Pupdate on Tesla – Part 2 – Career Training

Last week, I gave an update on Tesla’s training in the past year, detailing what we have accomplished in terms of her basic behaviors, with the simple goal of making her much easier to live with in our family environment. Here, I detail her more advanced training, and how we hope to achieve the goals of a truly competitive sports dog.

Flyball training – For those who don’t know, flyball is a competitive dog sport whereby a relay team of four dogs and handlers send their dogs over four hurdles to retrieve a ball out of a spring-loaded box, to return with the ball over the hurdles before the next dog in line goes.

Flyball Training

Flyball Training

When I got Tesla, she had absolutely no interest in the ball. She would chase it when thrown because it was moving, but had no concept of the retrieve. This was actually a good thing, since exceedingly ball-obsessed dogs are sometimes less than motivated on the return of a flyball course, since they already have their prized ball. So I took this slowly. First, I encouraged her to play lots of tug with me. Then I gradually introduced her to the ball, first chasing it, then picking it up, and eventually retrieving it, and working up to retrieving it when it was not moving. Now, she readily retrieves a ball, running full speed both outbound and on the return, which is exactly how we want it. She is bringing the ball all the way to my foot 95% of the time on the flat, though we are still working on the full retrieve to me in flyball over hurdles. With all of the distractions and added tasks, including jumping the hurdles, turning on the flyball box, and ignoring the dogs in adjacent lanes, she still has challenges with the full course.

Tesla at the Dog eRaces Tournament in May 2014

Speaking of hurdles, I got lucky with the jumping – she loves to jump, and once we lined her up in front of the hurdles (first jumping to me over 1, then 2, then 3, then 4 hurdles in a row) it has never occurred to her to go around the jumps instead of over them. The only time she’ll miss the hurdles on course is if she bobbles the ball and ends up completely off-course.

We have entered a couple of tournaments, but she was primarily only successful in warm-ups, with just two successful in-race runs at our tournament in May. Still no flyball points due to her distractibility, which I discussed last week.

Agility training – Although I originally thought she would compete in Flyball before Agility, I may be proven wrong. While she still barks at running dogs when she is waiting her turn, her focus when we are working together has improved dramatically. I am more than fortunate to have an amazing agility instructor in Sam Cohen, who not only understands that different dog/handler teams have different needs, but who also has the patience to allow a dog training colleague (me) to do what she needs to do in class for her dog to succeed. I spent many an hour in the early days of foundation courses just turning and leaving the classroom because Tesla was about to lose her mind amidst the distractions. And it has paid off! She can now perform sequence drills in class and (mostly) ignore the other working dogs, as long as I have her focused on me and working.

Agility drills

We have, thus far, entered one fun match, and it went well, after initial distractions. Not sure that we’ll be quite ready to trial before the end of this year, but by next season for certain.

As to equipment and handling, well, that has been the easy part for her, and more of a challenge for me. In private training sessions, she is wicked fast when sequencing equipment, and has forced me to work hard to improve my timing and positional cues in order not to drive this race car into a wall, so to speak. Trialing with her will be SO much fun!

Class Assistant (Demo Dog) – This is her actual “job”, if you want to call it that. Considering that, when I first got her, she was not able to stay inside a classroom with moving dogs for even a few seconds without screaming, I’m absolutely pleased with her progress up to now. The adoption of Tesla allowed my old girl, Claire, to finally take a well-earned retirement. She was ready. The best news is that Tesla seems to enjoy the work as much as Claire did when she was younger. And now Claire gets to enjoy hanging out on a blanket and being brushed, chasing her boomer ball around the yard, and playing with the occasional water spray from a hose.

Ah, but the road to Demo Dog has been a challenge! Thanks to wonderful colleagues and friends (my “village”) who worked her through my classes, gave her treats for being quiet in her crate between exercises, and took her out for Time Outs whenever she barked in class, I now have a canine training partner who vocalizes minimally, mostly when I’m working with another dog in class. (We’re working on resolving this, too, of course.)

She is learning all of the necessary behaviors to assist me in demonstrating lessons to my class students, while not reacting to the other dogs in class when they bark at her. (This is also still a work in progress, but oh so improved!)

After over a year of training, including an initial three months of frustration and hard-core work with her, I can say with confidence that Tesla is becoming a really nice working dog. Of course, this didn’t happen by accident. And the lessons that I have learned while teaching her are among the best that I could have hoped for.

Finally, a dog with an “off” switch!

If you think you have a young dog like Tesla, and you are at your wit’s end with the reactivity and crazy energy, don’t despair! Contact a local force-free trainer to assist you. In the long run, it will be more than worthwhile.

Pupdate on Tesla – One Year Later (Part 1)

Tesla turned 2 years old this month. Sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday that I brought home this lovely yet out-of-control 10-month-old puppy from the Marin Humane Society, with their insistence that she was “not very drivey.” Well, I wanted drivey, and I certainly got it, with drive to spare!

A day at the beach

In the past year, I have spent countless hours in training classes as well as at home and on-the-road training with her in order to shape her into the perfect dog that I’d been seeking. And while I don’t expect (nor want) her to be another Claire, heart dog extraordinaire and quite possibly the best working dog I’ve ever had, she is coming along nicely after all this time. As my colleagues and flyball teammates often say, her brain is solidifying nicely now, though we still have a way to go.

Reactivity and Distractibility (aka being an adolescent herding dog) – One of Tesla’s principal personality points when I first got her was a propensity to chase virtually anything that moved quickly, including but not limited to bicycles, dogs, people, critters, etc. And if she couldn’t chase it, she would bark and howl at a fever pitch.

Exploring on a hike

I learned of this at our first flyball event, a demo just a few short weeks after I adopted her. I had already seen how she was at flyball practice, barking at the dogs when they ran, but this was nothing compared with the highly over-stimulating environment that included adjacent agility and flyball demonstrations. Although she did great on recalls over the jumps, when she wasn’t in the ring, I had to be farther than two football fields’ distance for her to even start to calm down enough to stop barking and reacting! And forget about any kind of focus.

So, I enrolled her in a multitude of classes – all concurrently – and mostly worked on her reactivity. I learned that she was reactive because she wanted to be in the action, so I formulated a protocol incorporating negative punishment , wherein I would leave the “action” as soon as she started to react. In other words, bark = turn and leave the room (as I said “too bad”).

Initially, she was so reactive that I would turn and leave class with her whenever she’d bark loudly. Gradually, I was able to increase the criteria until she was barely allowed a yip otherwise I’d walk her away from the action. After a year, we are still working on this in higher action settings, such as in agility class when other dogs are running fast. Overall, however, she has improved dramatically, as anyone would attest who has previously seen her in action.

Running Partner – My favorite activity in the world has always been running, and running with my trusty canine partner has been my dream since I was a child. (Truth: I was a runner long before it was ever a “thing”!)  I’ve had a number of awesome running partners throughout my life. So, naturally, Tesla was destined to fulfill this legacy of past canine running mates. Boy was I in for an exasperating surprise; on our first ever run together, about 3 months after her adoption (and 1 month after her 1st birthday), I learned that bicycles were more distracting to her than any other known trigger. At a local park trail on that first day, I heard a screaming that I think few besides Cattle Dog owners can accurately describe. Yes, it was a scream, not a bark. A sound that probably still lingers in outer space somewhere.

A family run

The toughest part was that treats are not remotely interesting to her in that context. So, I had to find something else.Taking a tug toy on a run was inconvenient, and potentially dangerous to my fingers in such a frenzy, so I decided to use the run itself as reward. I started – after that first run fiasco – with bicycles at a more “workable” distance, and practiced “leave it”, which she had already learned in other contexts. If she effectively turned her head away (= leave it), I would reward her by marking “yes!” and breaking into a short sprint. If she barked or even tracked the bike with her snout instead of effectively leaving it, I would say “too bad” and stop running, taking hold of her harness and holding her close to my leg. In this manner, I restricted her movement in an improvised Time Out.

It took many months, but we have found success! Now a bicycle can pass us, even at high speed, and I often don’t even have to tell her to “leave it”. We still break into a sprint as reward, but I don’t have to go as long nor as fast as before.

             Tesla effectively “leaving” a bicycle along a running path

The biggest challenge on this training path was a mistake I made on New Year’s Day: I decided to have my annual New Year’s Day run with her on a busy cycling/running/walking trail. I ended up cutting the run short when it turned into essentially two miles of wind sprints. We passed families and extended families along the trail – sometimes as many as 8-10 cyclists in a row! WHEW! Lesson learned. Now when I counsel my clients to avoid the overly challenging situations, I look back on that run and realize that sometimes, things just happen because we can’t predict everything all the time.

Family dog – I chose Tesla as my next dog because she fulfilled my top 3 criteria:

  • She’s well-socialized with people and dogs (as long as nobody is running.)
  • She loves children – yes, loves them. She pulls to greet them. The first time she and my daughter made eye contact, the look of pure joy on her sweet face and completely wiggly happy body were a thing of beauty.
  • She’s built like an athlete, with the heart to match – and true to form, she is maturing into a great competitive sports dog.

Of course, the chew toy training, potty training, etc. were as I expected for an un-trained adolescent dog, so no challenges out of the ordinary there. But she was not quite the perfect house dog.

Playing fetch

Tesla was originally rated by a shelter evaluator as a dog not well-suited for families with children under 10 years. As many of you know, my daughter, Shelby, was just over 3 years old when we got Tesla. We had a lot of work to do for them to be safe together, including teaching Tesla not to nip at Shelby when she moved. I closely supervised (and still do) all interactions, calling and implementing Time Out’s whenever she even thought about nipping at the kid’s clothes. After several weeks of this, I watched her turn her head to start to nip at Shelby’s skirt, and I called “Time Out!” Before I could get to her, Tesla put herself in time out up against the fence. I started to count out the 30 seconds, but only got to 26 before I took pity on her – she looked so upset – and I verbally released her. At the release, she immediately recovered her composure, and went back to running in the yard, but keeping her distance from the kid. She hasn’t nipped at Shelby again when they are both in the yard moving. And now, we can even go on runs together without a problem. This is excellent progress for an adolescent dog.

Still work to do. I have had many a client adopt a dog similar to Tesla, and become frustrated when they cannot resolve these behavior challenges within the first few weeks. It is a hard thing to say, but it can take many months to resolve reactivity in a dog, and sometimes longer depending on the dog’s genetic predispositions and background. (That’s right, nature and nurture.) What I can say is that it has been absolutely worthwhile to work through Tesla’s challenges to achieve what I have achieved with her thus far.

Next week, Part 2 – Tesla’s career training

How Many Sports Does It Take?

Since my last post here about Tesla’s training, I’ve had several clients ask the question: how many sports can you teach a dog simultaneously, and should I consider starting several at once?

While I have started my new pup in basic training plus 2 different sports already (and I may add a 3rd sport soon if the schedule permits), I don’t typically recommend this to the handler who has not practiced the chosen sports before. This is not because the dog can’t do it, but because it can get fairly complicated for the handler to switch gears completely from sport to sport.

When I first started herding with Claire, my heart dog, my coach told me that “those agility and flyball dogs don’t make very good herding dogs.” She was referring to the sports in which Claire and I were already competing, and suggesting that Claire would not be a good herding dog because of our multi-sport background. As it turned out, she was a great herding dog, and quickly went on to a Herding Ranch Dog title. My coach even said to me later, “she’s a great first herding dog for you.” HA! I knew it!

I couldn’t help but wonder why she would have made that original comment to me in the first place. Then, as I reflected on my personal challenges when I first started herding, I realized that it’s not typically the dogs that have the problems with cross-training, but the handlers.

To give us credit, the humans do get the harder part of the job in any dog sport. We have to memorize courses, know how to signal our dogs, know when to give certain signals, be able to read our dogs, know what to expect in different environments… not to mention consider what we’ll be doing for dinner than night and, oh yeah, what about that big report due on Monday… All that the dogs have to do is follow our signals. This is why owners are often disheartened when an instructor takes their dog for a demo and makes the dog look like a superstar. How often have I heard a student say “the dog is smarter than I am”, or “my dog would be great if she had a better handler.” OK, so I’ve said these things, too. But the fact is, we humans do have much more to think about than our dogs ever do.

So back to the question of how many dog sports to start at once: that depends on you, the handler. If you are sufficiently experienced in multiple sports as to avoid confusion for your dog, then training in them simultaneously shouldn’t be overly complicated. In fact, many dog sports have a number of training exercises in common, including restrained recalls, targeting, and focus work.

However, if you are not already very familiar with a variety of sports, then I highly recommend choosing one at a time to teach yourself and your dog. In this way, you can get your signals and communication clear, and also make a decision as to which sports you enjoy the most. Because, after all, if you are not really enjoying a particular sport, chances are that your dog will not either. Just like us, our dogs want to do what is most fun. And the most fun a dog could have is in playing with his or her human.

If you are not certain which sport to choose for your dog, check out my dog sports resources page.

And as always, Happy Training!

Claire's play bow

Claire’s invitation to play

Dog Scouts of America

If you are looking for something interesting and fun to do with your dog, but the popular dog sports are not your thing, why not consider Dog Scouts?  This non-profit organization was founded in 1995 by Lonnie Olson, whose original goal was to do as many different things as she could with her dogs. Per the Dog Scouts website:

If you believe that dogs really enjoy learning new things and spending time with their owners, you’re our kind of dog person.  Dogs were not meant to be “furniture.”  Working dogs want to work.  Without having an acceptable activity in which to use up all of that energy that comes “built-in” with a dog, our canine companions often get into trouble. By better understanding how your dog thinks, how he learns, and what drives his behavior, and by participating in a variety of dog sports and activities, you will become a more responsible dog owner. We hope to prevent misunderstandings, communication failures and behavioral problems which often lead to dogs being given up as a ‘lost cause.’

While, due to my involvement in several dog sports, I’ve not had the time to get very involved with our local troop here in the Silicon Valley, I am in close contact with several people who are, and have had the opportunity to offer some learning lectures to them as well as attending several meetings.

“Our dog’s lives are much shorter than ours- let’s help them enjoy their time with us as much as we can.” — Dog Scout Owner’s Motto, from the DSA Website, www.dogscouts.org

After filling out an application of several pages, the new dog scouts members are welcomed to train with the local troop. They learn about training, proper socialization, and how to be good canine citizens. They then take a number of tests which must be videotaped and sent to the dog scouts headquarters. After passing these tests, they get to be official dog scouts. Then they go on to merit badges! Badges range in a wide variety of areas, including many dog sports and activities such as hiking, kayaking, and community services such as therapy dog work.

Troop 198 at Humane Society Silicon Valley

In the Silicon Valley, Troop 198 meets at the Humane Society Silicon Valley on a monthly basis. They work together to achieve official membership and merit badges, in addition to offering interesting meeting topics and guest presenters such as police dog handlers.

The DSA mission is “To improve the lives of dogs, their owners, and society through humane education, positive training and community involvement.” If this resonates with you and you are interested in expanding your dog’s world, consider looking into – or starting – a Dog Scouts troop near you.

Weekend Warriors

The Olympics are over, but I can’t stop thinking about the elite athletes, and how inspired and moved I always am by their dedication. They train every single day, not just practicing their specific sports, but also strength building, stretching, and all manner of conditioning exercises to achieve optimum fitness. This is why they are the best in the world, but it also reduces their likelihood of injuries.

We’ve all heard of the “Weekend Warriors”. Most of us have at least one or two friends who are such athletes, competing in their chosen sports once per week as their only regular exercise. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to exercise more, but many of them are so busy during the week that they just don’t have the time. Unfortunately, the term “weekend warrior” is also commonly heard along with the word “injury.” According to some authorities, Weekend Warriors are more likely to incur injuries than athletes who train more consistently.

So why should dogs be any different?  I have colleagues and friends for whose dogs the weekend training sessions are most of the exercise that they get for the week. These dogs might go for a walk or two during the week, but otherwise spend most of their time inside their homes or apartments with little physical exercise. Now I’m not remotely suggesting that they have bad lives – they get to sleep on beds, hang out on the couch with their owners, and play nice games of tug or fetch down hallways – but they are not getting the exercise needed to maintain the fitness levels to safely compete in some of the high-octane sports that they do.

Swimming is another good form of exercise if your dog likes water.

They are Weekend Warriors. And like their human counterparts, I see them injured more often than their fitter friends. Injuries appear to occur suddenly, and often surface at practice or in class, when the dog is running drills or otherwise exerting itself.

If one is going to compete in a high-exertion sport, particularly one that involves jumping or turning, such as agility, then fitness really should be a priority. In addition to training sessions within the given sport, athletes should get several days per week of solid cardiovascular exercise. I recognize that not everyone is a runner, or can afford a training treadmill for their dogs, but there are other options, such as a solid retrieving session, or a good romp with a playmate. If your dog is not well-suited to a dog park, then a play date might be in order with a dog whose company he does enjoy. Other options for exercising dogs include cycling with them (I recommend the use of a rear-axle fitted device) or hiring a dog walker who may be able to take your dog out for longer jaunts. And some dogs, given a bit of playful encouragement, may even go into “zoomies” on their own.

Regardless of the type of fitness exercise that you choose for your dog, be sure to check with your veterinarian to confirm that he or she is healthy enough to embark on a conditioning program. For further information about canine fitness, check out the work of Christine Zink, DVM, who specializes in canine fitness and sports.

Now, get off the couch and get some exercise!

Though sometimes, a nap is well-deserved!

World’s best running partner

With the Olympics in full swing, my favorite events are now televised: the track and field events. I have been a runner pretty much my entire life,. In the early days I would sometimes be asked by naive passersby if I needed a ride somewhere. My running attire included jeans or jean shorts, and whatever sneakers I happened to have on. Luckily for me, by the time I entered Middle School, I had a coach, and was able to get some proper attire. I started running with Nick, my German shepherd dog, right about that time as well.

Most dogs already know the joy of running

Over the years, I continued to run, throughout high school and then on a track scholarship in college. And in spite of the wonderful friends that I have made in the lanes and on the trails, my favorite running partners have always been my dogs. The don’t complain about rain or cold or having to get up too early, and I have never been stood up for a morning run by a dog who had been out too late the night before. Not surprisingly, my daughter is already learning the joy of a dog as a running partner as well.

Yet, running with a dog entails more than just putting on the leash and heading out the door. Like people, dogs must be in suitable condition to run, and in spite of their lack of complaining, weather and other factors can absolutely affect them.

First, there is basic conditioning – just like people, dogs must take the time to gain conditioning. If you are already a runner, as I am, I recommend taking your dog on a short warm up of your run at first, running a short loop, then dropping him off at home before completing the rest of your run without him. In this manner, you can feel that you’ve had your full run without pushing the dog beyond his capabilities.

Our daily runs also keep us in shape for flyball and other sports.

If you have a young dog, be sure to consult with your veterinarian, and don’t start running him for extended distances until his growth plates are mostly closed. I start training my medium-sized dogs (border collies) at about 9 or 10 months, and don’t run them at full distances until over a year of age. With the larger breeds, I’d wait longer than that. Note that the breed and size of the dog may be determining factors in maximum running distances. I’m a middle distance runner, so it’s never been a problem, but if you are an ultra-runner, consider your dog’s breed and condition before taking him along on your longer runs.

It’s important to understand that a dog will often not tell you if he’s had too much until it’s too late, so be aware of the signs of overheating in a dog which include a darkened tongue, labored breathing, stiffness of gait, and hyper-salivation (excessive drooling). Dogs also tend to overheat at more moderate temperatures than many humans, so don’t take your dog out if the weather is particularly warm. I have cut short runs with my dogs when I was raring to go on, but I realized that the heat would not be good for them. Brachycephalic dogs (with flat noses such as boxers and bulldogs) can overheat even more quickly, so must be monitored even more closely.

As to training, while I allow my dogs to wander to the ends of their leashes on walks, I insist on heel at my side while running. This is more for safety than anything else, as a wandering dog may get underfoot, tripping you and potentially injuring itself. I recommend against taking a dog running until he knows at least the basics of leash manners, and does not have reactivity issues on leash. If you are fortunate enough to find off-leash places to run with your dog, then a solid recall is a must, as well as a really good leave it command. And even in off-leash settings, a good heel at your side is useful for those times when you need your dog close in order to keep him out of trouble.

Running with your dog can be a most relaxing and enjoyable bonding experience, as well as a great way to stay in shape together with your best friend. Just be sure not to overdo it, and let your dog determine how far is far enough. And if you are unsure as to whether your dog is well-suited to running with you, consult with your veterinarian first to assure that it will be OK for him to do.

Still More Fun and Games: Dog Sports Part 2

Some weeks ago, I offered a run-down of some of the most popular dog sports available in the U.S. today. Of course, the list was nowhere near comprehensive, and even with this installment, I know that there will be others left to cover. Nevertheless, here are descriptions of a few more of the popular (or should I say “pupular”?) dog sports available today.

Traditional Obedience is perhaps one of the oldest competition activities available for dogs in the U.S. While the foundation includes heeling, stays and recalls, in the more advanced levels, retrieves are included, as well as finding scent articles and jumping over hurdles. Originally only open to purebred dogs, the American Mixed Breed Obedience Registry changed all this in the late 1980s. More recently, the AKC opened up all of their performance competitions (not conformation) to mixed breeds, allowing anyone to compete via their Canine Partners program.

Down-Stay is an important cue in many sports (photo by Tonya Jensen)

Carting is another option that can now be enjoyed by virtually any healthy dog. Carting competitions include pulling the carts through obstacle courses that include gates as well as requiring the dog to back up, stay and move forward with the cart attached. Sometimes called “dryland mushing”, carting is also used to keep sled dogs in shape during the warmer months.

Skijoring, is like sledding without the sled! While most popular in colder climates, it can also be enjoyed anywhere there is snow during the winter. Skijoring is a sport where dogs pull their humans, who are on cross-country skis. Typically, a person will have between 1-3 dogs pulling them. The beauty of this sport is that both human and dog(s) get a great deal of exercise. Most skijoring competitions are between 3 and 12 miles long, though there is one race of nearly 100 miles held in the Yukon every year.

Another high-octane sport that originally only allowed specific breeds is lure coursing. While the AKC competitions are open only to sight hound breeds such as greyhounds and whippets, many local clubs have opened up fun runs to other breeds in recent years. In lure coursing, the dogs follow a lure – often a plastic bag – that is moved along the ground on a zip-line of sorts. For any dog that loves running and chasing (and what dog doesn’t!) this is a great option for exercise and fun.

If you are interested in some more intense training, there is the century-old sport of Schutzhund, and its relative, French Ring Sport. Both of these sports combine obedience with protection work, and in both cases, the dogs must first pass tests of sound temperament prior to being eligible to compete at any level.. Schutzhund was originally developed in Germany in the early 1900s, and literally means “protection dog.” Modern Schutzhund dogs are tested for their abilities in tracking, obedience and protection. In French Ring Sport, the dogs must pass a variety of tests including obedience commands, finding, holding and barking at a decoy (hidden person) and other aspects of protection work.

Regardless of the sport that you choose, it is important to take into account not only your dog’s temperament and aptitudes, but your enjoyment as well. For, whatever sport you choose, if you are enjoying the work, your dog will be much more likely to be enjoying it as well!

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!

Flyball – Drag Racing for Dogs?

I had the good fortune to compete this past weekend in Pawdemonium’s 10th annual flyball tournament in South San Jose. All of our big dogs did wonderfully well in the long weekend of racing, and we had the opportunity to do some nice catching up with some old friends, as well as with some other people whom we don’t get to see very often.

A flyball race is a 4-dog relay between two teams, with each dog having to run over the four hurdles to hit the spring-loaded box, retrieving a tennis ball from it then returning to his or her handler back over the hurdles as the next dog approaches to enter the course.  The fastest team to complete the course with all four dogs without errors (i.e. dropped balls or missed hurdles) wins the heat.

Buzz returns with the ball

Flyball was developed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Southern California by trainers who combined scent hurdle racing with retrieval of a tennis ball. Herbert Wagner, a trainer, is said to have developed the first flyball box, and he did a demonstration on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, making the sport known across the country. The first flyball competition was held in 1983. In 1985, the first flyball rulebook was written by Mike Randall, the first executive director of the fledgling North American Flyball Association or NAFA.  In 2004, the United Flyball League International (U-FLI)was founded to give people additional options for racing including singles and pairs racing.

When I began competing in flyball in 1992 with the Santa Barbara Flyers it was still a relatively young sport. The timing was by hand, and the training was very different than it is today. Back then, we were happy to just complete a race without errors, and a time under 24 seconds was considered outstanding.

Claire earns her Onyx award


Today, all timing is electronic, and the “Division 1” teams at tournaments are regularly running under 20 seconds, with the world record teams running all four dogs in under 15 seconds.  The average fast competitive dog runs between 4 seconds and 4.5 seconds now. Nevertheless, there has always been a place for the slower dog that just enjoys running, and for many, this is part of the allure of the sport.

Aside from the fast-paced action, there is something else that differentiates flyball from other dog sports, and that is the unparalleled camaraderie. Because flyball calls for teams of dogs, the flyball club is the core of any team. As with any club, people build relationships in them. For me, my club, Pawdemonium, is my extended family. They are as important to family events as my husband’s and my immediate families. Members of our club read at our wedding, and two of them are the godparents of our daughter. We support one another tremendously, and when one member is ill or going through hard times, we all pull together as a family.

Lining up at the start of a race

So, is flyball right for your dog? When people ask me this question, I suggest that they consider not just whether it is for their dog, but if it is for them. Because, aside from the breed-specific dog sports such as herding, hunting and go-to-ground, the sports that your dog enjoys will largely depend on what you enjoy. It is really all about spending quality time together with your dog.

If you are not sure about flyball, check out a club near you. Meet the people, take a class in the sport, and then decide if it’s something that you might be interested in pursuing with your best friend.

Becoming the Center of Your Dog’s Universe

OR: How to motivate your dog to want to work for you

In the world of modern, science based dog training, we often hear people calling treats a “bribe”, or saying that they just want their dogs to work for them “because they should”. What many of these people don’t understand is that dogs, like most other species, including people, usually need some kind of motivation in order to do something.  Victoria Stillwell recently wrote a wonderful article explaining in scientific terms why giving treats is actually not “bribing”, and why treats are actually so effective for training.

The things that dogs do naturally are often intrinsically motivated, or naturally satisfying, such as digging, eating, sleeping, running. But to do something specific at a specific time, dogs often need an extrinsic or external motivation. This motivation can come in the form of something good – a reward such as a treat or toy, or something bad – a punishment such as a prong collar “correction”. In other words, they will either be motivated by a potential reward for doing what you want, or by a potential punisher for not doing what you want. It is not only logical, but scientifically supported that rewarding – whether through treats or play – not only leads to better learning, but to a better relationship with your best friend.


Cecilia and Buzz at a Rally Trial

People who train using traditional, force-based methods do so typically with the goal of not needing the prong collar or choke chain for the life of the dog, yet many of them continue to use them throughout the dogs’ lives. The same is true with rewards – many people don’t understand that it is possible for their reward-trained dogs to work without the treats now and then, and so they get “hooked” on the treats and feel like it is a crutch. Now, let me pause here and ask: is that really so bad? Would you rather have your dog addicted to treats or dependant on a prong collar for all of his life? But, I digress…

The point is, it IS possible to not have to have treats with you every time you go out with your dogs. The key, as Susan Garrett likes to say, is to learn to “BE the cookie”, or as I like to tell my students, find a way to be “more interesting to your dog than dirt.” And we all know how interesting dirt can be to a dog!

The first part of being the cookie is to be interesting, exciting, and POSITIVE. I’m quite certain that you will not achieve being the cookie by punishing your dog harshly, or consistently using coercive training methods. It is even difficult to be the cookie if you are constantly showing your dog how frustrated you are. (See the link to the studies, below.) You will become the cookie by playing with your dog, and making sure all good things come from YOU. Following are some tips to achieving this:

  • Feed meals by hand whenever you get a chance. There is no hard and fast rule that says dogs must eat out of food bowls. My youngest dog did not even get a meal out of a bowl for the first 3 or 4 months that I had him. Instead, I took advantage of feeding times to incorporate more training into the routine. If you have the time, feed your dog his or her meals by hand several times per week, and take advantage of that time to work with the dog on whatever training exercises you are emphasizing that week.

Playing Tug with Holly P.

  • PLAY with your dog!  Tug is a great game, but even if your dog doesn’t tug, you can run and romp together. According to Dr. Karen London in her seminar on Using Play to Treat Canine Aggression, running can even be a form of play. How often have you seen dogs play together by just running after one another? You can incorporate that into your dog’s daily routine with you as well. If you don’t run, there are other games you can play with your dog including fetch and “find it”, where you hide things from your dog for him to find, or “hide and seek”, asking your dog to stay, then hiding and calling him to find you.
  • Spend more time SMILING with your dog! According to studies, dogs are masters at reading human social cues. The more you smile, the more your dog will realize that you are enjoying the time with him, and the more he will want to spend the time with you.

Overall, it’s about building your relationship, not by force, but by encouragement and mutual respect. It’s about rewarding your dog for doing the things that you want from him, and showing him that you are not only the leader to be respected, but the most fun that he could possibly have with anyone in the world.