trying it out. Her report to me after the first trial went something like this: “I put the music on in the afternoon, when (the dog) is often most nervous. Then I went to the other room to read. Next thing you know, the dog, my two cats, and I were all asleep for a nice nap.” I learned then that the music calms people as well as dogs.

    Cats and dogs, sleeping together

  • In classes, I performed an informal test shortly after the above event. In Week 1 of beginning training classes, people and dogs are typically nervous and fidgety. I started class normally, then about 10 minutes in, I put the CD on as background music. Within minutes, I observed both dogs and people visibly relaxing. Unsure of whether it was my imagination, my observations were confirmed by my assistants, who were amazed to see the dogs taking deep breaths and lying down, while the humans’ shoulders were dropping as they relaxed as well.
  • With my own pack at home, I play this music during thunderstorms and fireworks shows. This is significant, as two of my dogs developed fairly severe thunder phobias after a large (100+ foot) tree landed on our house one night while they slept in their crates. I could work with them to recover from these phobias, but since thunderstorms and fireworks are both rare in our area I have found it most effective to use the music, along with the air conditioner or house heater to drown out additional outside noise.
  • I also use the Driving Edition on road trips to flyball, agility and other competitions. My dogs, being high drive types, get very excited when they realize that we are going to an event. They love to run, and while they initially settle down for long car rides, they used to get very excited and agitated as soon as we pulled off the highway, in anticipation of the games. I first used the Driving Edition music on the way to a local competition, about 2 hours away from home. My teammate and I were amazed when we arrived with a carload of quiet, mostly sleeping dogs that had not already expended much of their energy prior to running. And we enjoyed a peaceful conversation along the ride – double bonus!
  • Finally, on a human note, when my daughter was just over one month old, we had to move. In this stressful time, she was having a hard time going down for her nap in the afternoon. On a whim I put on one of the CD’s in a stereo near her. She was asleep before the end of the first song!  She is two now, and I still use this music around bedtime to help her settle down.

    Even babies are calmed down


There are many ways to help calm or even just “tone down” a high drive dog. And while all dogs still require plenty of physical and mental exercise to be well-adjusted and content, the Through A Dog’s Ear series of music could be a great addition to the high drive dog owner’s toolbox.

Fun and Games With Your Dog

All dogs need physical as well as mental exercise to remain well-adjusted and content at home. And while high-drive dogs tend to need more of both of these, even the calmer family dogs can become bored and destructive if left alone for long periods of time without some sort of entertainment. So it is always a good idea to give your pooch a good mental and physical work-out before leaving him or her alone for any extended period of time.

The good news is that this need not be particularly time-consuming. For many dogs, a 15-minute walk, preceded and followed by 5 or 10 minutes of obedience exercises, is sufficient to help them relax when left alone. (Note: if your dog has separation anxiety, please seek professional help first!) Although you may be tempted to skip the obedience part to give your active dog a longer walk, this is not necessarily the best option for smarter dogs, which require plenty of mental as well as physical exercise.

In addition to the basic sits/downs/stays, games can combine the mental with the physical exercise and make the entire process more interesting for everyone.


This is an obvious one, particularly for anyone with a retrieving breed. To make it more fun and mentally challenging, I recommend making the dog work for each throw.  Before throwing the ball, cue your dog for a behavior, such as sit or down or paw shake. This will stimulate his brain as well as his body throughout the game, while making the game into a training session. Double bonus!

Retrieving can really get a dog running


While older literature may advise against this game, recent research suggests that it is actually a great bonding exercise.  Before playing this game, teach your dog the “drop it” command, exchanging the toy for a treat each time. When playing, periodically ask the dog to “drop it”, then make him sit or do some sort of trick before vigorously resuming the game.  This is another great combined form of physical and mental exercise with the bonus opportunity to do some training. For more details on a proper game of tug, see the blog post on tugging.

Rico enjoys a nice game of tug

Find it

To teach this, start by visibly tossing a treat to the ground and telling the dog to “find it”. Once the dog understands the concept, you can toss treats where the dog doesn’t easily see them and then give the cue. Next, hide treats for him to “find”, and then work up to pairing the treat with a small toy. When he finds the toy, praise profusely and trade him the toy for more treats. An expansion of the find it game is Canine Scent Work, also known as Nose Work, which can really tire a dog mentally.

Canine Scent Work is a great way to mentally exercise an active dog

Find a person

Tell the dog to “find mom”, then have mom call him. When he gets there, mom gives him a treat then tells him to “find” the next family member.  To engage the whole family, you can attach notes to his collar and make it a fun messenger game for the kids. As he learns each person’s name, the person he is “finding” will not even have to call him, but he will search to find them. This is not only a great thinking game, but a good way to practice recalls with a young or newly rescued dog as well.

As you can see, keeping your dog engaged and mentally stimulated does not have to be a chore. By adding games, you’ll find that working with your dog is not only fun for him, but for the whole family. And the best part will be your well adjusted dog, thanks to all the mental and physical stimulation that he’ll be getting.

Do You Tug?

While it is a common misconception that tug-of-war increases dominant behavior in dogs, there is no proven tie between the two. Furthermore, recent studies by Rooney and Bradshaw suggest that playing tug with dogs may actually increase the dogs’ desire to interact with those who play tug with them

Penny enjoys a good game of tug after a flyball run

Tug is a natural way for dogs to play, with one another as well as with humans.  For safety however, it is essential that your dog follow certain guidelines for the game:  growling is okay; getting excited is okay; tooth contact with your hand is not okay.  Following are some simple guidelines for tug of war.

• Have a Designated Tug Toy

Decide on one tug toy and stick to it.  This will prevent your dog from thinking that tug is an acceptable game with her leash or your favorite sweater or whatever else happens to be in your hands. In addition, it will increase your dog’s perceived value of the toy, thus making tugging with you a favorite game.

• Keep the toy put away unless it is tug time; you should be the one to initiate the game

This also helps ensure that your dog will not initiate the game at inappropriate times, and can increase the value of the game as well. In addition, it could potentially prevent your dog from enthusiastically initiating tug when a visitor finds her toy on the ground and picks it up to move it out of the way. Have a start cue such as “tug” or “take it”.  Give the cue and then present the tug toy. (If your dog is new to tug, see Susan Garrett’s “How to Create a Motivating Toy.

Never give the cue without starting the game. If your dog takes the toy before the cue, even if it is dangled at her nose without the cue, end the game and stop interaction with your dog for 30 seconds.  If your dog makes the same mistake three times in a row, end the game and put the tug toy away.

• Your dog must “out” on command.

Decide on a release cue – such as “give” or “drop it”.  Practice pre-game exchanges: cue a “take” for your dog to take the toy then cue a release and give your dog a tasty treat in exchange for releasing the toy.  If your dog does not release for your cue at first, it’s OK to lure with the treat for a few releases. After a few tries, hide the treat and wait for her to release. If it is challenging for your dog to release on cue, practice “Take it” and “Drop it” with lower value items first until it is more reliable. If your dog resource guards toys, you may want to first teach “Drop It” using this classical conditioning based technique from noted trainer, Chirag Patel.

• Interrupt often for training time.

During each tug session, interrupt your dog every 30 seconds or so.  Stop tugging and give your “out” cue.  If your dog does not out, drop the toy and walk away – tug is only fun with two participants!  The sooner you interrupt after the initiation of the game, the more likely your dog is to out on cue.  When your dog does drop, practice some quick obedience cues, then re-initiate the game as a reward.  This teaches your dog to regulate play and keeps your dog from getting overly worked up, as well as teaching him that games and training are fun!

• Never tolerate accidental tooth contact.

If at ANY point during the play, your dog’s teeth touch your hand even for an instant, say “OUCH!” and end the game immediately by dropping the toy in disgust and walking away. The dog will not think she has won, but will know that if she’s not more careful, there will be no game.

Juno tugs heartily with her mom

Juno tugs heartily with her mom

There are so many benefits to playing tug with dogs. In addition to the great fun that can only serve to further improve your relationship with your dog, it is great exercise for both the dog and the human. The fact that it’s a controlled game also makes it a great option for small spaces or when close leash control is required, such as at a local park with a strict leash law.  If you are unsure about how to play tug with your dog, but are interested in trying it, consider contacting your local Certified Professional Dog Trainer. The pay-off will be a dog that not only loves you as he already does, but wants more than anything to be with you instead of anyone else, human or canine. And after all, isn’t that what we all want?