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