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

What is a High Drive Dog anyway?

I’m certain that many of you are asking the questions, ”What is a ‘high drive dog’? How are High Drive Dogs different from the average dog? And why do we need an entire website dedicated to just them?”

As a professional dog trainer, I work with a wide variety of dogs of all sizes, temperaments and energy levels. Among the most challenging are the very high energy dogs with busy minds. These dogs often come from field or farm working lines, and have been bred over generations for physically and mentally rigorous work.  They are among the most intelligent and most active dogs, and their work ethic makes them excel at the work that they do. You see these dogs among the top competitors in sports such as agility, flyball and disc, as well as on television and on the big screen.  These are also the dogs that you see working alongside police officers and other professionals, finding criminal suspects and their contraband, or doing search and rescue amidst disasters.

My girl, Claire, competing in agility

 

To the casual observer, these digs often appear to be the “perfect dogs”, brilliant companions working alongside their humans. However, what many people don’t realize is that many of these dogs would not make ideal “family pets” in the traditional sense. Sure, they learn very quickly and will gladly take on whatever work you give them, but the problems begin if they don’t get enough work to do. When this occurs, they can become destructive or worse. I’ve seen working lines dogs who find themselves in pet homes “looking” for work in everything they do, and this can cause tremendous problems for their families. Among the challenges I have encountered have been…

  • Billie*, a beautiful Australian Shepherd dog from champion working ranch lines in a pet home with insufficient work, looking for things to herd. Her targets included cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and over time she became desperate and thus leash reactive from great distances when she didn’t get to chase them down. In her desperation to control something she even ended up nipping at her owner whenever she didn’t do whatever the dog had in mind at the moment. It has taken her owner many many months to get a handle on Billie’s energy level, and for a while it became nearly a full-time second job just to keep up.
  • Rocky*, a field bred Labrador retriever who become extremely destructive and obsessively barked at his owners whenever they would stop throwing the ball for him. He appeared never to get tired, and only finally relaxed for a moment when we did some rigorous obedience work with him to tire him out mentally. This became the daily norm and essentially resolved the issues over time.
  • Danny*, a brilliant little terrier mix who bounced from home to home because of severe resource guarding issues. He seemed to have the need to control everyone and everything around him. He would bond with people then guard them from others. He guarded his spaces and occasionally prized toys. But he also learned so quickly, and I saw in him a dog that needed more direction and much more mental exercise in an environment where he could feel completely safe. Unfortunately, I was not able to take him in personally and there were insufficient resources to work with him in training. I still miss that little guy.
  • And of course, Trevor, to whom the High Drive Dogs website is dedicated. He was fortunate to find his “forever home” on a working ranch in Minnesota and is doing well there with lots to do.

    Trevor at Home

    There are numerous other dogs with whom I have worked, who were harassing other household dogs, or trying to nip and herd their families, or repeatedly jumping over fences to escape their boredom, when all that they needed were *jobs* to keep them mentally and physically fulfilled. Many of these dogs did find their jobs, including a variety of sports, as well as tricks training and other household work including retrieving dropped objects. Many others were not so fortunate – not because they had bad owners but rather, because their families were unprepared for the energy level and time commitment needed to maintain such a dog.  This is why the really good breeders of such dogs as working border collies and field-bred Labradors carefully screen their prospective families, and will turn them down if they do not already have a job in mind for their puppies. Unfortunately, not all breeders are that responsible. Furthermore, there are so many mixed breeds as well, from truly irresponsible owners who don’t spay and neuter their pets when they are not well-suited for breeding. Many of these dogs go to unsuspecting owners, expecting to get their calm and quiet dog, but instead getting these whirlwinds of physical and mental activity for which they are unprepared.

So, it is to these dogs that I dedicate this website, with the hope that many of these wayward pooches may find their jobs… their life’s work… in homes that actively seek them out as partners in work and play. I’m one such home, but like everyone, I have limits as to how many dogs I may keep. I can’t personally save all the Billie’s, Rocky’s and Danny’s of the world, but hopefully, via this website as well as through other venues, I can somehow contribute to improving their lives.

* NOTE: the names of these real dogs have been changed, for their privacy and that of their owners.