Dog Sports, Cool Tricks - Will They Help My Puppy Behave Better?
I’m a full-time professional dog trainer. At the time of writing this, I primarily work all day with pet dogs and their people. I coach everything from basic puppy manners to challenging fear and aggression issues. I also teach tricks and dog sport skills, and though I very much love doing my “normal” work, my passion definitely lies in specialty training. My favorite cases are those where the dog’s owner, after finally achieving a good grasp on their dog’s manners or behavioral issues, ask me if we can move on to some “fun stuff.” Oftentimes, they then become addicted to the “fun stuff,” and to their delight, the trick training beautifully compliments our previous training.
How could that be? What does spinning in a circle and weaving through a handler’s legs have to do with not barking at other dogs?
It has become abundantly clear to me that pursuing “speciality training” (tricks, dog sports) has a positive impact on the majority of my training teams’ overall lives. This topic is near and dear to my heart, so much so that I’ve been putting off writing about it, because I just have so much to say. Here is my attempt at an explanation:
Tricks and Dog Sports Will Positively Impact You and Your Dog’s Lives.
A Perspective Shift to the Positive
(I have to credit Jay Jack’s podcast “GRC Dog Talk” for helping me put this idea into words.)
When I first start working with a new training client, I usually begin with explicitly listing goals. Those goals usually get listed in terms of negatives:
“I want him to stop jumping on people, stop pulling on the leash, stop begging for food, stop barking out the window, and stop digging holes in my yard.”
Some trainers will tell you that a dog doesn’t understand how to not do something, that they just don’t have the cognitive capability. I don’t believe that. You can watch any puppy get told off by an older dog for being obnoxious, see the puppy adjust its behavior accordingly, and know that that’s not true. But that example is a natural, instinctive dog situation. Most dogs are born wired to learn their own social skills. Most dogs aren’t born wired to know how to be perfectly trained, polite members of human society. (I will admit that there are some snowflake dogs out there that appear to be born perfect, but most of them are not!)
Now think of a dog barking out of the window at a person walking by. The owner is yelling at them, maybe throwing a pillow at their head. The dog correlates the barking and the punishment, maybe even stops for a moment, and then starts again. I explain why this happens with an example of the dog’s potential internal monologue: “I know that you don’t like me barking, but I am just too excited/understimulated/overstimulated/scared/emotional to figure out what else to do right now.”
So we teach dogs alternative behaviors to perform in these “trouble scenarios.” We teach, “When guests come over, you go lie down on your blanket.” The human is taught to switch from thinking the negative, “stop this, stop that,” to a positive, “do this instead.” However, at the end of the day I realize that many humans are still stuck in the mental paradigm of, “I wish my dog would just not act like this.”
Teaching tricks and sports skills is a definitive switch to a completely positive perspective for goal-setting.
“I want him to learn to go over a jump. I want to teach him how to find my car keys. I want to learn how to run an agility course with him. I want us to earn a Rally Novice title.”
Isn’t that a thing of beauty? And it feels different. The human feels it, and the dog feels it. That positive goal setting has a new sort of sparkle and accomplishment.
Some people need this experience in order to take the positive goal-setting mindset and carry it over to the “life skills” of walking nicely on leash, coming when called, polite greetings, etc. Look at what your dog can do!
Get Deeper with Your Dog
My heart sport is competition obedience. That’s an umbrella term for the sports of Obedience (through the AKC etc.), Rally aka Rally-Obedience, and portions of protection sports such as IGP fka Schutzhund, Mondioring, French Ring, and PSA. Competition obedience involves precise behaviors with minimal communication from the handler, oftentimes performed with beautiful style and grace. (A more specific list of the skills involved in Rally can be found here.) Many people compare heelwork, a fundamental skill for all competition obedience sports, to the equestrian sport of dressage.
I’m sure you can imagine, there’s a lot that goes into teaching those skills! Handlers that endeavor upon specialty training are forced to understand their dog on a deeper level in order to accomplish their goals.
Motivation and communication are the name of the game. What makes your dog tick? What sparks their joy? How can you incorporate that into your training, as a reward for the desired skill? Knowing how to play with your dog just the way they like it is a wonderful relationship-builder, and it is imperative to harness that energy to reach any competition-level sport goals.
And then there’s the actual skill-building. Teaching tricks and sport skills forces the handler to notice what their dog is responding to. A twitch of the hand to the right or left may be the difference between your dog understanding what you’re asking of them versus them becoming completely confused. That is something handlers often do not appreciate fully until they aspire to teach more advanced skills. When does the dog understand actual words, and when are they just responding to context or body language? How does your tone affect your dog? What are they sensitive to?
The team need not achieve ribbons and trophies to be gratified. The handler learning how to be the best teacher, troubleshooting and problem-solving their way through the training, leads to a deeper relationship between dog and trainer. The dog and trainer learn to better communicate with one another and understand each other.
Practicality: Tricks as an Outlet for Boredom, and Other Troublesome Feelings
Advanced training is an excellent source of enrichment - both mental and often physical as well, depending on what you’re working on. I have met many dogs who can play fetch for hours, but when you make them use their brain to learn a new trick for eight minutes, they are exhausted afterwards. Focused learning is hard work!
Additionally, this is enrichment that comes from you. Some dogs invest lots of energy into things like going to the dog park and daycare, or saying hi to other dogs on walk. This can cause problems as they become habituated to ignoring their owner and becoming too excited at the sight of other dogs. Advanced training teaches dogs that the human in their life can be a valuable source of fun and satisfaction.
But the benefits doesn’t stop there. I commonly get feedback from owners that their dogs love tricks so much that they have helped them in real life situations. For example, tricks like the dog resting their head on a target or lying on their side can be helpful for husbandry procedures like eyedrops or nail trims. Channeling energy into a fun task can help dogs that have trouble with being too worked up while on walks, too. Many of my clients like to teach their dog to jump on and off of or put their feet up onto objects. Then, the world becomes their jungle gym! Teaching control in exciting sports like agility or IGP can help with the dog being able to listen in other exciting circumstances, like coming when called off of chasing a bird. You might think your dog’s trick is only good for showing off at parties, but it will oftentimes come in handy in some real life scenario!
Are There Any Downsides?
You might worry that teaching your dog too many “fun things” might throw off your balance of good manners and structure around the house. The answer to that? Training is training - and as I said earlier, endeavoring on specialty training should only make you even better at understanding and communicating with your dog. Showing your dog when it’s time to perform tricks and when it’s time to settle is not a problem I’ve ever encountered. Though, one should not exclusively train tricks and completely abandon their “life skills” training like go to place, follow the handler on leash, sit-stay while the door opens, etc.
So, are there any downsides? Well… It can be addicting! With sports in particular, you might start off in a weekend class, and next thing you know, you’re turning your car into a “dog sports vehicle,” booking hotels to travel to trials, and spending all of your time looking at videos of other people training. But no, there are no downsides to having fun and learning with your dog. Go give it a try!
Are you interested in the dog sport called Rally? Check out my online course, Rockin’ Rally-O! Rockin’ Rally-O is an A-Z Rally curriculum. It can be watched or read and has 10 comprehensive levels of content. (That’s 3 hours and 12 minutes of webinars.) The course covers heelwork from beginning to the finished product, positions and stays, drive and enthusiasm, proofing for competition environments, and more. It was written to be appropriate for dogs with a basic set of skills, those with extensive foundations ready to put the pieces together, as well as teams who have started competing but are looking to up their game. You can purchase the course for a one-time fee, or sign up for the monthly subscription and receive one-on-one coaching and feedback from the instructor. You'll also have access to a private group forum to ask questions, share progress, celebrate success, and connect with a dedicated community of students.Click here to read more about the Rockin' Rally-O Group.